On January 28, 1985, in a fit of pique, Cyndi Lauper declared, “That’s right! Ain’t what we’re doing trying to unite the world?”  Lauper’s comment was a direct response to a creative dispute taking place in a Los Angeles music studio where such prominent and diverse musicians as Willie Nelson, Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, and Bob Dylan had gathered to record the song “We Are The World.”

Lionel Richie, Daryl Hall, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder

Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson wrote the song and recruited fellow musicians to record it in an attempt to provide aid relief to the victims of the Ethiopian famine. Although the famine began in 1983 with counter-insurgency strategies instituted by Chairman Mengistu in the Northern regions of the country, two years passed before attention in the United States focused on the great humanitarian emergency taking place within Ethiopia. The focused attention culminated in the great LiveAid concert and “We Are the World” recording which garnered millions of dollars intended for African famine relief.

Media attention and the ensuing public outcry over the treatment of Ethiopians by their own government prompted the U.S. government to take more perceptible steps to work with the Communist leader Chairman Mengistu Haile in order to ease the suffering of famine victims. A strange relationship thus developed. The United States, the preeminent antagonist of communism, actively worked alongside a rising communist state, Ethiopia, to achieve a common goal – and did so in a highly visible role. On the surface, it would appear that a sincere desire to help the great numbers of starving people in Ethiopia motivated the relationship, but this was little more than a fragile veneer. The Reagan administration understood this crisis as an opportunity to discredit the Ethiopian government by working closely with it. The White House attempted to embark on a humanitarian mission in Ethiopia to show the weakness and ineffectiveness of a communist government.  In this light, Ethiopia offers a stark foil to the way the Reagan White House approached humanitarianism in the Sanctuary Movement, when U.S. policy denied asylum to people fleeing the U.S. backed right-wing, anti-communist governments in Central America. There, Washington officials rejected humanitarianism as a policy goal, but in the Ethiopian case, it remained at the center of the administration’s strategic objectives of containing and defeating communism around the world.

Like the Sanctuary Movement, the Ethiopian famine highlights the way in which humanitarianism figured into Cold War policies by the Reagan administration. As is the case in many presidential administrations, Reagan’s policies intertwined aid and strategic objectives. It is crucial to interrogate the consequences of this entanglement. In the Ethiopian case, conflating politics and questions about aid delivered a simplified and incomplete picture of what was happening in that country. Rather than understanding the political dynamics of an on-going complicated national history, many American observers resorted to a simplified equation of communist leadership in Ethiopia equating to destructive policies. Although Mengistu did engage in dubious practices, as had the United States in other areas of the world, rallying around humanitarianism without reflecting on it within the larger context of Cold War politics created a distorted image of who played the role of hero and villain. Rather than recognize the culpability of all governments involved, the U.S. was placed in the role of savior par excellence – in order to save the famine victims, the U.S. had to cast down the evil communist regime.

Heightened Awareness: Live Aid, Spectacle, and U.S. Donations

If the U.S. government had been aware of conditions on the ground in Ethiopia for some time, it was not until journalists got wind of the story that Americans reacted.  Entering Ethiopia, journalist Michael Buerk managed to capture extensive and graphic footage of the crisis unfolding. Images of death and starving and diseased bodies circulated and eventually captured the notice of a young musician, Bob Geldof. Inspired by the tragic events, Geldof conspired to unite his fellow musicians in an effort to provide relief to the famine victims. His first attempt to get musically inclined royalty together resulted in an event known as Band-Aid. A group of musicians recorded the song, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” The song went on to garner $11 million in sales. Geldof used these profits to buy food and medical supplies which were then transported to Ethiopia. In the United States, musicians came together under the name U.S.A. for Africa to record “We are the World.” The song and event triggered the production of other related items like t-shirts. These profits were also used to buy medical supplies and food products.

Looking to do more for the hunger in Africa, Geldof soon started planning one of the largest charity events of all time. The result was spectacular. In one of the greatest charity events ever, Geldof managed to arrange live concerts in two different cities, London and Philadelphia. For those who could not attend in person, television networks like ABC and the BBC broadcast both events simultaneously. In addition to television coverage of the events, additional footage from seven other countries was included. Planning for the event was staggering because of the size and scope of the project. The Philadelphia stage was as wide as a football stadium and had twenty-seven cameras crowded around it. Two hundred police officers were used to patrol it in addition to nine-hundred private security guards. Audiences in 150 countries around the world either saw the performances on television or heard them on the radio, making it a truly world-wide event.

The concerts lasted sixteen hours throughout which phone lines were open to take donations from viewers. The total cost of the show was four million dollars and was covered by corporate sponsorship and ticket sales.  The charity concerts and record sales ultimately raised between 100 and 500 million dollars with the vast majority of donations coming from the United States. Other large contributing nations were Britain, Australia, and Ireland.

Groups throughout America also started looking for ways they could make an impact on the situation in Ethiopia. It wasn’t just adults that thought they could make a difference. In May of 1985, the Los Angeles Unified School District spent two weeks pitting schools against each other to see which one would wind up on top as the number one fundraiser for money for Ethiopian famine victims. They aimed to raise $250,000 for supplies to be sent to the country. The ultimate goal of the campaign was to “help stop the dying and instill in students a sense of caring for the plight of others.”  The strategies various schools employed to raise money were wide-ranging. Some presided over auctions, others held dances, and others had foreign-food sales, a riff on the usual bake sales common to school functions. Students did manage to reach their fundraising goal. One school alone, Birmingham High School, presented a check to the school board for $8,018.18.  One school council member said of the reason for so much student involvement, “I think maybe kids are coming out of their apathy[…]People are becoming aware of the world again. But it seems like it’s the ‘in’ thing to be concerned about.”

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Distorted Storylines of the Famine Relief Effort

Concern may have been the “in” thing because of the number of reports about the famine in the media. However, the increased reports and the graphic nature of the coverage did little to open a sustained dialogue about the complexity of the situation in Ethiopia or force observers to look closely at American motivation for humanitarian efforts. Instead, the news reports served to reinforce the image of America doing battle against evil. In 1985, Life Magazine ran an article showing conditions at a relief camp in Korem, a city 250 miles north of Addis Abba, the capital of Ethiopia. The article tells the story of a young boy walking twenty miles from his village to Korem looking for help in the relief camp. According to the article, the boy’s parents passed away from lack of food earlier that winter. With this set up, readers expected, and hoped, that this boy would find the food and aid he needed and along with some kind of surer-footing in his existence. Instead, they are told that the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), “which controls aid distribution, has refused him food, clothing and shelter because he has not been officially registered as an orphan by the Farm Administration.”  A few pages over, readers caught a glimpse of an RRC official upbraiding a doctor who had performed a life-saving amputation surgery on a woman whose legs were gangrene. The reason for their ire? The doctor failed to seek permission to perform the surgery. The RRC stands in as the representative of the Ethiopian government in this article. This story makes clear that it is the Ethiopian government that is the Ethiopian government standing in the way of aid reaching victims and saving lives.

While the Mengistu regime did place restrictions on what aid organizations could do, few media outlets interrogated U.S. policy as closely. An important component of U.S. policy, for example, was the condition that American aid not be provided in resettlement areas because White House officials saw resettlement as taking advantage of the crisis to implement a large-scale collectivization program, and, acting according to their larger anti-Communist goals, the Reagan administration refused to support any aid that would benefit such social redistribution. The Mengistu regime began a series of resettlement attempts in October 1984 as a means to solve the humanitarian crisis. By moving people from the drought-stricken North to more fertile lands in the South, Mengistu thought he could solve the hunger problem.  When describing the plan to Western donors, he insisted that those that resettled did so voluntarily. In fact, a regional administrator of Wallo, an area people were moving from, said he was “surprised by the large outpouring of volunteers” going for resettlement claiming that there was “no problem getting people” to relocate.  Many in the Reagan administration refused to believe the resettlement program was anything other than an attempt to institute forcible collectivization on the peasant population. Some international aid groups fed this suspicion when they questioned the tactics used to recruit volunteers to the resettlement areas in Southern Ethiopia.

Reluctant to support a communist regime any more than it had to, the Reagan administration attached conditions to the aid they provided. One such condition was that no aid could go into resettlement areas. Areas of resettlement became an important point of contention especially when the U.S.AID began reviewing grant funds to individuals and non-profits working in Ethiopia. One grant approved, for example, was to be a tent-city built by an activist-philanthropist Abbie Nathan. His intended plan was to build a safe, sanitary tent-city to act as a relief center for famine victims. U.S.AID approved this plan under the condition that it be located in an area outside of resettlement zones. When Ethiopia leaders cancelled plans for a camp to be built in Northern Ethiopia (which was not an area of resettlement) news coverage highlighted the political maneuverings of the closure by the communist government. Media suggested that the camp was cancelled because Mengistu did not want aid going to areas known to contain large numbers of rebels.  While the media scrutinized the aid policies of the Ethiopian government for political objectives, they failed to place U.S. policies under the same kind of interrogation. There was no mention made, for example, that the U.S. placed conditions on where those tent cities could be built in the first place. The tent-city affair of Abie Nathan represents just one example of how the media and many in the American public ignored the political considerations of one nation in the aid partnership while demonizing those of the other. There was hardly any mention made, after all, that since 1982 the U.S. government knew about the impending food disaster in Ethiopia, but did little to alleviate it because that would entail working closely with a communist government.

Faced with graphic and disturbing images of the famine, many American observers understood the crisis in Ethiopia as little more than sending U.S. aid to end the maneuverings of a malevolent communist government. This version of events in Ethiopia did little to encourage a critical dialogue of Washington policies and the role that humanitarianism played in their formulation. Media portrayals of the famine, replete with photos of children who were literally dying in front of readers’ eyes, and the celebratory coverage of what American and other Western observers had to offer as wellsprings of money, information, and technology diverted attention from hard questions. Few bothered, for instance, to ask why the United States knowing about the famine conditions since 1982 had opted to standby as the death toll rose. Others failed to ask why Africa had remained for so long on the periphery of American consciousness and why it took a catastrophe of this scale to focus attention on the poverty of so many nations on that continent. Equally important, the focus on the celebrity links of giving aid and the party like atmosphere of LiveAid presented this emergency as a one-time event rather than a distinct phenomenon with a unique history. Once the party ended, many in the American public moved on with their daily lives and Ethiopia receded into the background.


For more information:

  1. “A Time When We Heed A Certain Call,” Life Magazine, April 1, 1985, 36. 
  2. Alex de Waal, Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia (London: African Watch Report, 1991): 131
  3. Alexander Poster, “The Gentle War: Ethiopian Relief, Politics, and Privatization in Ethiopia, 1983-1986,” Diplomatic History 36 (2012):400. 
  4. Alexander Poster, “The Gentle War: Ethiopian Relief, Politics, and Privatization in Ethiopia, 1983-1986,” Diplomatic History 36 (2012):405-406. 
  5. Esther B. Fein, “Live Aid”Concert is Aiming for the Sky,” New York Times, 12 July 1985, C5.
  6. Kathleen Teltsh, “Live Aid Turns to Plans for Future,” New York Times, 20 July 1985, 9. 
  7. Dale Jamieson, “Duties to the Distant: Aid, Assitance, and Intervention in the Developing World,” The Journal of Ethics 9 (2005): 154.
  8. “Valley Schools Pitch In: Students’ Initiative Boosts Famine Aid,” Los Angeles Times, 25 May 1985. 
  9. “Birmingham Students Present Famine Check,” Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1985 
  10. Cheryl McCall, “Ethiopia’s Ruthless Regime Uses Famine as Cruel Weapon: Cry, the Pitiless Land,” Life Magazine, May 1985, 125. 
  11. Alex de Waal, Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia (London: African Watch Report, 1991):211.
  12. Philip Boffey ,“Ethiopia Moving 1.5 million people from famine,” New York Times, 14 December 1984, A12. 
  13. ibid.
  14. USAID Reports, NARA Record Group 286.
  15. “Ethiopia Cancels Plans for A Camp,” New York Times, June 14, 1985, A3. 
  16. Alexander Poster, “The Gentle War: Ethiopian Relief, Politics, and Privatization in Ethiopia, 1983-1986,” Diplomatic History 36 (2012):405-407.
Bethany A. Sharpe is a teacher and a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky. Her research interests focus on US Foreign Relations.

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