How did representations of the 1984/5 Ethiopian famine impact public perceptions of the developing world in Britain?

My research project created for HI175: Making History, in the academic year 2014/15, at the University of Warwick.


Depictions of the developing world in response to the Ethiopian famine of 1984/5 caused firstly, a mass outpouring of public support and interest on a scale never seen before and secondly a harsh criticism of those very depictions leading to the adoption of ratified guidelines by 1989. This marks a seminal moment in humanitarian history and provides insight not just into the history of depictions of the developing world but how, at an epistemological level, societies conceive of themselves and others to create a purpose in the world. This project seeks to uncover how images and messages have impacted the opinions of the British public about the developing world. The project focusses on three primary sources, all with a direct link to the Ethiopian famine of 1984/5. The first being an appeal from the Disasters Emergency Committee, the second being footage of the Live Aid appeal video created by CBC which was aired immediately after David Bowie’s solo performance in London; the third and final source is the front page of the Mail on Sunday from the 23rd December 1984. These sources represent the three major forms of communication the British people had with the famine itself: International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs), Live Aid and the media. The project yielded some very interesting results finding that each of the three sources used the same formula for images, the same types of language and the same lack of detailed information about why the famine was so appalling. Furthermore, the impact on how British people in the 1980s thought about the developing world leads to comparisons with colonial assumptions and attitudes towards the developing world. Whilst they do not represent the beginning of these attitudes towards the developing world, they represent the consolidation of the ideas and methods used to perpetuate them by establishing models of understanding humanitarianism that we recognise today. Humanitarianism and compassion for others is now a cornerstone in Western identity, we are all familiar with fundraising efforts and campaigns run by celebrities and charities every year to raise money and resources for those less fortunate than ourselves. This research project will look at how these portrayals of developing countries in popular media and culture have impacted British society by looking at the 1980s. The implications of these findings are hugely important not just to Britain but to western society as a whole. We need to focus more on how these messages are being interpreted by people whilst educating the population seriously on the devastating effects of poverty and natural disasters and also focus on how we see ourselves and our position in the world.


The way that the Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDC) countries have been portrayed in Britain during the 1980s in response to the Ethiopian famine has caused an epistemological phenomenon whereby there has been a creation of knowledge about poorer countries in general, particularly in Africa, but also a separate European identity. This creation was not new, it has roots in the colonial era based on orientalist assumptions as described by Edward Said in his book Orientalism: ‘Orientalism is a style of thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinctions between “the Orient” and… “the Occident.’[1] These distinctions are based on a fundamental belief that the West (The Occident) is superior to the rest of the world (broadly, the Orient). However, this project will seek to discover to what extent these stereotypes have been reinforced in Britain by focussing on depictions of the third world in response to the 1984/5 Ethiopian famine. To do this, I must first define some key terms. I will refer to the ‘developing world’ in this project and refer almost exclusively to the continent of Africa, I do this quite consciously because, as I will demonstrate, this is how the British public in the 1980s conceived of it. It is a term which more generally refers to countries which, under the economic measures of the Western world are less advanced than the West itself, by which I broadly mean Europe and North America.




[1] Edward Said, Orientalism, (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p.24.

Source 1 - Mail on Sunday Front Page 23/12/1984

Mail on Sunday Dec 1984.jpg.1


This source is from the front page of the popular British newspaper: The Mail on Sunday. As such it was regarded as a genuine source of information and knowledge. The implications of this are immense. Media outlets which are trusted by large proportions of the population have an incredible power over how people conceive the world and current affairs within it. Choosing what to publish, but also what not to publish can have profound effects as this research project has found. It has to be remembered that as a newspaper, its primary motive was to sell information, in other words it published what the editors believed people wanted to learn about. This issue of story selection in the media is a well-recognised phenomenon, as remarked by Simon Cottle and David Nolan: ‘The media, we also know, are drawn selectively to images of distress (“the pornography of suffering”) rather than issues of structural disadvantage or the politics that determine and shape the scenes of skeletal figures that appear like ghosts on our TV screens.’[1] Indeed, to corroborate this source, one just has to look at the now famous Michael Buerk’s 1984 BBC news report where he described the ‘biblical famine’ to footage of emaciated Ethiopians without properly educating the television audience on the complex causes and challenges of the famine[2].

In this case, the image which dominates the front page is a clear example of metonymy in photojournalism, defined by Michaela Peach as ‘the use of a single characteristic to identify a more complex entity.’[3] The starving children are used to identify Ethiopia and Africa in general, the issue that arises from using images such as these in terms of metonymy on epistemology is that the characteristics that are then associated with an entire continent (and all the diversities that come with a continent), are nearly all negative: Helplessness, infantile, unable to function on their own. David Campbell even goes on to suggest that portraying this helplessness, it ‘reinforces colonial relations of power… A place that is passive, pathetic, and demanding of help from those with the capacity to intervene.’[4] This idea is a particularly powerful one as it removes ideas of agency for an entire continent, instead taking up a paternalistic idea of how the collective British society should view others. This image is far from unique, indeed a study of images used in humanitarian appeals for Africa in the UK conducted in 1988 found that ‘All the photographs showed Africans as passive if not starving. 63% were pitiful, emaciated people. 70% of the people being photographed seemed unaware that their picture was being taken.’[5]

To run the point home even more, the advert in the top right hand corner to ‘Win a super electric car’, this futuristic achievement in Western science, especially considering that the competition was in the 1980s propagates a cultural polarisation, helping in the creation of a West in contrast to the rest. On the one hand, there is the emaciated, faceless children representing the helpless African country, and by extension, the African continent. On the other hand, the successes of Europe, or the West in general, is celebrated in all of its commercial splendour, a competition to win a futuristic car and a headline referencing popular European music created especially for the crisis[6]


[1] Simon Cottle & David Nolan, 'Global Humanitarianism and the changing Aid-Media Field: Everyone was dying for footage', in Journalism Studies, Dec 2007, p.863.

[2] Michael Buerk, News report 23rd October 1984, <> , accessed 26th May 2017

[3] Michaela Peach, A Photograph is worth more than a thousand words - The impact of photojournalism on charitable giving, (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 2004), p.11. 

[4] David Campbell, ‘Documentary Photography and the Imagining of Famine’, in Francois Debrix & Cynthia Weber (eds.), Rituals of Mediation, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p.70.

[5] Nikki van der Gaag & Cathy Nash, Images of Africa: The UK Report, (Oxford: Mimea, 1988), p.73.

[6] Band Aid, Do they know it’s Christmas?, ed. Bob Geldof, (London: Phonogram,1984)



Source 2 - Their Last Meal DEC Appeal 1984

Their Last Meal DEC appeal 1984.jpg


This source is taken from an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) that was distributed in 1984 in response to the Ethiopian famine. Its purpose was to raise funds from public donation as evidenced by the cut off slip at the bottom of the page[1].The image of two starving children scraping an empty bowl with the caption ‘The food ran out on the day this photograph was taken’ is harrowing and heart-breaking and designed specifically to be so to cause the strongest possible emotional reaction from the reader. Images such as these are inherently emotive, triggering societal senses of guilt and a desire to do something about it even if we are not sure what it is we can do or understand the intricacies of the problem itself. It is this lack of understanding which is important in the context of this source. With the official stamp of the DEC, this is an official appeal for donations based on information about the crisis. In the 1980s, International Non-Government Agencies (INGOs) were, as they are today, our experts in humanitarianism and global suffering, the information they provide the general public is accepted without question.[2] The issue here is the lack of information provided in this source, there is no information about the causes and complications of the famine. What there is in this appeal is a guilt-trip: ‘All of us have failed the dead children of Uganda, Somalia and Ethiopia’ and ‘If you care about human suffering on this scale, please help’, this type of language reinforces colonial stereotypes of the non-western world of how we in the West have a duty of care to the rest of the world, the so-called ‘white man’s burden’[3]. In this context, I would like to situate this appeal in the longer history of humanitarian appeals, specifically in comparison with a 1968 appeal for volunteers for the Biafran civil war. the same sort of image is used, that of a starving child but the language is also comparable despite being nearly 20 years older. Very little factual information is provided, only directives to the reader to help such as ‘Collect money from your friends’ and ‘Send a cheque to UANB’.[4]

I would like to use this source to highlight the motivation of INGOs in using these images. The negative impacts of them must be put in the context of the mission and that is to save as many lives as they are capable of, this relies on public and private donations. As I have said previously, INGOs and the media did not create the negative understandings of the developing world, they are guilty of consolidating and perpetuating them but they do so because it is precisely these images and this language that are most likely to garner the strongest reaction and therefore provide charities and INGOs with more funds to save more lives. Furthermore, in particular reference to this source, the fact that it is designed to be only one page long, it would not have been practical or possible to properly give detailed information about the famine. However, that does not make the language it did use better.



[1]  DEC Their Last Meal appeal, 1984, <> , accessed 30th May 2017.

[2] Cottle & Nolan, ‘Global Humanitarianism and the changing Aid-Media Field: Everyone was dying for footage’, p.863.

[3] Rudyard Kipling, The White Man's Burden, 1899.

[4] United Action for Biafra / Nigeria. 19 December, 1969. A campaign group comprised of Leonard Cheshire, Winston Churchill, British Red Cross, Christian Aid, Commonwealth Concern, Oxfam, The Salvation Army, Save the Children Fund, Sue Ryder Foundation, War on Want and Unicef UK.

 <> accessed 30th May 2017.


Source 3 - Live Aid CBC Appeal 13/07/1985

Download Live Aid CBC Appeal.mp4 [12.21MB]

Live AID CBC Appeal

Geldof’s creation has gone down as a defining moment not just in terms of music history but cultural history. The 1985 concert being performed in both London and Philadelphia to a live crowd of 162,000 and a global audience of 1.5 billion, some of the performances are continually cited as the best live performances in music history[1]. However, as altruistic as Geldof’s aim was, such was the criticism Live aid drew that academic discourse refers to the ‘Live aid legacy’[2]. The opportunity to educate over one and a half billion people across over 100 countries about the complexity of the Ethiopian famine and as poverty as a whole was entirely missed, instead focussing on great music and the same shocking images.

This appeal video[3] which came after David Bowie’s performance uses the same formula as has been criticised previously, it shows almost entirely mother/child combinations of emaciated Ethiopians. Indeed, such was the criticism that the UN commissioned a report on the negative impacts of such images, the result of Gaag and Nash’s 1988 report ‘The Images of Africa: The UK report’[4] led to the General Assembly of European Non-Governmental Organisations adopting a ‘Code of Conduct on Images and Messages relating to the Third World’ in April 1989[5]

This source represents the pinnacle of stereotyping cultural understandings of the West and the rest. It cemented the trend of celebrity humanitarianism, this is important as it consolidates ideas of hierarchy and collective behaviour as a society. ‘Celebrity introduces into the theatrical dynamics of pity a crucial communicative figure - a figure who commands the necessary symbolic capital to articulate personal dispositions of acting and feeling as exemplary public dispositions at given historical moments.’[6] The importance of Chouliaraki’s assertion lies in the dependence of humanitarianism on spectacle something in which Live Aid excels. This reliance on spectacle raises questions on what makes British people care, Michael Ignatieff asserts that ‘There are strict limits to human empathy. We make some people’s troubles our business while we ignore the troubles of others.’[7] This is true on a daily basis, suffering and poverty was a constantly occurring event, yet it only really entered the consciousness of British people when the figures and institutions society looked up to directed them to it. When these institutions and celebrities do bring the suffering of others to our attention, we learn via their descriptions and depictions of the problems hence the importance of Live Aid in how it depicted the developing world.

The 2002 Voluntary Overseas Service research report entitled: ‘The Live Aid Legacy: The developing world through British eyes’. The report finds that ‘most UK consumers automatically think of the Africa model when they hear the term “developing”’. This idea of a victims/rescuers model is epitomised by this clip from Live Aid as it shows the victims of a terrible famine following Bowie’s plea to over 1.5 billion to ‘please send your money in’ thus sets up the victim/rescuer model. This is emphasised by the fact that to the statement ‘Developing countries depend on the money and knowledge of the West to progress’, 74% of respondents agreed.[8] This lasting image of dependency has been constructed, in large part, by the cultural understanding of Britain, the West and the other which underpinned Live Aid and was consolidated by it.


[1] MTV, ‘A Look Back at Live Aid, By the Numbers’, <>, accessed 27th May 2017

[2] Voluntary Service Overseas, The Live aid legacy: The Developing World through British Eyes, (London: VSO, 2002)

[3]  CBC Live Aid appeal, 13th July 1985, <>, accessed 26th May 2017.

[4] Nikki Gaag & Cathy Nash, Images of Africa: The UK Report, (Oxford: Mimea, 1988)

[5] Rhian Richards, ‘An Analysis of the representation of the third world in British charity advertisements’, (Sydney: ANZCA, 2004), p.2.

[6] Lillie Chouliaraki , ‘The Theatricality of Humanitarianism: A critique of celebrity advocacy’, in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, p.2.

[7] Michael Ignatieff, The Stories We Tell: Television and Humanitarian Aid, in The Social Contract 1999, p.1.

[8] Voluntary Service Overseas, The Live aid legacy: The Developing World through British Eyes, (London: VSO, 2002), p.17.


In conclusion, this project has analysed three primary sources and found that despite originating from three different institutions, all of them use the same types of images and messages: The stereotype of the starving, passive African, waiting for a Western rescuer. These depictions have consolidated cultural understandings of the third world which originated during the British Empire, they remove agency of Africans anywhere in the continent and also put the British on a moral and social pedestal in terms of the British cultural understanding. This is an epistemological problem that needs to be further addressed as the ‘Live Aid Legacy’ continues to live on. There is no denying that large areas in Africa have systemic problems with poverty, and as a society, we have decided that it is morally right that we should help them but as this project has sought to highlight, we must help them but not to the detriment of the sufferer’s identity. We should, as a public, be more educated in the causes of poverty and the complexities of famine. Progress in this area has been made since the 1980s but it is important that we revisit that time to learn from the mistakes made there.

Critical Reflection

Unsurprisingly, this research project has thrown up a number of challenges. This topic of cultural understandings of the developing world immediately conjures a plethora of challenges.

On the intellectual front, the epistemological and conceptual issues being discussed are complex and require an attempt to question my initial understandings which have been heavily influenced by the very imagery I have sought to dissect. I therefore found that this research project was morally challenging. Having growing up never questioning the effect of the images I saw; it was an eye-opening experience to challenge them. The incredible charity and altruism of projects such as Live Aid and today’s equivalents of Red Nose Day etc. has and should only ever be seen as a force for good. The world has many troubles and it is only right that we try to help our fellow human beings but it is important to really educate people in Britain and Europe as a whole on the complexities of the issues at hand and not just flood them with images of starving mothers and children which as I have discovered, serve to perpetuate colonial stereotypes. Furthermore, there is a moral question as to the relative importance of these issues in comparison to the literal life or death issues that these organisations seek to help.

On a practical level, there was some issue in finding an appropriate clip of live Aid. Bob Geldof famously wanted all footage of the event to be erased after broadcast as he believed it should be a one-off, never to be repeated, event. Despite this, the issue I had was the sheer number of hours of footage available, trying to capture one that represented the Live Aid mission was incredibly difficult because most of the footage that is available is focussed on the incredible performances by the superstar artists and not on the appeal itself. (something that is perhaps telling) Eventually, after many hours of trawling through, I found the appeal video prepared by CEC shown in London after David Bowie’s solo set which was relevant to this project. I think that my choice of sources to analyse represent a good mixture, encompassing the media; popular culture and INGOs in their representations of the developing world.

Initially, I wanted to research the history of humanitarianism more broadly but soon had to narrow my focus to just the Ethiopian famine as it became increasingly clear the enormity of the task with only 2000 words in which to address it. I choose to do this topic because I find it not only interesting and relevant to today’s Britain but also because it asks much broader questions about how Britain conceives of others as well as itself, where we place ourselves in the context of the world, how a society of people collectively create knowledge about themselves and others in order to determine reactions to global events. These are the silent questions underpin society as a whole and deserve more attention.



Primary Sources

Front Page of the Mail on Sunday, 23rd December 1984, <> , accessed 25th May 2017

 DEC Their Last Meal appeal, 1984, <> , accessed 30th May 2017.

CBC Live Aid appeal, 13th July 1985, <> , accessed 26th May 2017.

Primary Supporting Sources

Michael Buerk, News report 23rd October 1984, <> , accessed 26th May 2017

Band Aid, 'Do they know it's Christmas', ed. Bob Geldof, (London: Phonogram, 1984)

Rudyard Kipling, The White Man's Burden, 1899

A campaign group comprised of Leonard Cheshire, Winston Churchill, British Red Cross, Christian Aid, Commonwealth Concern, Oxfam, The Salvation Army, Save the Children Fund, Sue Ryder Foundation, War on Want and Unicef UK, 'For whom the bell tolls appeal, United Action for Biafra / Nigeria.', 19th December1969. , <> , accessed 30th May 2017.

Secondary Literature

Campbell, D. (2003). Documentary Photography and the Imagining of Famine. In F. Debrix, & C. Weber, Rituals of Mediation (pp. 69-96). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Chouliaraki, L. (2011). The Theatricality of Humanitarianism: A critique of celebrity advocacy. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 1-21.

Chouliaraki, L., & Blagaard, B. (2013). The ethics of images. Visual Communications, 253-259.

Dogra, N. (2012). Representations of Global Poverty: Aid Development and International NGOs. London: I.B.Tauris.

Gaag, N. v., & Nash, C. (1988). Images of Africa: The UK Report. Oxford: Mimea.

Ignatieff, M. (1999). The Stories We Tell: Television and Humanitrian Aid. The Social Contract, 1-8.

Jones, A. (2017). Band Aid revisited: Humanitarianism, consumption and philanthropy in the 1980s. Contemporary British History, 1-21.

Montgomery, J. (2010) A Look Back At Live Aid By The Numbers, MTV, <>, accessed 27th May 2017.

Nolan, D., & Cottle, S. (2007). Global Humanitarianism and the changing Aid-Media Field: Everyone was dying for footage. Journalism Studies, 862-878.

Peach, M. (2004). A Photograph is worth more than a thousand words - The impact of photojournalism on charitable giving. London: School of Oriental and African Studies.

Richards, R. (2004). An analysis of the representation of the third world in British charity advertiements. Sydney: ANZCA.

Said, E. (2003). Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.

Voluntary Service Overseas. (n.d.). The Live Aid Legacy: The Developing World through British Eyes. VSO.