Question that ended daftest foreign aid fiasco of them all: Did listening to a girl band REALLY stop 40,000 young Ethiopian girls getting married too early?

  • For the past decade, Ethiopia has been one of fastest growing economies in the world
  • The British government has given £9.2m to Ethiopia’s version of the Spice Girls
  • It funded a project which aimed to change Africa through ‘girl power’
  • The Dfid has now ended its partnership with the project 

At one of the most expensive hotels in Africa recently, a tall, distinctive figure could be seen loping through the lobby and sampling the delights of some of the 11 restaurants on site.

This was none other than Sir Bob Geldof, former singer with the Boomtown Rats, staying at the Sheraton in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where the finest suites cost £7,000 per night.

As always on his trips to East Africa, he also dined at Castelli’s, an Italian he rates the best in the world and which is popular with other ‘aid celebrities’ such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, saying ‘you haven’t eaten real pasta until you’ve eaten there’.

More than three decades after Live Aid, the concert he launched to help starving millions during a ‘biblical’ Ethiopian famine, Sir Bob — he was awarded an honorary KBE by the Queen in 1986 — was here to oversee a lucrative new venture: making 20 million litres of wine to be exported.

Through his London investment company 8 Miles, named after the shortest distance between Europe and Africa, he owns a controlling stake in an outfit called Blue Nile, which has bought a previously state-owned vineyard on a stunning mountain plateau three hours south of the capital.

Called Awash Winery, it is where Geldof is growing grapes such as Petite Sirah, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Chenin Blanc and Dodoma, a native vine. He’s flown in experts to advise, and the aim is to take Ethiopian wines to the world.

Geldof, who calls himself a ‘private equity whore’, is here for business, not charity. He’s cashing in on what everyone — with the exception of the British government, which gives Ethiopia £300 million of taxpayers’ money a year in aid — knows about this East African country: that it is booming like never before.

Forget images of the desperate, the starving and the dying (not including the 40,000 currently being tortured in jail, of which more later).

The fact is that, for the past decade, Ethiopia has had one of fastest growing economies in the world and is the darling of private investors.

There is a gleaming new metro railway, the only such transport system in sub- Saharan Africa, and the country even sells energy to neighbouring countries.

There’s been growth of almost 10 per cent every year for the past decade.

Bars, restaurants and nightclubs are crowded with the new middle classes, as well as the ‘Lords of the Poor’ — the nickname given to wealthy foreign aid workers who have made Addis the biggest base for charity workers in the world.

All the more astonishing, then, that the British government has been donating millions in taxpayers’ cash to create Ethiopia’s version of the Spice Girls, giving them £9.2 million to change Africa though ‘girl power’.

That particular gravy train, however, has come to an end after my investigation into the band’s aid funding and its results dramatically led to the scheme being axed on Friday.

As recently as last month, Priti Patel, the International Development Minister, was defending the decision to spend money on this band, saying it provided ‘good value for money’ and was even stopping teenage girls getting pregnant. Yet as I have discovered, such claims are highly dubious, while the five girl singers and their vast entourage of musicians and technicians have been earning sums unimaginable to ordinary Ethiopians.

Indeed, the truth is that if there were awards for the most wasteful, ludicrous and patronising projects to ‘save’ Africa, the Ethiopian Spice Girls would claim the undisputed crown.

Sadly, it is all of a piece with too much of Britain’s foreign aid policy. Today a government watchdog warns our cash handouts are routinely falling into the wrong hands because politically correct officials fail to tackle fraud and bad practice.

The sorry saga of Ethiopia’s ‘Spice Girls’ began five years ago when auditions were arranged by Girl Hub, a London-based charity with offices in Soho, after employees decided that one way to change Africa — and access some of the £12 billion Britain dishes out in aid each year — would be to form an all-girl band.

This charity was heavily criticised in 2015 by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which warned of serious deficiencies in governance as well as ‘poor budgeting and financial monitoring’.

But the charity was renamed and relaunched under the name Girl Effect, and it was back to business for an organisation which receives government funding and where even the lowliest communications ‘expert’ earns £40,000, plus perks.

The managing director of Girl Effect is, intriguingly, Howard Taylor, a former senior civil servant at the Department for International Development (Dfid), who quit the civil service in 2012 to work for Nike — which has also pumped money into the band — before he joined Girl Effect.

The publicity is handled by Freuds, the high-powered London-based PR firm headed by the media figure Matthew Freud (pictured)

In order to get the band off the ground, auditions were held at schools in Ethiopia, with an expert flown in from the UK to oversee the project. Five girls were finally selected in 2013, given voice training and told to go to the gym in order to present a gleaming, healthy image.

Called Yegna, meaning ‘Ours’, the band’s aim, according to the publicity blurb, was ‘to introduce behavioural change among girls, targeting those between the ages of 12 to 15. With most parents being protective of their daughters during this period of troubled teenage life, many are isolated from the outside world and, hence, become victims of violence’.

Thus their songs included lyrics such as: ‘Women are sisters, women are mothers, women are wives. Let’s respect them. Tell that guy to respect girls and we will respect him.’

Like the original Spice Girls, the band members were each given a nickname. Teref Kassahun, 26, plays the spoiled brat, Lemlem Haile Michael, 26, a tomboy known as the Defender, Zebiba Girma, 22, the mysterious character, Eyerusalem Kelemework, 27, is the genius and Rahel Getu, 22, the dependable one. As well as Ethiopian business partners, the finances for the ‘brand’ are carried out by accountant Deloitte.

Incredibly, the publicity is handled by Freuds, the high-powered London-based PR firm headed by the media figure Matthew Freud (ironically enough, he also acted for the Spice Girl Geri Halliwell).

In keeping with the vogue for social media, the aim was supposed to be for the band to be heard across ‘multiple platforms’.

An insider told me that in a country where the average annual income is less than £500, ‘each girl in the group [Yegna] was paid £5,000 for each radio series of eight episodes’

But there is a major problem with spreading their message on social media: not only does only 3 per cent of the population have access to the internet in Ethiopia, for the past three months Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have been blocked in this vast country of 100 million people as ethnic tensions rock the nation.

All of which raises more questions as to why British taxpayers were subsidising an Ethiopian girl band for four years.

Then there is the claim from both Dfid and Girl Effect that up to eight million people in the African country are aware of Yegna. A source involved in Yegna productions — the girls also appear in radio dramas designed to change attitudes among young girls — cast doubt on the figures. The source told me: ‘I know the girls are paid very, very well. Most of them have cars. But if you ask me the impact of Yegna, I can’t say it has a major impact. It is only broadcast in Addis and the Amhara region [in the north and centre of the country].’

The Ethiopian group were branded ‘Africa’s Spice Girls’, and have been subsidised by British taxpayers for four years

Another insider told me that in a country where the average annual income is less than £500, ‘each girl in the group [Yegna] was paid £5,000 for each radio series of eight episodes. All of us were paid an exaggerated amount of money. Some of us have benefited more than others.

‘Members of Yegna came from low-income families. All of them gave birth to kids after they joined the Yegna project — to the dismay of many, because the message they were passing on to the Ethiopian women was not giving birth at an early age’.

Despite all this, the London organisers of this ‘visionary’ aid scheme were this week scathing about criticism of the project, not to mention deeply unhappy about the government’s decision to scrap funding.

After I made inquiries to Dfid last Thursday, asking how they could conclude that 40,000 women had been prevented from an early marriage by listening to the band, the very next day the government announced that funding was being pulled. ‘We have taken the decision to end our partnership with Girl Effect following a review of the programme,’ the department said in a statement emailed to me.

‘Empowering women and girls around the world remains a priority, but we judge there are more effective ways to invest UK aid and to deliver even better results for the world’s poorest and value for taxpayers’ money.’

The Dfid, whose headquarters are in Whitehall, has said the partnership was ended after a review

Meanwhile, a statement from Girl Effect to the Mail about this loss of cash merely offered a window into a world of meaningless ‘jargon’ passing for communication.

‘As the world becomes ever more connected, we leverage the power of insight, media and disruptive technology to enable change at scale,’ said the charity. ‘Our approach is to invest in girls as the world’s biggest untapped resource. As girls rise, change becomes self-sustaining.

‘Traditionally, development solutions that address poverty focus on supply side services — like schools or health clinics — things that we can see and touch. But all too often we treat the symptoms of poverty and overlook the cause.

‘Our unique approach fills the gap of what is often unseen, to unlock a New Normal for girls. When the New Normal takes hold, girls become visible, vocal, connected and valued and are given the tools they need to become agents of change, not just recipients of aid.’

The sorry saga of Ethiopia’s ‘Spice Girls’ began five years ago when auditions were arranged by Girl Hub, a London-based charity with offices in Soho

When asked about the funding of the band, Girl Effect refused to discuss the fees paid to its five members, saying only that they received an undisclosed monthly salary, while Dfid reiterated that all funding had stopped, and also refused to discuss the sums paid to the five girls.

Until now, almost nothing has been known about this girl band and where our millions have gone because they operate in a country which is an autocratic one-party state. The Ethiopian regime regularly jails journalists, and few foreign reporters are allowed in.

Indeed, in 2013 two Swedish journalists were detained for 18 months and forced to take part in a staged film showing them with armed ‘rebels’, who were in reality government soldiers.

Described by human rights groups as one of the ‘top predators’ of the free Press, the country practises ‘routine torture’ and is reported to hold more than 40,000 political prisoners at secret jails around the country.

These are places of horror — yet they are seemingly never raised by singers such as Yegna.

At one secret prison in the capital, the cells are graded from numbers one to eight — with those in cell eight given the worse beatings and confined to rooms so small, prisoners cannot sit up or stretch their legs.

The country is also under a state of emergency after Ethiopian security forces used live bullets against peaceful protesters across the Oromia region, a restive area where many are calling for an end to the one-party state which is propped up by a staggering £3 billion in aid from the West.

Human rights groups, commenting after reports that up to 500 innocent people were killed, say the bloodshed is only to be expected from such a sadistic regime.

‘Ethiopian forces have systematically used excessive force in their mistaken attempts to silence dissenting voices,’ says Michelle Kagari, of Amnesty International. ‘The security forces’ response was heavy-handed, but unsurprising.’

All this raises questions about why we should be giving any aid to Ethiopia. While the funding for the country’s Spice Girls is over, we still give more than £300 million a year — much of which is spent on providing schools, food aid for the poorest and doctors funded by the British taxpayer to help deliver babies.

Sir Bob Geldof has called for a ‘historic shift from aid to trade’, which is the key to lifting millions of Africans out of poverty.

Trade, which is capitalism, makes countries viable, and that’s all that they require,’ he says. ‘Africans aren’t infants. They are sentient, intelligent, capable human beings.’

Perhaps his voice should be heard, as it was so powerfully all those years ago during Live Aid, and Britain should stop handing out cash, whether for girl bands or radio shows, or any other ridiculous schemes to create the ‘new normal’ in Africa.

Our £1 billion aid handouts ARE exploited by fraudsters: Report confirms ‘recurrent’ abuses because politically correct officials are reluctant to tackle the problem

  • More than £1billion was given away in the last five years to help other nations 
  • Report highlights ‘recurrent’ abuse of these handouts
  • £300million has been poured into a scheme for families in Pakistan
  • But in a quarter of recipients are not the poorest within the country
  • Nigerian women were found to be faking urine samples to get pregnancy pay 

Britain’s foreign aid cash handouts are routinely falling into the wrong hands because politically correct officials are failing to tackle fraud and bad practice, a Government watchdog warns today.

More than £1billion has been given away since 2011 in countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

But a report today exposes ‘recurrent’ abuse of the schemes, including women in Nigeria who faked urine samples to get payments meant for those who are pregnant.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), which scrutinises aid spending, said in some cases British officials were reluctant to tackle problems ‘head-on’ because of fears of upsetting the governments receiving aid money.

In Pakistan £300million is being poured into a scheme giving families cash or cards loaded with UK funds to spend how they want, but the report said a quarter of recipients are not the country’s poorest.

Tory MPs last night renewed their calls for the Government to reconsider its pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on foreign aid. Nigel Evans, a Tory MP who sits on the Commons international development committee, said: ‘Alarm bells should be ringing.’

Britain now gives out more foreign aid in cash handouts than any other country, with an average of £201million a year doled out in the past five years, the report found.

The watchdog said ministers should consider expanding the programmes that in general provided ‘strong value for money’ and ‘helped to tackle poverty’.

But it said the Department for International Development (Dfid) has failed to ensure cash always goes to the poorest.

‘We found recurrent problems in the core areas of targeting, transfer size and timeliness of payments that are not being consistently addressed,’ the report said.

It warned ‘political sensitivities’ meant Dfid officials had ‘tolerated weaknesses’ in programmes in the short term, ‘generally choosing not to challenge partner countries on strongly held positions’.