Texto en Español
Fred Cuny was a disaster relief specialist who used his training in engineering to do humanitarian work. He worked in countries such as Biafra, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia. In March 1995, he disappeared in Chechnya and was never found. His life was featured on the PBS documentary program Frontline.
Most of the information contained herein is drawn from the Frontline documentary on Fred Cuny, the Cuny section of the PBS web site, and Professional Responsibility: Focusing on the Exemplary by Michael S. Pritchard of Western Michigan University.
You can find more information on these materials and other Cuny-related sources in sections 9 and 10.
During the Great Ethiopian Famine of 1985, Ethiopian
refugees went to Sudan to escape the famine. Fred Cuny also
made the trek to Sudan. He was troubled by the design of the
refugee camps, which were arranged on a grid pattern. This was
the way camps had traditionally been laid out, but Cuny
believed that designing camps in concentric circles would be
more conducive to social coherence. He needed to decide whether
he wanted to tackle this issue first or if he should ignore his
initial instinct and concentrate only on alleviating the
He decided to work on the famine, but not until the camps
had been redesigned. His concentric-circle design was
immediately recognized for the improved lifestyle it provided
the inhabitants. Now that Cuny had revolutionized refugee camp
design, he moved on to the challenge of ending the famine.
Drawing upon his experiences in Guatemala, Cuny did a much
better job of recognizing the Cold War political forces at work
The United States was deeply involved in the disaster relief
work because the U.S. wanted to woo the Ethiopian government
away from the influence of the Soviet Union. Because of
restrictive United Nations mandates, many people were
displaced, for the UN could not bring aid to certain areas.
Some Ethiopians wanted to return to their homes for planting
season, but because some of their homes were in
rebel-controlled areas, and not government-controlled areas,
the UN could not help them. Cuny believed that any Ethiopian
who wanted to return home should be allowed to do so. At the
same time, he realized that his views were in conflict with the
official UN position. If Cuny stuck his neck out again, and
challenged the prevailing political climate, there could be a
repeat of the Guatemala disaster. He needed to make a decision.
What would be his course of action?
Cuny decided to trust his gut feeling. It was a risky move,
but it paid off immeasurably. Cuny provided food, seeds, and
other supplies to the refugees who were determined to go home.
As they streamed back to Ethiopia, the rains came, assuring a
successful planting season. Cuny had defied the UN and
succeeded. He was becoming a legend in the field.
Pictures from Ethiopia