Of course, what Buerk had left out of his original broadcast, which led to the Band Aid/USA for Africa/Live Aid projects, was that the famine was much exacerbated by attacks upon civilians in Tigray ordered by Ethiopian dicatator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Since most of the nearly £1bn ($1.4bn) was donated by governments who by standard practice deal with foreign countries on a governmental level, much of the aid was skimmed off by Mengistu so he could intensify his warmaking on his own people, and his paramilitaries became known as the "wheat militia" because of the cut they took from aid in kind.
Bob Geldof, who so memorably bludgeoned viewers to "give us the [expletive deleted] money", was an accomplice to the deception, because in typical paternalistic fashion the BBC decided that access to the truth would seal public wallets shut. One wonders if his sidekick Bono, whose band U2 is currently enjoying free publicity courtesy of the BBC's licence-payers, was also aware of the artifice. Even though the movers of Live Aid are so sacred within liberal hagiography that to question their results is even now frowned upon, fundraising projects - especially for Africa - have been sullied ever since through a sense that something went badly wrong.
Then, coming to the Draughty Old Fen, I learnt of the Watoto movement. It offered no naïve promises about feeding the world: one of the founders, Zimbabwe-born pastor Gary Skinner, upon visiting a Ugandan village, met with an older woman who had lost six of her seven children to AIDS, was nursing her seventh through her last days, and was responsible for the care of 23 grandchildren. He was reminded of James 1:27: "Religion that God the Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the orphan and the widow in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world".
I might have remained sceptical had I not actually had the chance to meet members of the globe-trotting Watoto choir, who have played more than once in Cambridge's Trinity College Church. They sang both hymns and traditional songs, and testified with hands raised as to how Jesus had saved them. The latter is not a way in which I personally am accustomed to expressing Christianity, but it was disappointing to hear some of the audience mutter about "brainwashing": neither they nor I had seen a generation of our families wasted away by a disease spread as much through custom and prejudice as by the usual channels, nor indeed had we been abducted to serve as child soldiers - another constituency Watoto serves. It's a term bandied about so often as to have lost much of its meaning, but reading Ron Borges' hard-hitting yet inspirational story of boxer and former child soldier Kassim "the Dream" Ouma illustrates the hellish life of a child abducted in order to kill.
Through the same people who introduced me to Watoto, I met a worker from the Spring of Hope foundation, again operating in Uganda, which works with children who are neglected or even abandoned because they are disabled. Again a Christian outfit, it recognises three criteria for judging the success of a project:
I recently attended a coffee-morning for Spring of Hope where I bought a bowl painted with the world centred on Africa - into which I can put the things I buy at coffee morning that I imagine I can't manage without - and we learned of stories of the children the charity has worked with. Their pictures are mounted around this post; click on the pictures to read the stories.
- When the disabled children and their families are fully allowed to participate in any community event without discrimination.
- When the perception of the community changes from negative to positive and the disabled are seen as being assets rather than liabilities.
- When they will not label a child as disabled but instead talk of "Jessica - the girl with the great smile".
One thing that impressed me about Watoto and Spring of Hope was that neither of them request something for nothing, although donations are obviously welcome. Both sold locally-produced jewellery, ceramics and textiles, and the members of the Watoto choir literally sing for their supper all around the world - and are begged to return.
Like many charities, they're also "adopted" by various institutions: for example, here in the fens, Spring of Hope is helped by, among others, Godmanchester Community Primary School and the RNIB [Royal National Institute for the Blind] College, Loughborough.
In Great Britain at least, larger charities with matching overheads are pulling back on some of their smaller operations at the moment, for instance distributing blankets to nursing homes or knitted toys to children. Personally, I prefer to act locally: not necessarily in the sense of charity beginning at home, as important as that is, but when looking abroad, dealing with smaller groups acting to ease a specific group of problems in an easily-identified locality. Money's even harder to find than it has been for a long time, so my own solution as Lent comes will be to forego a couple of pints a week and send the money on.
I trust Spring of Hope and Watoto because they follow the example of Jesus in taking care of people's earthly needs before talking about God, and there are many more like them. If there's a time for asking do they know it's Christmas, it's probably quite a way down the road from gaining folks' trust, dressing their wounds and listening to their stories.