Someone who has grappled more strenuously than most with the contradiction is Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development. The very intensity with which she answers the question of how the world's rich can best discharge their moral responsibility to the world's poor has repeatedly got her into trouble with the more pious end of the spectrum.
With the tactlessness of the truly earnest, she accused the people of Monserrat, fleeing from a volcano, of wanting "golden elephants next". Then she said a fund-raising appeal by the aid agencies in southern Sudan was "unnecessary". Most recently she was in the moral soup again for describing appeals to cancel the debts of Honduras and Nicaragua as "an irrelevance" to the immediate task of pulling people out of the mud left by Hurricane Mitch.
Well, she was half-wrong and half-right every time, but performed a more valuable service than most politicians forced to talk platitudes when asked to pronounce on desperately needy causes.
Today's news that the famine in Sudan is being "turned round" is certainly a vindication of Ms Short's robust approach. It was not turned round by the humanitarian actions of small charities, but by a huge co-ordinated effort by interested governments, the UN and aid agencies. Ms Short was right, this summer, to say that there was little point in trying to get aid to the starving people of the Bahr el Ghazal region of Sudan without a ceasefire and guarantees of access from the warring armies. Now those conditions are in place - further strengthened by new agreements this week - the massive airlift of aid has largely got through to its intended destination.
But we should pay tribute to the work of the charities and other aid organisations, who have also learned the lessons of past failure. Now that food aid has reached many of those who need it, it will not simply depress prices and cause dependency: the UN World Food Programme is making sure that it is used to create a breathing space in which tools and seeds can be stockpiled for next year's crop.
This is very different from the chaotic response of some charities in Rwanda, who ended up feeding Hutu murderers in the camps in Zaire. Ms Short's overall message, that charities should not rush from crisis to crisis from day to day, is one that most aid workers would agree with. The charities have learned that lesson too, and we saw the benefits of that in Central America, where a Disasters Emergency Committee brought all the main charities together and is making best use of the pounds 293,000 raised by Independent readers. It will be worth bearing that lesson in mind as we enter the Christmas tin-rattling season.
The good news from Africa is a beacon of hope, and should act as a stimulus to more western generosity rather than any complacency. "If the weather is favourable, and the ceasefire holds, we can be out of the woods by October 1999," said a UN spokesman, and you do not often hear aid agencies talking like that. Let us give thanks for a success story amid all the gloom, and give Ms Short the credit she is due.Reuse content