Independent Appeal: From hardship springs hope

Readers have responded with extraordinary generosity to this year's appeal. Paul Vallely explains the issues that have been raised - and how your money will help build better lives
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The Independent Online

You would have to be a hard-hearted character not to be affected by the story of Amir, the five-year-old boy who was sold into slavery by his poverty-stricken parents in Pakistan and taken to Dubai by wealthy Arabs from the Gulf states. There, within a matter of months, he fell from the back of a camel in a race and was trampled so badly he cannot speak any more and is blind in one eye. At the age of six, Amir's life is ruined before it has properly begun.

Amir's case was one of those which was brought to our attention during this year's Independent Christmas Appeal by Anti-Slavery International, one of the three charities the appeal has supported this year. It was a heart-breaking story, even with the knowledge that Anti-Slavery has led a successful campaign to change the law so that the practice has now been outlawed in Dubai.

But Amir's tale of personal tragedy is the kind of story we are used to reading in the pages of a daily newspaper. The British media is at ease with the personal, the dramatic, the unusual and the emotional.

What we are less good at is writing about persisting situations which are characterised by no single dramatic event - the stuff of normality which is what most shapes people's daily lives - and yet which may have just as doleful an impact on the way they live. The Christmas Appeal offers us an opportunity to tackle such subjects.

Take Liberia, the poor African country only recently emerged from civil war. There are plenty of stories of individual trauma and tragedy there - in a society where rebel boy soldiers, high on hallucinogenic drugs, wore women's clothes and wigs as fetishist protection against bullets; replete with reports of cannibalism with victims caught at checkpoints murdered on the spot, their hearts ripped out and fried in palm oil.

Yet that is not the real story. Nor even is the emergency care provided by another of our three charities, the British medical agency Merlin, which flies doctors to emergency situations around the world. The real story - if you measure reality by what has the biggest single impact upon the lives of ordinary people - is, aside from dire poverty, the total collapse of the country's health system.

Devastated by 14 years of war and looting - on top of its baseline of poverty of a kind which most of us cannot properly comprehend - Liberia has some of the worst health statistics in the world. The average adult dies before they are 42 and a quarter of all children do not even reach the age of five. The three million population share just 30 doctors.

"Helping here is not just a case of zooming doctors in and out," says Carolyn Miller, Merlin's chief executive. "Working in fragile states you are dealing with the collapse of entire systems that we take for granted."

Though it began by looking after war casualties, Merlin today, with an expatriate staff of 25 and a payroll of about 800, runs almost half of Liberia's feeble healthcare system - in which around 90 per cent of the staff have no salary because the government is too broke to pay them. Merlin pays them each an "incentive" of $150 (£78) a month.

"You have to get behind what normally grabs the headlines," says Ms Miller. "In somewhere like Liberia there's no point in just going in and fixing what's been broken. It's the whole system that's broken down. And it'll take 10 years to fix it."

Some things take even longer. This year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition in Britain of the slave trade. Yet slavery persists. Anti-Slavery International estimates that between 12 and 27 million people are still slaves.

Some are born into it, as in the slave tribes of west Africa. But most are trapped into it through bonded labour where employers make loans at such exorbitant rates of interest that they can never be repaid. In India and Pakistan debts are passed down from one generation to the next. Others, like many child domestic workers, are virtual slaves, with no control over their own lives or movements, working for just food and lodging. Perhaps most alarmingly, we have learnt through the appeal over the past weeks, slavery exists once more in the UK. Many foreign domestic servants are held, even in the wealthy suburbs of Britain, in a servitude from which they find it almost impossible to escape. People traffickers have set up "bonded labour" debt traps for many of the east Europeans now working in this country - in chicken packing factories, as casual labourers in our docks and farms, as cleaners and kitchen staff in our best hotels and restaurants.

"The Independent's appeal has revealed the issue of modern slavery in all its complexities," says Anti-Slavery's director, Aidan McQuade, "and to show that it's a global issue which impacts on the UK. The abolition of slavery is unfinished business."

Yet we have learnt that democratic countries can change things. Aid can impact on slavery in many ways; improved primary education would give more children an alternative to domestic work; and aid programmes can be designed with greater awareness of the power relationships within poor communities. Britain could take the lead by developing the methodology to do this.

Diplomatic pressure can be exerted on countries like India and Pakistan - as a condition of aid and debt relief - to persuade them to enforce the anti-bonded labour laws they have passed but which are widely ignored among the brick kilns of Madras and elsewhere.

But domestic policy needs to change to better combat people-trafficking. At present police attempts to prosecute traffickers are constrained by measures designed to appease anti-immigration populism - and Labour is planning to change the law to make it more difficult for foreign domestic servants to escape the clutches of exploitative employers. What is needed instead, we have learnt, is greater protection for trafficked people so they will give evidence to enable the police to prosecute. And the Government must sign the European Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings.

Politics is an area most charities constitutionally have to eschew. But this year our Christmas Appeal consciously entered the political arena internationally with two charities who work with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. We did so because this newspaper has long felt that the ordinary people of Gaza and the West Bank are wilfully forgotten by many parties to the Middle East conflict.

Not everyone appreciates such correctives. "Often," says Caroline Qutteneh, the director of the Welfare Association, "when an appeal is launched asking for help for Palestinians in an emergency situation, we receive negative and sometimes insulting responses from those wanting to undermine this work".

Our appeal has had its critics. Supporters of Israel have objected that it is partial, taking objection to articles like the one which compared the experience of women giving birth in Bethlehem today with that of the Mother of Jesus two millennia ago. It was wrong, they said, to describe her as a Palestinian refugee, since Palestine did not exist as a political entity until 100 years after Christ's birth. But such journalistic devices make a wider point about the way that ordinary innocents become entrapped in political conflict; ignoring their needs is not a moral option. "The appeal," says the Welfare Association's director, "has dramatically increased coverage of important issues affecting the daily lives of Palestinians that are not mentioned in the usual media reporting".

We have highlighted injustices such as how patients from the West Bank needing urgent medical treatment are denied access to the main Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem, how farmers are prevented from working by the Israeli separation wall across their land, and how agricultural produce is left to rot unable to pass through any checkpoints.

But much of our reporting has been about unglamorous work - beefing up training for hospital managers or improving error prevention and equipment accuracy in Palestinian hospitals. But all of it helps save the lives of the innocent.

The appeal has allowed such stories to be told as we explained how our three charities work with local people and their organisations to bring some positive changes to the daily lives of ordinary people. "In that alone," says Ms Qutteneh, "there is no doubt that this appeal has made a real difference".

£212,000 and counting ...

* The total raised so far by this year's Christmas Appeal is £212,663.

* This is the final article in the Appeal but it is not too late to make a contribution to our three charities - Merlin, the Welfare Association and Anti-Slavery International who are doing such extraordinary work in some forgotten places.

* Our donation collection system will remain open for another couple of weeks. For details of how to give see the coupon on this page.

Anti-Slavery International

was founded in 1839 and is the world's oldest international human rights organisation and the only charity in the UK to work exclusively against slavery and related abuses. It works at local, national and international levels to eliminate the system of slavery around the world by lobbying governments and working with local organisations to raise public awareness of it. The organisation also supports research to assess the scale of slavery to identify measures to end it. Among its concerns are slavery by descent, child domestic workers and forced labour.


is a medical aid charity set up in an office in the spare bedroom of a London house, from which it organised its first mission: a convoy bound for war-torn Bosnia carrying £1m of food and medicines. Since then the organisation has grown significantly and its work has expanded to cover all aspects of medical aid, from emergency relief to long-term building in fragile states. It has worked in 37 countries including: Liberia (pictured), where it has rebuilt hospitals destroyed by the 14-year-old civil war; Kenya, where it is treating thousands of malnourished children in drought-affected areas; and on the front line in Darfur.

The Welfare Association

is a small British charity which supports vital emergency and development projects in the West Bank, Gaza and in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Its work includes emergency medical care, disability rehabilitation, IT training and pre-school education. It replants community orchards and olive groves and supports farmers who have lost land and had crops destroyed because of the erection of the Israeli security barrier. It has improved six Palestinian hospitals and rebuilt electricity supplies in Jabalia, the biggest and most congested of the UN refugee camps in Gaza.