What are charities good at? Providing something for nothing, a "Big Society" politician might be tempted to say.
But the rest of us – unless we are ideologically disposed to the idea that all problems should be solved by the state – might take a less cynical view.
Perhaps examples speak more eloquently than words. Looking back over the accounts we have published over the last month about the activities of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal offers a great insight into the strengths of charitable giving in Britain today.
Above all, a charity should target those most in need. Even among the poor there are those who are poorest. Sometimes that destitution is economic, as with the child beggars on the beach at Cox's Bazar by the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh – or the little girl, in Daniel Howden's striking report from Kenya, who lived on a vast rubbish dump in Nairobi. Picking through rotting trash for scrap metal or plastic she would sometimes be beaten by the older children and was forced to have sex with one of the men. Often there is emotional desolation, too, like the girls who were shunned by their families and friends after being raped by rebel armies in Sierra Leone and turned into sex slaves.
It is difficult for most of us to imagine what it must be like to be utterly alone, like the orphan children who live under the platforms of the railway station in Calcutta – but thanks to the vivid reporting of Andrew Buncombe we have some inkling, and of the succour that is being given to them by the charity ChildHope, for which we have been raising funds.
Such alienation can be political, too. There are the stateless refugees who are wanted by neither Burma nor Bangladesh. One of the very few groups helping them is the second of the beneficiaries of our appeal, the charity Children on the Edge.
Nor do such things happen only in far-off places. Our third charity, Barnardo's, has demonstrated that with its work with young British teenagers tricked and coerced in to prostitution by gift-giving boyfriends who turn our to be drug-dealing pimps. Many tragedies are personal as well as private, as David McKittrick brought home in his heart-tugging report of how Barnardo's helps young children in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, cope with the psychological trauma that follows the loss of their mothers.
All our charities shine pinprick rays of hope into the darkness of situations where people find themselves in extremis.
But a good charity does more than meet needs. It does so bravely. The staff of Barnardo's show real courage when they confront pimps in their attempt to rescue British teenagers who have being held in a kind of sex slavery. But so do the individuals funded by Children on the Edge, when they go into the world's most dangerous slum, Haiti's Cité Soleil, to bring food, football and sound advice to the children of the drug gang-infested shanty town into which Kim Sengupta ventured to produce his dramatic report.
There was bravery of a different sustained kind from the remarkable mother in Europe's poorest country, Moldova, who found there was no provision available for her two disabled children. Her response was not just to set up a daycare centre, but also to become involved in politics – changing the law of the land – before returning to the day-to-day task of running her nursery. Even a seasoned reporter like Cahal Milmo was bowled over by a woman who is a sheer force of nature.
Charities need to be brave as well if, like ChildHope, they are to break the silence surrounding the complicity of Western sex tourists in the exploitation of children in the Gambia, from where Simon Akam sent his chilling report. And there is courage in the consistency with which Barnardo's seeks to protect the interests of children who suffer even where there are political forces that press in the opposing direction. Nerys Lloyd-Pierce's report on how Barnardo's helps the children of men who are in prison drew its quota of unpleasant comments on our website from a few readers who see continued scapegoating as the answer to some social ills. Barnardo's persists in its work despite such prejudice.
That speaks of another quality which is important in a charity: long-term commitment. Children on the Edge was set up two decades ago by Anita Roddick when the fall of Romania's Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, opened the country up. The world was shocked by the glazed zombie-eyes of infant orphans sitting, untouched and unloved, in the country's institutional orphanages. Twenty years on, the charity is still supporting those children, and others like them, as they make the transition from state care to independent living.
There is another quality in which charities routinely must excel. It is the ability to be imaginative and light on their feet. A good charity can come up with schemes that would elude the cumbersome bureaucracies or rule-bound financial institutions. We saw a good example of that in the bank set up so that street children had somewhere safe to keep their money in Delhi, which allows some of them to build up enough capital to escape permanent destitution.
Barnardo's demonstrates a similar deftness in its projects to teach parenting skills to so-called "families from hell" whose only contact with the statutory authorities is punitive. It is the same story with kids repeatedly expelled from the state school system, as Jonathan Brown's compelling account showed, with Barnardo's projects for difficult teenagers who need to be got back into education or found some training in Dr B's kitchen in Harrogate.
What the three charities have in common is that they all focus on whatever is effective for people in distress who need guidance or help, rather than lecturing or sanctions. Poverty is an inter-generational problem. What each of our charities do, for a few individuals, is break that cycle and offer them the chance to take charge of their own destinies.
There are many more people who need assistance, of course. But, as Edmund Burke famously said, "no man made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little". The total raised to date, despite our current hard economic times, is £101,603 – some way off the £123,489 donated last year. But the donation phone-lines, website and postal services will remain open for another two weeks. It is not too late to do your bit. Happy new year!
The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal
Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.
* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand. www.childrenontheedge.org
* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. www.childhope.org.uk
* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes. www.barnardos.org.uk