'Independent' readers give more than £300,000

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The Independent Online

People can cry, said the writer James Baldwin, much easier than they can change. But in recent weeks, readers of this newspaper have done a little of both.

Yesterday we got the total of this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. Our readers raised £329,812 for three charities working among the forgotten people of Gaza and in situations of human crisis across the globe. It was the highest amount the appeal has raised in any year, bar one.

It was a response of significant generosity. Two readers sent in gifts of £5,000, and as many as 25 sent in £1,000 a head. Some 200 people sent in between £200 and £500 each. This was all in addition to the £114,000 raised by our auction of services by Independent writers. The average donation was an extraordinary £80, which our three charities - Merlin, the Welfare Association and Anti-Slavery International - say is far above the usual levels of generosity of the British public.

We also know from the letters and phone calls which accompanied the donations how touched you were by the appeal's reports on projects to assist children psychologically damaged by living in the Gaza conflict zone, to help women in the worst place in the world to have a baby, Afghanistan, or to extract impoverished Indian workers from the bonded labour traps in which they have been caught by the latter-day equivalent of the slave-masters of old.

"We have been overwhelmed with some of the wonderful responses we have received from people by telephone, post and email - genuinely warm and concerned," says Caroline Qutteneh, the director of the Welfare Association, which works with disadvantaged Palestinians.

But your responses were also clear in their understanding that real change comes about only when individuals decide they will not put up with an iniquitous status quo.

The appeal raised, on a number of occasions, the problems of those trapped by contemporary people-traffickers. We highlighted the campaign by Anti-Slavery International to get Britain to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, which ensures minimum standards of protection and support for people trafficked into forced labour - and which New Labour was resisting signing for fear of antagonising the Daily Mail anti-immigrant lobby.

Since our campaign, Downing Street has announced that Britain will finally join 30 other countries in signing it. "The Independent can take a good deal of the credit for that," says Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International. "And we have taken lots of calls from citizens advice bureaux, policemen, trade unions and other key actors who come into contact with the trafficked people, all quoting the Independent appeal, and drawing our attention to some cases that they find particularly found worrying."

The appeal has borne other fruit. In two weeks work will start on a new sewerage system in Gaza in an area, highlighted by our reports, where the underground aquifers are depleted by excessive extraction by Israeli settlers and which have become contaminated by seeping human excrement - and where the US government has cancelled a major sanitation project in protest at the Palestinians election of a Hamas government.

The project will be administered by the Welfare Association and funded by a €250,000 grant from the European Commission.

There are hopes that the appeal will impact on the outcome of a meeting of Western government donor nations in Liberia this week. The gathering will be addressed by Merlin, which will outline its experience - reported in the appeal - of rebuilding health centres in four Liberian counties.

"It is imperative the donors understand that now is the time to increase aid, not reduce it," said Carolyn Miller, director of Merlin. "Otherwise much of our good work will be undone. As the President of Liberia, Mrs Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, said in her interview with The Independent, this is crunch time for the country."

There is another poignant quotation about how the world can be made a better place. It comes from Mahatma Gandhi. "You must be the change you wish to see in the world," he said.

Over the past few weeks this newspaper and its readers have taken some small action to making that wish a reality.

Our chosen charities

MERLIN, the medical aid charity, was 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 food and medicines. Since then it has grown and its work has expanded to cover all aspects of medical aid. It has worked in 37 countries including Liberia, where it has rebuilt clinics and hospitals; Kenya where it is treating malnourished children and on the front line in Darfur. www.merlin.org.uk

THE WELFARE ASSOCIATION is a small British charity which supports projects in the West Bank, Gaza and in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Its work includes emergency medical care, disability rehabilitation, IT training, pre-school education, art workshops and a children's club. It replants orchards and olive groves and supports farmers who have lost land. It also rebuilt electricity supplies in Gaza's overcrowded Jabalia refugee camp. welfareassociation.org.uk

ANTI-SLAVERY INTERNATIONAL, founded in 1839, 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 by lobbying governments and working with local organisations to raise public awareness of slavery. Among its concerns are child domestic labour, forced labour and the trafficking of people. www.antislavery.org