What a year it has been for the poor of the world. The calendar has seemed a catalogue of natural disasters - the tsunami, the Indonesian earthquake, famine in Niger, unusually bad monsoons in India, the hurricanes in the United States and the earthquake in Kashmir. All had one thing in common. In this terrible toll of death and human misery, it was always the poorest people who suffered most. The poor we will always have with us.
It has not been a twelvemonth entirely without comfort. At Gleneagles, the leaders of the rich world pledged to double aid to Africa and undertook a substantial increase in debt relief to those poor nations. Some critics have carped that this was made to look better than it was - but even if that is true, there can be no doubt that what was promised was significant. So long as it is delivered, that is. For the West has a squalid history of broken promises in such matters. There were fine words about trade at Gleneagles, but - shamefully - it appears unlikely that these will be made real in the world trade talks at Hong Kong in two weeks time. There fiasco looms.
Amid all that - the murky mix of macro-economics and international politics, and the backroom compromises which is what effects real change on a large scale - we yearn very often for some simpler certainties. There must be a more straightforward way of helping, and of doing good. The three charities we have chosen for our Christmas Appeal this year offer that. They each unequivocally play their part in helping to make the world A Better Place, the title we have chosen for our annual fundraising effort. And they do so with clarity, boldness and innovation.
They are technologically bold. Practical Action offers low-tech solutions which are cheap, sustainable and affordable by the poorest people in the poorest nations whose problems often stem from the climate change and rapid economic globalisation the rich world imposes on them. They are culturally bold. Children in Crisis is tackling head-on the ingrained sexism in many developing world cultures. And it is unafraid to ask questions which upset settled and sometimes corrupt orders.
They are politically bold. Education Action is attempting to create a programme which is both radical and yet balanced in Israel and Palestine, challenging the assumptions of both sides alike. All of this, along with other admirable aspects of these three charities' work, will become clear from our reports over the next few weeks.
Charity is often seen as a one-way process. It is not, as it takes children to remind us. Paul Vallely, in his report on the launch of the appeal today, quotes two of the youngsters whose school has recently become involved with one of our three charities. "We'd seen pictures of hungry children on the TV but they seemed different to us," said one 13-year-old boy, "but now we've been in touch with them, we realise they are just like us." And there was another truth from the mouth of a 12-year-old girl as she discovered: "how much further even small amounts go" in a poor country than at home. We Britons will spend £450 each, on average, on Christmas presents this year. In Africa that amount would feed a family of six for a year.
What was clear from those schoolchildren is that charity touches the giver as much as the recipient. We hope that the work of our three charities will do more than make you open up your pockets. The message of this season of lights, from all faiths and none, is that we should open up our hearts.
A Better Place: Christmas Appeal 2005Reuse content