Editor-At-Large: Madonna's got it right for once - this is the way to help Africa

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The Independent Online

Madonna is not adopting a child from Africa to bring home to London. What she's doing in Malawi may be considered far more worthwhile than the public perception of Meg Ryan or Angelina Jolie, who rescue cute toddlers from deprived countries and are then photographed at airports around the world with a cuddly, smiley, orphan. Madonna's staff have spent the last few weeks in Africa, helping to set up the Raising Malawi centre to feed and educate orphans in a country (the 10th poorest in the world) where the population has been decimated by Aids.

Her arrival there last week to lend hands-on support has prompted all sorts of wild speculation that she's following the latest fashion for instant families. God forbid the woman is just intelligent and keen to see for herself why we need to send every penny we can to Africa. She has given more than $3m (£1.6m) to this project, and has campaigned to raise money and awareness of the plight of Malawi and its Aids orphans through her website and her live shows, ever since she was contacted by Bill Clinton, who has spent much time and effort fundraising for this desperate country.

Many people sponsor or adopt children in Africa, sending them money and staying in contact via letters and photos, but that's not the same as transporting your chosen child back to your home, taking them away from their culture, their familiar environment and family members. In the village in Malawi visited by Madonna, most of the children will have lost an immediate family member to Aids - and the head of the household may often be as young as 10.

At 48, the Queen of Pop can buy anything she wants - but she would find it hard to have another child. It must be very tempting, when you are surrounded by scores of babies with no future, to try to help (and make yourself feel good in the process) by bringing one back to an environment where your family wants for nothing. But it is far braver - and ultimately far kinder - to acknowledge that these children need education, food, spiritual guidance, and medical aid, administered via a framework run by local people. How can Malawi dig itself out of poverty, if it's just another baby boutique for the rich and famous? Does the sight of Ms Jolie heading off for another tot to add to her menagerie of Maddox (from Cambodia) and Zahara (from Ethiopia) not make you feel a little bit queasy? Or there's China, where Meg acquired her instant family - plenty of abandoned babies there, as a result of ruthless government edicts demanding one-child families.

By removing thesemites from their homes, and transporting them to the conspicuous consumption of the West, are we not guilty of a horrible kind of cultural imperialism? Isn't it better to fund local help? Are we not just implying that our culture is superior to theirs?

When you adopt a baby from Malawi or Ethiopia, it doesn't solve the Aids crisis in Africa, nor does it encourage people in the West to dig into their pockets and fund projects bringing fresh water to villages, or to pay for bicycles for children to get drugs needed by their sick mother. It doesn't stop corruption and it certainly doesn't educate young people in Africa about safe sex.

Real help means enabling people to help themselves, providing the means for them to feed their families and get a job. It means paying for teachers and books so that children are educated and can read and write, enabling them to get better jobs and cease being dependent on hand-outs. Every time I see a white middle-class, middle-aged woman clutching a brown, black or yellow baby, it makes me think we aren't much nearer to solving the problem of how the haves can help the have-nots. Madonna is not convinced this will solve the Malawi problem, unlike Ms Jolie, with her ludicrous title of UN "goodwill ambassador".

'Openly gay' Graham Norton, me and dropping 'E'

I interviewed Graham Norton for the November issue of Marie Claire magazine, and during our chat he slagged off cocaine ("the drug of the middle classes") and said that although he's taken drugs in the past, these days he prefers alcohol. I told him I'd once dropped a couple of E's in one night, and got thoroughly wasted. Graham's admission was all too much for that guardian of Britain's moral values, the editor of the Daily Mail. Referring to Graham as "openly gay" (as ludicrous an idea as calling me openly straight) his intelligent comments have, according to the Mail, "caused outrage". Graham Norton is highly intelligent, frank, and funny - what he does at home is his own business. I hardly think we expect a television presenter to act as a moral barometer for Britain's youth. Mind you, were things any different in the days of Frank Bough?

Arthritic critic: Brian Sewell's knee-jerk reactions ruin my breakfast

Why does the BBC bother to treat Brian Sewell as an art expert? This bigoted bore, with a voice that sounds as if he's suffering from chronic constipation, delights in promoting artistic values that probably seemed arcane in 1948. Last Friday his patronising comments on Radio 4 about an exciting exhibition I'd seen the day before, ruined my breakfast. Mr Sewell thinks there's only one set of values in the art world - his - and anyone else is a mentally challenged piece of scum. He's about as culturally relevant as Rod Hull's emu.

The Royal Academy's latest exhibition, 'USA Today', is drawn from the collection of Charles Saatchi, and fills room after room with huge canvases shimmering with power and energy, the work of 35 young American artists many of themunknown in this country. It doesn't all work: some works are banal, and others re-state the obvious, but overall, this is an unmissable experience -this year's Turner Prize nominees at Tate Britain seem feeble in comparison. This week the Frieze Art Fair opens in London, and dozens of exhibitions and parties are scheduled for dealers and wealthy patrons from all over the world, anxious to spot the next big thing. Mr Sewell might be revolted by 90 per cent of modern art, but it has replaced music as the medium that stimulates the senses like no other. Go to the Royal Academy and see the huge canvases painted by Kristin Baker, who's just 30; operatic explosions of colour that take your breath away - and tell the BBC you'd like a real critic to review important shows like this, not a knee-jerk reactionary.

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