The desperate humanitarian crisis caused by drought and civil war in Somalia has been formally declared a famine by the UN, which means – so we're told – that the proportion of people suffering from malnutrition has reached 30 per cent and more, the number of deaths have exceeded more than two per 10,000 per day and that child hunger has exceeded certain thresholds.
All very bureaucratically important, as officials keep saying, although what it means to the public at large is rather less certain. Stump up more money is the obvious message being pumped out by the UN, Oxfam, the Red Cross and other aid agencies.
And of course that must be right considering the scale of the crisis and the number of people seeking help across a large part of the Horn of Africa. But we've known that for weeks now and, contrary to the moans of Oxfam and others, it is not as though the BBC and the media have been ignoring it. The UK has upped its emergency aid from £38m to £52.25m. The US has upped its assistance by $24m. It's far too little and taking far too long in coming, declares the UN.
But then where does that leave the ordinary citizen who, like many of us, has given to the emergency appeal early on? Do we up our donations again? Where do our donations stand in relation to government grants? And what is happening to them?
The business of aid, for emergencies as much as development assistance, has become a confused and contentious issue. Decades of appeals for Africa and the experience of the South Asian tsunami and the Haitian earthquake has led to an increasing disillusionment among the public in the West with the usefulness of their charitable endeavour.
A total of 57 per cent of the public, according to a report this week by Chatham House, now believe most of overseas aid is wasted. Some of this can be blamed on the recession and a general feeling that charity, in straitened times, should start at home. The YouGov survey in the report presents a pretty depressing picture of a public which now sees the Government's priorities in foreign policy as confined to promoting direct British interests.
But it also arises from a very real loss in confidence among the public as to what was happening with the money after all the stories of corruption and bad governance. And that is now spreading to emergency appeals.
It is all very well talking of famine in refugees in the current crisis, but the two areas of southern Somalia to which the famine label has been applied are both in rebel-held territory where the insurgents have stopped foreign aid workers coming in the past year and are still obstructing them now they're being let in.
You can't divorce aid from politics in these situations. It's outrageous, argues the US, which supports a regime backed by outside armies. But, to the rebels, western agencies of any sort are interlopers and, in so far as they will accept them, they will almost certainly take advantage to levy fees and divert materials to themselves. This, after all, is war. If it wasn't for that fact this appeal might never have been necessary.
So do you refrain from giving, because it might simply fuel the civil war further? Do you give anyway in the hope that some assistance is better than none? Or do you accept the facts on the ground and put all your effort into relieving the flow of refugees who are flooding into neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia, whose governments, again for political reasons, are none too happy to see huge refugee camps upsetting their own populations? Should we be giving money to alleviate the symptoms or cash to prevent the disease through population control and better farming and water management?
We can't go on remorselessly with these constant declarations of emergencies and appeal for donations from a more and more questioning public. There should now be a clear and accountable division of responsibilities in aid.
We shouldn't reduce the flow. God forbid. But it is time the UN was set up with the proper stockpiles and permanent logistical capability, funded by the member states, to meet emergencies such as earthquakes and famine. Big crises need big responses and you cannot depend on private charity to do it.
It would better allow non-political intervention and might also serve to end some of the confusion as to whether charities are there to fill in the gaps of state aid or are now acting as devolved agents for governments.
Charitable giving should be for the specific, for the niche need, not for the general calls to arms where people can't be certain that it won't just be swept up in the bigger state funds which may or may not be reaching the target.
The Tiger Mother shows her worth
I fear MPs missed a trick in interrogating the Murdochs on Tuesday. They took it as an opportunity to show their forensic skills in trying to pin father and son down to a revelation of guilt. The wider audience saw it as a piece of theatre in which the Davids of Parliament were taking on the Goliaths of business.
The hearings were televised across the world. What the international viewers wanted was to see a revelation of the character, motives and way of working of the Murdoch pere not a lot of legally-advised, corporate stonewalling by his son. How often, after all, do you get a media mogul on the back foot before the cameras?
What the committee got was very little in the way of an admission. What the public got was a new heroine in the person of Rupert's wife, Wendi, with an intense discussion of the virtues of the Chinese wife and the joys of her one-two attack on the assailant. In other words, worldwide, the UK parliament has become part of the celebrity culture which they accuse Murdoch's papers of doing so much to promote.