Deborah Orr: Maybe building roads would do more for Africa than wearing wristbands

Between givers of aid and receivers, there is a gulf that good intentions, or even cash, cannot bridge
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The Independent Online

This summer's fashion for charity wristbands appears to be on the wane. The white bands of the Make Poverty History campaign were ubiquitous a few weeks ago, but I haven't laid eyes on one for days. Are these abandoned accessories merely the latest victims of style's fickle progress? Or have people become uncomfortable with them, after the news that malnourished children in Niger have coloured-coded wristbands stapled on nice and tightly, so that their mothers aren't tempted to cheat and get extra food aid?

The bands are needed because the crisis in Niger is so acute now that food aid needs to be intense and rationed. Mere starvation won't get a baby into a feeding centre. Babies have to be near to death to qualify. Six months ago, it would have cost a dollar a day to save each starving person from death. Now, the investment in each human existence is $80.

How, we ask ourselves, could this catastrophe have been unfolding during all the time that the Make Poverty History campaign gathered pace? The first warnings of impending disaster for Niger, the second poorest country in the world, came last October, after drought and locusts had destroyed last year's crops. So why has it taken the world so long to act?

Critics suggest that the West did not start giving until it could see pictures of dying babies on television. Maybe that is true. But Hilary Benn, the international development secretary, says that the looming crisis was not mentioned to him when he visited Niger in February. George Bush protests that when President Mamadou Tanja visited him in April, the issue of famine was not raised. The World Food Programme says that the president was not keen on their launching of a full-scale appeal late last year, and that they foolishly respected his wishes.

Niger was tardy in seeking help because it is ashamed of its poverty, and because it does not want to be the focus of high-profile charity. Between the givers of aid and the receivers, there is a gulf that good intentions, or even cash, cannot bridge.

Jan Egeland, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, says that what the Niger crisis proves is that there has to be a permanent UN emergency fund, so that case-by-case fund-raising efforts do not have to be made each time disaster strikes. This practical move should be supported, because it obviates the need for dramatic pleas.

But it has its dangers too. Even if the governments which showed their limited commitment to helping Africa at the G8 summit actually agree to this plan, and then actually honoured their pledge to top it up each time it is depleted, the fund would ensure that African nations have an investment in remaining supplicants, relying on aid when trouble comes. The relationship would remain uncomfortable, even if it was personalised less.

What I'd like to see is the passion and commitment of Live8 evolving into something more focused and useful than "raising awareness". I agree, with reservations, with the aims of Make Poverty History. But there are wilier ways of achieving them that simply putting pressure on inertia-loving politicians. Most commentators agree that the lack of an integrated road system in Africa is one of the continent's great problems.

Isn't it possible for anti-poverty campaigners to focus on one thing at a time, and to start by co-ordinating a massive road-building project across Africa that would provide work and attract foreign investment? No one, surely, could quibble about that.

* Birhan Woldu, led out on to the London Live8 stage by Madonna, having appeared on screen as a starving baby 20 years before, was introduced at Live8 as living proof that "aid works". Instead, a way of getting aid to people long before they're in the sort of state that makes for shocking pictures, has to be devised.

Want to get away from it all? Good luck

Ah England! In a long-awaited celebration of the start of the school summer holidays, my friend Rebecca and I took four of our various children on a camping trip to the New Forest this week. We'd been looking forward to it anyway, but recent events in London and particularly in Stockwell, where I live, had made the prospect of a back-to-nature break all the more enticing.

On Tuesday afternoon, just as we'd put up out tents and fired up the camping stoves, it started to rain. It didn't stop for 48 hours, by coincidence at exactly the moment we'd taken down our soaking tents and packed them wetly away. There was something so haplessly English about the whole experience that we couldn't even be despondent about it.

As for the escape from terrified London, that proved as difficult as the escape from more long-standing British traditions, such as camping in the mud. On arrival at our site, we found that the Hampshire Country Show was in full swing across the road, with the gentle country pursuits in question policed as flashily as a riot.

On the first night, I awoke to the incessant thump of downpour on canvas, with a vague impression the police sirens had disturbed me. This, I imagined, was a pavlovian response to the fact that police sirens had been waking me back home every night for a fortnight.

Apparently, in the night, various attempts had been made to force the locks on car doors, while campers had heard the sounds of sneaking about around their tents. One man, challenging three lads helping themselves to the family bikes, had been punched on the nose for his pains. Three police cars had indeed turned up.

They had not apprehended any criminals. Nevertheless, there was general agreement that since a travelling funfair formed an integral constituent part of the Country Fair, as usual, it was not hard to decide who had been responsible. It was a timely reminder of how comforting it is to the stoic (or complacent) English, this idea that only outsiders ever do bad things. Maybe those who insist that we should not let terror change our way of life are barking up the wrong slippery trunk.

Depp's hidden depths

Who would have thought, back in the wild days that reached a crescendo when young River Phoenix died on the pavement outside his nightclub, that Johnny Depp would turn out to be such a dedicated father?

It is no great surprise that Depp only makes films that his children can watch, since even before they came along he was drawn to naive characters from Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood. Now, however, he's doing something particularly interesting as he blazes his new-man-icon trail, by satirising some of the poorest examples of masculinity in the known world through the agency of children's films.

Idiotic addict Keith Richards was the inspiration for Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. While it could be argued that he was the hero of the day, the fact is that Depp's character didn't get the girl. He remained trapped in a childishly appealing version of masculinity.

In his new film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Depp bases Willy Wonka on Michael Jackson, a more extreme version of a man confined in the mind of a child. Poor Michael Jackson thought that by having children, he could become a grown-up. Depp shows that it is more complex than that.