Emma Nicholson: Help the Iranians with what they want, not what we want

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West or east, we have an absolute moral obligation to help victims of disaster, and the disaster that has befallen Iran in the last few days has been devastating. It is a monumental tragedy for tens of thousands of people. Homes and families have been destroyed. Normal human life is suspended. Local infrastructure in the affected area has collapsed. With no water, sanitation becomes a huge problem, and the spread of disease is as big a threat to life as the earthquake itself.

West or east, we have an absolute moral obligation to help victims of disaster, and the disaster that has befallen Iran in the last few days has been devastating. It is a monumental tragedy for tens of thousands of people. Homes and families have been destroyed. Normal human life is suspended. Local infrastructure in the affected area has collapsed. With no water, sanitation becomes a huge problem, and the spread of disease is as big a threat to life as the earthquake itself.

There is a powerful urge to help, but the big challenge is to do so in a way that doesn't make life even more difficult for those on the receiving end, in a way which doesn't add to the administrative burden.

Iran is one of the most advanced countries in the region. It has been a highly efficient civilisation going back thousands of years - sophisticated, literate and dedicated. The Iranian government may not be popular globally, but it is highly organised and democratically elected within the Islamic code of understanding.

Take women's rights. As a woman who travels to Iran frequently, I am acutely aware of women's rights there, and of course there is always progress to be made. But Iran has the most advanced women's rights in the region, with women numbering more than 50 per cent of those who enter university. You could say that Iran is conducting an Islamic democratic experiment, to see how different ways of life can be not just complementary but united.

Things have moved on since George Bush identified Iran as a member of his "axis of evil". That comment was aimed at Iran's unwillingness to sign up to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which it has now done. In any event, such a view is irrelevant in the context of an earthquake affecting so many people. It is completely proper and desirable that they should receive our aid, and we can be confident that money given to Iran will be wisely spent.

We must be very careful not to send in armies of helpers who automatically think they know best, who are unclear about the culture in Iran, or insensitive to people's attitudes and way of life. It is a measure of the scale of the disaster that the Iranian government should have immediately called for international aid, but it is important to remember to offer the help that the Iranians say they want.

Iran is in a special position in another way, in that it has vast experience of refugees and so of dealing with the movement of displaced and distressed people. It has always had an open-borders policy. There are some 2.5 million refugees in Iran, most of them from Afghanistan and Iraq, although since the fall of Saddam Hussein some Iraqis have been able to go home. Iran's generosity to others makes it all the more imperative that it receives our generosity now.

In any disaster it is essential to support and build on what is still there. In the first instance that means transferring aid in the form of money to the government of the stricken country. Another route is via the United Nations. Key agencies of the UN have played important roles in Iran for decades. And the World Health Organisation needs to be highly proactive - disease control is the key to survival.

Then there is the Iranian Red Crescent movement, one of the finest non-governmental organisations I know, full of wonderful people and vastly experienced in dealing with human tragedies. The AMAR charity (Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees) that I founded and am president of has worked with and for people in Iran for more than 10 years. Our aim is to set up a clinic for earthquake victims, which we will staff with local people.

This earthquake has been a bitter blow to the people of Iran. They need our help.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is a WHO special envoy for peace, health and development. The AMAR Appeal helps refugees in Iran and promotes understanding between European and Islamic civilisations. Cheques can be sent to AMAR, 2 Vincent Street, London SW1,payable to AMAR Appeal.

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