Leading Article: Why amateur 'angels' deserve our respect

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A LOT of feathers have been ruffled by Sally Becker's freelance rescue mission to Bosnia. She has been accused of amateurism and publicity seeking. She is said to have diverted a Spanish battalion from escorting badly needed food to Mostar. An official grumbles that she arrived in a blaze of publicity and then blamed hitches on the United Nations. She herself complains that she has been obstructed and unfairly criticised.

It is easy to sympathise with exhausted members of established aid missions who have been working anonymously in harsh and dangerous conditions to achieve far more than Ms Becker can dream of. They are the real heroes, and they know what ought to be done, which is to create safe areas where people can be helped on the spot.

When they see a self-righteous amateur earning the title 'Angel of Mostar' for arriving with television cameras to rescue a handful of patients - leaving many behind - they naturally feel aggrieved. The scale of the problem is so large, the suffering of the Bosnians so appalling, their needs so great and the situation so complex that the efforts of people such as Ms Becker are bound to seem puny and distracting and the motives behind them suspect.

These feelings deserve respect, and it has to be admitted that Ms Becker is not a particularly convincing figure. But there is a case for not discouraging amateurs too much. Their drive can be valuable; they introduce a useful element of diversity and competition; sometimes they can worm their way through cracks in officialdom to reach inaccessible people or places; and they generate valuable publicity - admittedly in the first instance for themselves, but also for the sufferings they are trying to relieve. Many larger efforts have grown from the work of awkward, irritating individuals working against the grain.

There is a simple answer to the complaint that they divert resources from more useful operations. Officials and soldiers on the ground should have the courage to resist demands that would have that effect. If there is a good case it can be defended, even on television. There is no need to give in to every request. In general, however, it is important to make as much room as possible for those who want to do more than write a cheque to charity.