Everyone is being suspiciously kind to me (and Jane and Moses) as we set off. I see them staring with a look tinged with disapproval as they wonder: “why isn’t he an exhibit on the Antiques Roadshow rather than tottering out like Captain Tom on yet another trek, at his age?
They can think what they like – if we didn’t think we could do the walk we wouldn’t start. Of course, TS Eliot was right, “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. Our obduracy to continue walking is probably our attempt to deny the harsh reality that we are scaling at speed the foothills of senility, but we have thought it through; if we fall over and slowly expire in a ditch, then bring it on. We would rather burn out than rust out, and so what, it’s been a heap of fun!
As Cold as Charity
A friend of mine set up a charity in South Africa. He raised a substantial sum to support street children in Addis Ababa and hired a local couple to do the work. A couple of years later, he paid a flying visit to look at the progress: he found the couple had built a lovely house and a large swimming pool: the street children were still begging and hungry.
Running a charity is complex. You can easily find that you are doing damage and not helping the poor at all; all you are doing is making yourself feel virtuous. ZANE is frequently asked if we would assist in, say, financing a school a donor has fallen in love with, sited in a remote village they visited on a recent trip to Zimbabwe. We are told that the local managers are truly wonderful, the need is acute, the teachers excellent, and if a little money is provided, the school will thrive: the generous couple offer to match whatever ZANE is prepared to fund.
The first thing we ask (kindly) is, “Are you prepared to put up the same sum of money every year for, say, ten years”? They often look askance at this request until we explain that unless the work is “sustainable”, that is, the same support is provided year after year, and suddenly one fine day the donor money vanishes, ZANE will be left with a large unbudgeted commitment. If we are hard-nosed and refuse to continue alone, the money will dry up, and the school’s expectation of continued support will be thwarted. Therefore, unless we can be reasonably sure that we can continue the work for at least a decade, then it makes sense not to start in the first place. The second issue is that if we did proceed, what about the dozens of other schools in the area that will remain poor? If this school is given the “special treatment”, the other schools will lose their brightest pupils to the favoured school, and we will have created an enormous and growing pool of resentment in the locality.
A couple of months back, ZANE was told of a child living in the N part of Zimbabwe – where we have no workers or experience – who had trodden on a land mine: today, he is alleged to be one-armed, one-legged and partially sighted. Of course, we wanted to help.
But by now, we have a lot of experience in what can go wrong with good intentions: before we spend hard-earned donor money on assisting this poor child, two hard-edged questions must be answered: (a) Who do we send the money to, and (b) how can we be assured that the cash will be spent on the child? For two months, despite our enthusiasm to help, we have not been able to satisfy ourselves that the money will be well spent.
ZANE has been supplying aid for nearly 20 years, and we now have learned what not to do, which comes easier sometimes than knowing what to do.
Before we spend money, we have to be as sure we can be that we are helping the poor and not making ourselves feel better.
If we want a clear example of how good intentions can go awry and how vast quantities of aid – and tragically lives – can be wasted, just take a long hard read of the stories that are flooding out of Afghanistan.