Appeal: A picture of hope, and a symbol of relief in a blighted continent
Sometimes a face will turn to look at you and smile and an entire day of brutality, hunger, fly-speckled babies and distended bellies will be wiped away. Maybe it is a face that gazes around the corner of a tin shack, or returns your smile as you walk past a hospital bed or comes to greet you among a crowd of children in a remote village. I have been disarmed by such smiles from the teeming slums of Mumbai to refugee camps in Darfur.
Today The Independent launches its Christmas appeal, Green Shoots, in the spirit of those smiles. Three charities will use your donations to foster hope in villages in Africa and Asia. They have been chosen because they have a belief in human dignity: the money raised allows the poor and vulnerable to change their lives. They are helped by the charities but the change is driven from within these communities.
There is nothing patronising here. No white angels of mercy descending on the benighted villagers to tell them what is good for them. The photograph that accompanies this article speaks volumes about what is possible in Africa and the rest of the developing world. Ami Ouédraogo, 11, and her friend Alimata Ouédraogo are able to wash in clean water in their village in Burkina Faso thanks to the rehabilitation of wells. They know that clean water reduces the chances of any children they may have being killed by diarrhoea or cholera.
One of the charities in today's appeal, WaterAid, is working on projects in Africa and Asia, with the lives of communities being dramatically changed from Mali to Bangladesh. In other African countries, the charity Send A Cow is doing just that - sending cows to villages where the community can build up a herd and create wealth and a sustainable future for all. Finally, Namibia-based IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation) is trying to ensure that Africa's poor benefit from the extraordinary wealth of wildlife on the continent.
We know about the evil that takes place in the developing world. We have known for a long time about the hunger and disease, the lack of opportunity, the cynical restrictions on African trade, the chains we have wrapped around their farmers with our protectionist policies. Our parents knew that Africa was being abused in the Cold War, its countries flooded with cheap weapons while the West and eastern bloc jostled to buy the support of dictators; and our grandparents and great-grandparents knew what was done to the continent in the name of colonial greed, the civilising mission which brought death to millions in Leopold's Congo and carved border lines that would create the basis for war between African countries up to the present day.
But they did not have television to bring the reality into their homes. They had nothing like the amount of information available to us. We know what is going on. And yet it goes on and on. The crisis in Darfur, like those in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (to name but two others), the poverty that blights so many communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America are a consequence of human actions and failures.
In the face of the multiple challenges - from Congo in the 1960s to Rwanda in 1994 and Darfur in 2004 - the "official" response of the international community to crisis in the developing world has been shameful. I stood in a Darfur refugee camp a few weeks ago and watched the police terrorise innocent people and my mind went back to the terrible days of summer 1994 in central Africa.
A Nigerian officer, his voice thick with emotion, told me he didn't have the armoured vehicles necessary to rescue Tutsi civilians being murdered in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The problem, he explained, was that the Americans were arguing over the rental terms.
In El Geer, the camp I visited in Darfur, the word went around that the international observers were leaving because the police assault threatened their security. I went to an aid worker and asked if this was true. "They have weapons. We don't have any weapons. What can we do?" she said.
I will be forever grateful to the courage shown by the aid representatives who stood their ground and faced down the bullies of the Sudanese police. It was an individual stand by a few brave people and it meant everything to the displaced people at the camp. Similarly the local UN representatives who turned up made a real difference simply by being present. When they refused to move and when they were joined by other aid workers, the Sudanese police knew they could not beat and use tear-gas with impunity. They continued destroying the huts but the physical violence ended.
The people of these camps - like the residents of refugee camps all over Africa - were once able to support themselves. They were farmers mostly, but also shopkeepers, shoemakers, teachers etc. Their greatest dream is to re-build a community in which they can provide for themselves and their children and live in peace. In other countries the issues may be different - land, hunger, drought, soil erosion, overpopulation - but they form a collective challenge to those who believe in a very basic idea of human progress.
By giving, you are doing a number of vital things. First, you tell the hungry and beaten-down that you give a damn, that they are worth your compassion; second you tell the governments that oppress them, or who have abandoned them, that there is an alternative world community which wants action; finally you get to tell yourself that you are a person who is willing to put the fine rhetoric of a common humanity into action. You are a person of conscience.
None of this will change the world dramatically. Not now and maybe not for years. In the age of the quick fix we get disillusioned when the problem can't be solved in the 24-hour news cycle. And in much of Africa it can look as if the war and hunger and disease is as bad as ever. But Africa can get better. Huge swaths are getting better. I know from travelling to communities across the continent that countless villages are benefiting from development aid. Out of small beginnings is hope made.
Fergal Keane reported from Darfur for the BBC's Ten O'Clock News