You might expect the charity world to be full of charitable people: meek, gentle souls who would never hurt a fly, always anxious to seek consensus rather than stir up controversy. You would be wrong.
Kind and caring they might very well be. Given a choice between my daughter marrying a drugs dealer and a charity worker – or even, God forbid, a journalist – I’d most definitely plump for the charity worker. But meek they are not. They love an argument and in this competitive world there is always something to argue about.
Usually it’s money. This is the time of year when we dig deeper into our pockets than at any other. There are plenty of people out there who give only at Christmas and there’s not a charity in the country that isn’t after your precious donation.
Unsurprisingly, they all think they can spend it to better effect than anyone else. The problem is persuading you. How do you compare the relative merits of a campaigning charity that wants us to stop smacking children with another that wants the government to build affordable housing for poor families? How do you choose between the hospital in a rich country like Britain that needs a new scanner and the leper hospital in a dirt-poor country that doesn’t have enough beds?
This is where the marketing departments come in. And this is where the rows start. The big row this Christmas is over cows and goats. You will have seen the adverts. It sometimes seems that half the third world charities in Britain want us to send animals or chickens to poor countries. The other half thinks it’s a terrible idea.
Who’s right? Before I tell you what I think, let me declare an interest. I do not like cows. And the reason I don’t like them is that they don’t like me. I learned this the hard way nearly thirty years ago when I bought a dairy farm in west Wales.
The herd came with the farm and I got it cheap. There was a good reason for that. The farmer who sold it to me had bought rejects – the sort of animals that go for a song in the auction ring because no-one else wants to buy them. Sometimes they are (to use a technical expression) clapped out. Their udders sag and they’re about ready to end up as the cheapest sort of stewing meat in school dinners. Often it’s because they have horrible warts on their teats or they are “kickers”.
The effect is the same. One minute you’re milking away happily, washing the teats and slipping the milking units on, anticipating breakfast when they’re all finished. The next you’re lying on your back in a pile of dung wondering whether your arm is broken or just very badly bruised.
The third time it happened to me I lost my nerve. The more that cows sense you are scared of them the twitchier they get – and the more often you end up on your back. So when it came time to sell my wretched herd I did so with a little song in my heart.
I was, admittedly, a bad cowman. Good ones love their cows and the cows love them right back. But even I understood enough about cows to know that they are high maintenance animals. Not, perhaps, on the scale of a Premier League footballer’s wife, but you get out what you put in.
If you want a decent yield you have to give them plenty of good, nutritious food and even more water. Cows drink a vast amount, especially when it’s hot. And there are two things in short supply in the poor regions of Africa: food and water.
Then we come to goats. I have nothing against them personally. They can’t kick like a cow and they’re much cleverer. Nor are they particularly fussy about what you feed them. Offer a cow a bale of hay that looks a bit mouldy and she’ll turn up her delicate nose like a super-model faced with a deep fried Mars bar. But goats will eat anything. And that is precisely the problem.
On a hill farm in Wales they can be the ideal animal. When cows graze they wrap their thick tongues around the crass and rip it out. They waste as much grass as they eat. Sheep and goats don’t do that. They nibble with their sharp little teeth and leave a field looking as though it has just been mowed by the groundsman who cares for centre court at Wimbledon.
When the grass is gone – or there are only tough old thistles left – the sheep will insist on being moved and if they are left they will starve. Not the goats. They will always find something to eat. If there’s no grass they’ll eat the thistles and when all the thistles have gone they will start on the hedges. When the leaves have been munched away they will eat the young shoots. And then they will break out of the field and find something else to eat. Anything else.
That is why goats must be either tethered or firmly enclosed. And that, mostly, is not how it works in much of Africa. I have seen goats everywhere – even in trees, right up in the high branches.
Unlike cows and sheep, they are not herd animals. They spread out, like marauding armies in search of anything and everything. If they find some tender young saplings which might one day turn into strong trees performing the vital function of binding the soil and preserving what little rain falls, you can say goodbye to the saplings. The goat is not concerned about the desperately delicate ecology of these African lands. It is concerned only with lunch.
Goats are responsible for massive environmental degradation throughout the more arid regions of Africa. I have seen entire areas that once supported nomads with their wandering herds reduced to not much more than desert. It is a heartbreaking sight.
We have all admired the proud Masai herdsman, standing erect and gazing into the distance while his cows graze around him. He is disappearing. Too many years of drought have left the land parched and the grass that fed the cows withered. Too many goats have completed the destruction.
Yes, they produce milk for their owners. But they’re no different from humans. They produce milk only if they have young to suckle and that means more goats. And more. There are simply too many goats roaming the semi-arid regions of Africa.
Now let’s be clear about one thing. No British charity would be stupid enough to use your money to send goats or cows to Africa and let them roam wild. All of them insist that they give them only to families or villages where they will be properly tended and that they provide the wherewithal for their owners to care for them. But there is a worrying disparity in some of the figures quoted.
Some charities say that a donation of £70 will buy a cow. Others, like Send a Cow, say it costs more than ten times as much. And of course they’re right. It would be madness to hand over a cow to a family that could not afford to house, feed and care for her.
Oxfam “offer” goats for £24 a head and say they are great gifts. They say sixty years of experience has shown them that giving animals to poor families can “provide a precious lifeline to communities striving to work their way out of poverty”. Oxfam is a superb charity with a magnificent record of working for the most deprived people in the world. And yet it is at war with other charities over this issue.
The World Land Trust and Animal Aid say it is “madness” to send animals and chickens to areas where they will add to the problems of drought and desertification. You might expect such an attack from Animal Aid whose concern, obviously is for the welfare of animals.
Its director, Andrew Tyler, points out that there are major animal welfare issues involved in sending animals to, for instance, the Horn of Africa. Earlier this year vast numbers of cattle died, either because of drought or because they were washed away in the floods that followed the abnormally dry weather. But he makes a broader point.
If we are concerned about feeding hungry people, encouraging them to have more animals is not the way to help them. Meat is a very expensive way of getting protein. It takes at least eight pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef.
So is it vegetarianism we should be encouraging? Well maybe, but I think we should take a different approach. And this is where I must declare my second interest.
A year ago I wrote in these pages about the folly of sending large amounts of aid to African countries whose rulers were so corrupt that the cash ended up in Swiss bank accounts or the tills of fancy Paris couturiers. I described some of the tiny charities I had seen doing wonderful work for the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world and said I wanted to set up my own charity to raise money for them. I was totally unprepared for what followed.
More than 2,000 of you wrote to me, almost everyone enclosing a small cheque. That money got my charity – the Kitchen Table Charities Trust – off to a flying start and since then, I’m delighted to be able to say, we have built on it. What we have been able to do is make grants – usually not much more than £5,00 a time – to these tiny charities.
Many of them have been set up and are run by British people who have given their cash and their time to helping people less fortunate than themselves. I am full of admiration for what they have done and are still doing.
For a charity to qualify for a grant it must meet two basic rules. It must help the very poorest, the people (usually children) at the very bottom of the ladder. And it must spend no money in this country on administration and salaries. One common theme in those 2,000 letters was that Mail readers want to know that virtually every penny of any donations they make is used to alleviate suffering and not pay for expensive advertising campaigns or high salaries.
Your money has done some remarkable things. It has paid for a workshop and training for polio victims who now make toys to sell at a profit rather than have to beg in the streets. It has paid for a ward in a little hospital for blind people to get cataract operations. They send me a list of names of people who were blind and can now see. It’s incredibly moving to look down that list. Your money has taken children off the streets of big towns and cities and given them a new life.
But most of it has gone on education: helping orphaned children go to school, equipping little schools with books, building classrooms and toilet blocks. Helping to build and run new schools. This is because I passionately believe that education is what matters in the long run.
If my children were hungry, the first thing I would do is try to raise the money to feed them. But what really matters is that they should be able, in years to come, to feed themselves. And the way to escape the grinding poverty that traps and kills hundreds of millions is to give them the means to earn a decent living in years to come.
That is the only way to break the hideous cycle that shames the entire world. By all means give someone a goat if you’re sure that proper arrangements have been made to care for it. It is, of course, your decision. Or you can help educate a child. Then it becomes his decision.