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Africa's suffering is a study in humanity

Marches grab the headlines but what is needed is a long-term commitment to progress, says Ewan Aitken

It's one of the great privileges of my job that, occasionally, I am given the opportunity to meet people of significance with whom I would otherwise never mix. One such person was the author and professor of medical law and bioethics, Alexander McCall Smith. Best known for his Number One Ladies Detective Agency novels, I met him because I was chairing an event as part of Edinburgh City Council's highly successful "Time to Talk - Time to Act" project, and he was guest speaker.

The events were part of the city's desire to facilitate public debate about G8 issues. Partly thanks to the otherwise prophetic figure Sir Bob Geldof - who shoots from the hip but sometimes hits his feet - Edinburgh seems to have become obsessed with the logistics of coping with protesters, and the real issues of poverty and debt in Africa have been lost. We wanted to change that and so a series of events around the issues was born.

McCall Smith's subject was Aids and orphans in Africa. It is very much the measure of the man that he took on such a difficult and painful subject head on. He could have talked about Africa, but hiding behind his books would not be in his nature. Instead, his books became vehicles to explore more difficult territory.

He used the characters in his books to tease out the moral and ethical issues, and then tackled this very difficult issue head on. He argued that the global village is real and its existence brings a new moral proximity.

We should respond to the needs of those close to us for their sake and ours too.

For McCall Smith, our response to what we know is happening to children in particular because of the spread of Aids is not "should we do something?"

but "we must do something" - and do it not just once, but over and over again.

He used statistics sparingly, but to great effect. In Swaziland, for example, where he supports a couple of projects for orphans, 56 per cent of the population aged between 25 and 35 have Aids. That's a whole generation slowly being wiped out.

McCall Smith argued that there were dangers of some aid being diverted by a few corrupt governments, but that we gain nothing by just turning our backs on the people who also suffer because of that corruption. In fact, he said, we should do more in those places where corruption is rife as the people of those countries need even more.

He explored the tension we all feel between the overwhelming enormity of the subject (15 million Africans now have Aids) and our desire to do something. He seemed to have reached the conclusion that the kind of systemic change we might all want in the governance and economic prosperity of many African countries is a long way off.

We should not lose sight of the need for that change, but we ought to begin with individuals, supporting directly projects that change lives one by one.

In a dumbed-down world, where the top-selling paper has a reading age of eight and the musical charts are dominated by a very irritating frog, McCall Smith is a refreshingly forthright antidote. With his ability to capture complex ideas in simple terms, McCall Smith proved a provocative and challenging teacher. Yet he did not patronise or harangue his audience, with whom he engaged for nearly an hour, answering questions and pushing on the debate.

For McCall Smith, doing nothing is not a morally acceptable option. We cannot ignore the suffering of others, even those who are physically distant. In today's global village, geographical distance no longer separates us. Our common humanity demands action.

The event was a parable for our education experiences. McCall Smith used contemporary tools such as novels to approach and engage with the real world. It was education, not simply about the world but about ourselves. It did not avoid the harshness of human existence but looked to understand, at a deeper level, why the fact we exist ourselves demands a reaction to that suffering.

If that means donning a white wristband and marching on Edinburgh, that's great. If it means digging deep in your pockets and making a long-term commitment to one project or even more than one, that's the beginning of change.

But for McCall Smith, the biggest issue is nurturing our common human bonds, where the suffering of the strange is our suffering and their prosperity is our prosperity. The journey to that place is longer than any march in Edinburgh's city centre, and will require sacrifices far greater than charitable giving or Edinburgh being a little overcrowded for a few days.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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