Campaign teaches global responsibility

The success of the Children Helping Children campaign has been remarkable and heart-warming. It has raised money from the children of this country for those in Afghanistan - and helped us to understand that all of our children lead privileged lives in relation to all of theirs. It has enlisted the idealism of the young. It has been of benefit not only to the schools to which the money has gone, but also to those from which it has been contributed.

The pleasure and value of giving has never been greater. I trust that the idea will live on, in other campaigns both for and beyond Afghanistan. Whenever I talked to school assemblies during my time as an MP, and even after that, I found that the young were always the best possible audience - more receptive even than soldiers and much more than politicians.

Part of my speech was about the peculiar horror of landmines, the only weapons of war that know no ceasefire. It was important for our own children to understand that the very first lesson that four or five-year-olds would learn in Bosnia or Cambodia was not reading or writing, but mine awareness. If they did not know what an anti-personnel mine looked like, or an unexploded cluster bomb, then their lives could so easily be blown away. Children are too often the victims of their own curiosity.

Ours is far from a perfect society, and its wealth and privileges are by no means equally shared. But - in relation to the children of Afghanistan, Angola or Malawi - British children live in a blessed and peaceful corner of a turbulent world. I think that they know that. The TES campaign has done a great service in bringing home to them the realities of those in less fortunate circumstances.

I mention Malawi, because I hope that the initiative will spread from areas of conflict to those of other emergencies, like the crop failure threatening that small and stricken nation. I am just back from visiting it on behalf of UNICEF for whom I act as a kind of wandering ambassador (unlike UNICEF's real celebrities, the pop stars, my role is that of an expendable utility outfielder who knows his way about war zones). Again in Malawi it is the young who are suffering disproportionately. We heard of a mother who sold her baby for pound;3 in order to be able to feed her remaining children; of a pregnant 12-year-old who found herself the head of an extended family; of children living on mice from the fields. A famine is looming, and has in some cases already begun. The schools are closing, pupils and teachers are too weak to work, illiteracy is spreading and in the struggle to stay alive children are finding - as is so often the case - that their childhood itself is a casualty. All this is happening in a country of 11 million in which half a million have died of HIVAids and a million are Aids orphans.

The scope for the benign intervention of children to reach out and help each other, as in Afghanistan, is limitless. And - as with the adult world - just because we cannot help everyone everywhere that doesn't mean that we cannot help anyone anywhere. Perhaps we should see the Afghan campaign not as finished but as unfinished business. Who knows where next? The children of Malawi have as good a case as any.

More than this, and perhaps fortuitously, the Children Helping Children campaign is academically well timed. It has foreshadowed the introduction, this autumn, of citizenship into the school curriculum. Citizenship does not stop at national borders. Our children have the means at hand, both through the old and new media, of knowing more than those of earlier generations about what is going on in an overcrowded, endangered (in effect) shrinking planet. We don't own it, but share it with species more vulnerable and less destructive than we are. Its realities are directly accessible in the classroom of our primary and secondary schools.

Though books have a place in it, citizenship is not a book learning subject, and cannot be taught by the written word alone. Through the Internet especially the young can connect directly with the lives of children elsewhere. The more they know, the less they will take for granted.

Martin Bell is a former BBC war correspondent and was the independent MP for Tatton in the last parliament

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