Opinion: How much do we really care?

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

I heard a talk recently by an inspiring woman who had jettisoned her career, sold her home, disposed of her worldly goods and gone off to live in the favelas of Brazil. She no longer found it enough to contribute to development agencies' coffers and to lobby Western politicians on changing the global trading system in the hope of making life better for the world's poor. It was too remote, too easy.

Instead, she was going to live with a community of disadvantaged people and do her utmost to make their lives better. It may not change the world, but it would change their world as well as hers.

We all dug into our pockets and wished her well, but her example has remained uneasily with me. It surfaced again this week when I was in Mansfield writing for a colour supplement about the use of anti-social behaviour orders. On the council estates of the town there remain shockingly high levels of unemployment, poverty, crime, drug abuse, educational under-achievement and teenage pregnancy. Top-down efforts are being made by the Government, regeneration agencies and charities to make things better.

All are predicated on strengthening the local community, but few appeared to be listening to it. It was a one-size-fits-all type of nanny state-ism.

At the end of the assignment, I got back into my nice car, hurtled down the motorway and was back in my nice house with my nice family, all fired up to write an article saying how terrible it all was. The article would be read one day and forgotten the next. No dirt under my fingernails.

But if I really care - like the woman who went to Brazil cared - shouldn't I be turning the car round and going back to use whatever skills I have to help those communities articulate their demands more effectively? There were, granted, a few extraordinary individuals there speaking up on behalf of their neighbours, but not enough. But how far do you go? How do you make a meaningful commitment and have a life? There is no easy answer.

Yet, I suspect, it is a question that crosses most of our minds some of the time.

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