It's Christmas time. There's no need to be afraid... or even surprised at the inevitable songs on constant radio rotation: White Christmas, Jingle Bell Rock and of course Do They Know It's Christmas?, originally recorded by just about every eighties pop star you can remember, and a few you don't. (Keren Woodward, you still live on in my heart!)
It was Ethiopia's desperate famine that inspired Bob Geldof to put together Band Aid and later Live Aid, and it's hard to criticise the way he managed to turn the spotlight on that country. The problem is that for many of us - particularly those who were coming of age in the mid-eighties like myself, it is also hard to imagine Ethiopia as anything other than a war- and famine-ravaged country deserving of our pity and occasional despair. When earlier this year I visited Ethiopia with ONE, the campaigning organization co-founded by Bono, I thought I knew what to expect.
Whereas the point of Band Aid had been to raise money to combat the suffering in Ethiopia and other stricken countries, the aims of ONE are broader and more complex. It's not a charity, so you don't open your wallet or swipe your credit card to give. There are no bags to fill with old clothes. Instead, what ONE wants is your voice - pressing leaders to maintain foreign aid to make a difference.
And the evidence of what a difference that money makes is plain to see in Ethiopia. With a group of other parent bloggers from the UK and US, I visited schools that had increased their class intake hundreds or even thousands of pupils (yes, you read that right), with the children learning in morning and afternoon shifts so they could all attend.
An upper school expanded the number of pupils to 4,000, grew its library and reading rooms and added science equipment and all for the cost of 591,000 Ethiopian birr (about £20,000 UK). In 2011, 81% of children passed the exam for university, up from 63% in 2009.
I met with community healthcare providers, called health extension workers, who man one or two room huts in small villagers, educating and treating the people there - villagers whose barefoot children tended goats while the mothers farmed - about innoculations and diarrhoea, malaria and HIV prevention, AIDS treatment, good hygiene (important when goats live in the same buildings as the families) and healthy eating.
The programs are innovative: recruiting health extension workers from the very communities they will help, awarding immunization 'diplomas' to children who get all their vaccinations, doing cooking demonstrations on how to cook food to preserve nutrients or with newly introduced vegetables like beetroot and swiss chard.
The thing about Ethiopia, one British government aid official told me, was that the process was so efficient. The aid went in one end and at the other end, there are improvements, with a minimum of waste.
To be honest, I'd embarked with a healthy dose of skepticism: would these programs be little more than a handout, a different kind of Band-Aid that was keeping the country dependent rather than addressing problems in other ways?
Instead what I found were women who had babies on their hips and rudimentary business plans. After raising and selling goats for a profit, one told me, "Next I want a cow." I saw schools bursting at the seams with uniformed students sitting three to a small bench. School staff impressed on us the importance of aid in educating an entire generation of children, and the kids themselves talked about wanting to work with computers or become doctors or nurses.
Overseas aid has become an easy target for some critics who still believe that charity begins - and should stay - at home. There is a popular image of cash being handed out to corrupt dictatorships who squander whatever money they receive on tanks and palaces.
But even though the UK and the US are currently struggling economically, it's important to remember that wealthy countries' continued support has an outsized impact. In turn, we know that this kind of development stabilizes regions, helps build modern economies and creates educated citizens and workers - helping them to become the diplomatic leaders and commercial partners our countries need.
It's easy to let Simon Le Bon singing about "bitter sting of tears" wash over you as you pass through shopping centers this month, but while Ethiopia is thankfully improving, the song's core message is still relevant.
Supporting ONE and the programs it fights for is less about charitable handouts and more about hopeful investment in the future, for the countries they help as well as our own.
Find out how you can lend your voice (not your money) to ONE and become a #ONEMum / #ONEMom. www.one.org
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