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They're the "right on" alternative to buying chocs and slippers, but Ros Dodd is unimpressed by the new breed of Christmas gift.

It's the latest must-have fashion accessory - paid up membership of the ‘I bought a goat for Africa' club.

Everyone seems to be at it - ditching Christmas cards and gifts to friends and family in favour of purchasing a goat, cow or half a dozen chickens through schemes run by charities such as Oxfam.

All very laudable - or is it?

This week, the World Land Trust and Animal Aid condemned as ‘madness' the donation of farm animals to areas where they will add to the problems of drought and desertification. Animal Aid, which campaigns against animal abuse, claims two goats, bought for £125, can reduce the amount of farmland available to local people and result in villages becoming deserted, while a cow, at £750, will drink up to 90 litres of precious water a day.

‘The goat campaign may be a pleasing gift and a short-term fix for milk and meat for a few individuals, but in the long-term the quality of life for these people will slowly be reduced with devastating effect,' explained John Burton, director of the World Land Trust, an international conservation charity.

There's another reason gifting a goat isn't the charitable gesture it appears: handing over money you can well afford to help the poor Africans and making sure Great Auntie Flo knows about it is an altruistic cop-out.

True charity starts at home and is done quietly, without the need for public recognition. It should also, surely, involve a smidgen of effort. As with so many aspects of today's Western culture, our hearts might be in the right place, but we tend to miss the point. Most of us can easily afford to spend £11 buying six chickens, but few of us are prepared to put ourselves out by spending our time helping those less fortunate who live round the corner.

How many people who have enthusiastically handed over money to buy livestock for Africa give even a passing thought to the plight of the little old lady who lives down the street who finds it difficult to get to the shops? How many would eschew their Christmas dinner at home to spend a few hours helping out at a soup kitchen?

It's all very well getting worked up about the poverty of Africa, but the deep-seated problems besetting this darkest of continents will not be solved by the donation of a few thousand cows. On the other hand, the life of an elderly, house-bound widow in the next street could be brightened considerably if we dropped in a couple of times a week for a chat and a cup of tea.

But that kind of thing isn't very glamorous is it? We want to get in on the acts of celebrities such as Geri Halliwell and Emma Thompson, UN and ActionAid ambassadors respectively, who make photogenic trips to African countries to highlight the problems there. Many of us, I suspect, also fancy emulating Madonna and Angelina Jolie by adopting a doe-eyed African baby rather than thinking about the thousands of British children crying out for the love of a good family.

Whether or not giving goats will help Africans, as the season of goodwill looms we would do better to channel our compassion into making our own neighbourhoods a better place before we try to change the lives of people on the other side of the world.


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