How to give it: Martin Bell

Martin Bell, 72, is a former war reporter and independent MP. He reported from 80 countries and 11 wars, including Bosnia, where he was wounded by shrapnel. He recently visited south Sudan in his role as an Unicef Ambassador, prior to its separation from north Sudan, scheduled for this weekend. (

What is the first charity you can remember supporting?

The British Legion. I still support it, and other military charities, as well as Unicef. I see no contradiction in being [both] pro-soldier and pro-peace.

Which cause do you feel most passionately about?

Unicef. I’ve been an ambassador for 10 years, visiting places like Darfur and Yemen where they can’t send celebrities. They don’t like it when I call myself their expendable ambassador, but that’s roughly what I am. It’s not so different from reporting.

Did war reporting affect your views on charity?

I realised the extent to which we live in a fool’s paradise, with many conflicts significantly under reported. I’ve developed a theory that today’s wars are for natural resources like oil and water. I see the Darfur conflict as the first war of climate change, and present hostilities in central Sudan seem to be entirely about oil.

What’s a favourite example of a charity in action?

A marvellous centre run by Italian nuns in West Equatoria, in south-western Sudan. Almost unreported, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a murderous militia driven out of Uganda, are operating there. Originally founded by Unicef for HIV, the centre now takes in children that the LRA had kidnapped to use as servants, guards, sex slaves and soldiers.

Why do people give to charity?

They are aware that most are less fortunate and they want to help. However, without the coverage, there are no funds. Three years ago I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Unicef, where militias had driven Pygmies from their homes. An aid worker said it was similar in scale to the Boxing Day tsunami [2004], but there’d been no coverage and no funds.

Is charity a replacement for ineffective government provision?

To some extent charities are providing the only support that desperate civilians have. South Sudan will be a UN and NGO dependency. Without [organisations] like Save the Children and Oxfam, social infrastructure there would collapse.

How would you like to see charity changed?

New charities almost always replicate a pre-existing one. So I’d like to see fewer new charities, and more co-operation between existing ones.

Is it acceptable for the head of a charity to be on a £100,000-plus salary?

Nobody goes into charity to make money. The head of a charity should receive remuneration comparable to the head teacher of a primary school.

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