World view - Michela Wrong has mixed feelings about charity

By providing food that averts a famine, charities protect dictators from the people's wrath. So is i

It arrives every couple of months, an airmail letter, fragile as tissue paper, with exotic stamp and hesitantly spelt address. The notepaper is decorated with roses and lace. The message, with its juxtaposition of politeness and passion, always slightly unsettles me, although by now I should know better. "Dear Mum," the letter usually starts, although sometimes it begins "My darling". "I hope you are well. I am studying hard. But oh, the longing . . ."

I have met her only once, my pining correspondent. She is Semret, a 19-year-old Eritrean student with glowing eyes, so petite she made me feel a hulking giant. Our relationship is entirely platonic, and very pragmatic. I send the books she needs for her university course; she confirms receipt. But nuance is the hardest thing to grasp when using a foreign language. Hence, I assume, the "life feels empty without you" and "I miss you too much" that top and tail her replies. I have a sneaky suspicion Semret is copying these sign-offs from the dusty Valentine's Day cards sold by newsagents in Asmara. But I am not about to correct her. I can remember the exasperation I felt when my French schoolteacher insisted that "Bons baisers" ("Love and kisses") - the only salutation I could spell with confidence - was not the right way to close a job application. It seemed a very tedious detail.

Semret represents a new stage in my attempt to spread - at however paltry a level - my western privileges around the developing world. Any expatriate who has lived in Africa faces the same challenge. Every day, you are confronted by deprivation so extreme that you will be for ever able to stride past London's rough sleepers without feeling a twinge of guilt. You want to help, but how?

My generosity towards the Oxfams and Concerns of this world dried up early on. It wasn't because I suspected them of corruption. Nor because I feared most of my donations would be spent on white men's salaries, though that is still often the case. The longer I spent in Africa, the more convinced I became that these charities were destroying the thing they professed to want: accountable government. Provide the water that prevents a cholera outbreak, the food that averts a famine, and you protect a regime from the people's wrath, allowing a brutal dictator to live another day.

So what was left? Most of us expatriates reverted to direct aid. Cut out the middleman and help those you've come into contact with: former secretaries, cleaners, cooks and drivers. It's small stuff, but through the extended family, an entire community may benefit as a result.

Yet even that is fraught with difficulty. Looking back, I see that my personalised efforts have often uncannily mirrored the experiences of western donor countries dealing with needy African governments.

Take Kenya, to which, during the regime of Daniel arap Moi, the International Monetary Fund suspended aid in exasperation at the unremitting sleaze. My own benevolence shrivelled when I realised my prospective recipient, then working for me, was in cahoots with shopkeepers to rip me off. I could never be sure how much I was losing, and the knowledge I was being taken for a ride made me keep my purse zipped tight.

Then there was the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire. The late Mobutu Sese Seko turned blagging into an art form, funnelling World Bank money into his Riviera estates and lavish gifts for his mistresses. Every time I went to Kinshasa, I'd slip a couple of hundred-dollar bills to Francis, my former driver, the amount he said he needed to make a down payment on a replacement for his old taxi, dissolving in a puddle of rust. Whenever I returned, Francis would still be loafing around. No wheels, no customers. Instead, his nubile girlfriend - all sulky pout and tossing braids - would be sporting a fetching new minidress.

Despairing, at both a personal and a political level, of any break in Congo's self-destructive cycle, I turned to Eritrea. The single-minded focus of the Eritreans I had met, determined to build a new state after decades of war, took my breath away. Here, I felt, a little would go a long way. I asked a friend if he knew anyone who needed help, and he put me in touch with Semret, first in her family to reach secondary school.

But Semret's experience, too, has echoed Eritrea's own. The country's prospects have been crippled by a second, unresolved war with Ethiopia. The president keeps a huge standing army mobilised, in case hostilities break out. Like every Eritrean youngster, Semret's education has had to take second place to national service. The economy is in crisis, which makes me wonder to what use she will put her eventual degree.

In the meantime, something else is worrying me. When Semret first started writing, her English was shaky but comprehensible. In the past year, it has become increasingly incoherent. With every dictionary and textbook I send, it seems to take a dive. I suspect there is a lesson in here somewhere, but I haven't yet worked out what it is.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2004 issue of the New Statesman, What Brown would do in No 10