Category Archives: Consumerism

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

http://www.the-girl-store.org/shop

One ordinary morning, as I sipped my warm coffee and drowsily listened to reports about all of the various international tragedies that were destroying our planet and people, I received an online message from a friend that directed me to the above website. My friend wanted to know what I thought about the program, as it had recently been touted in the media as a great success.

I opened the website, and was greeted by a video asking me to experience the sensation of buying a girl. No, my friend had not sent me a link to a child prostitution ring, but rather it was a non-profit organization that was in fact trying to ‘save’ these females from being sold into sex slavery. The video suggested that if I did not ‘buy’ these girls, someone else would. As my caffeine began to kick in, and I browsed the website, to be assaulted at every angle by gross generalizations, misinformation and the simplification of a vastly complex issue, I became extremely angry.

Usually these types of projects easily angered me. However, the months of January and February in Canada, are those of freezing temperatures, grey skies and a general feeling of sluggishness. The winter often stunts internal response to outside stimuli, and therefore my strong emotional response took me by surprise. Since no one was present to listen to my dismay, I decided to send a letter to The Girl Store. Both my letter and their (completely inadequate) response are posted below.

________________________________________________________

Dear the Girl Store,

I was recently directed to your website from a friend who had stumbled upon it through jezebel.com (http://jezebel.com/5745169/the-girl-store-wants-you-to-buy-a-girl-her-life-back). I understand your intentions are to improve the conditions of females in Indian, however I find the information on your website promotes ignorance and in the long term will be detrimental to these females. I have reviewed non-profit organizations’ representations of the developing world for my academic work, and have never encountered a website campaign with such a lack of information. Also, my mother’s side of the family came to Canada from Calcutta when she was 15 years old, and I therefore find this personally offensive.

‘”The Indian girl grows up in a society where sons are idolized and daughters are mourned. So if she even makes it out of the womb, 750,000 girls are aborted every year, she is destined to live a life as a lower class citizen. During childhood her brother will get new shoes, clothes and books to learn while she’ll get a broom. Her brother will go off to school, and she’ll stay at home and do chores. In her teenage years, her brother will be well fed and she’ll be left to fend for herself”’.

Referring to an ‘Indian girl’ like they are homogenous entity is dangerous. You are clearly aware of the vast diversity in Indian females, whether class, ethnicity or regional. North Americans do not have this same understanding. We understand India through ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ or World Vision commercials, where children run around in landfills. You are adhering to these stereotypes and presenting us with a utterly simplistic representation of an ‘Indian girl’.

The vast generalization that sons are idolized and daughters are mourned is unreasonable. Of course this happens in some households, as it does in MANY other societies. My grandmother and her brother, became orphans at a young age in Calcutta. My grandmother was able to stay in school, find a job and eventually bring her children to Canada. Her brother was not able to do the same and endured many hardships in a country that ‘idolizes him’. This may be a unique case, but your gross generalization would lead people to think my family’s situation is non-existent. You are disregarding families that work hard to educate both their daughters and sons, and treat them as equal members of society. Equating the issue of male idolization to an Indian problem that happens in every household is wrong and feeds on stereotypes that many North Americans will happily consume (which is probably why you are relying on it).

‘So if she even makes it out of the womb’…

I understand you are trying to be provocative in order to solicit donations from an ignorant population but you really need to rethink the use of this statistic. 750 000 abortions every year out of a population of more than 1 billion is not all that high. In 2008 in the United States, there were 1.2 million abortions, out of country with 307 million people. I am not arguing we should disregard the abortion of females. It is your suggested that this is an Indian problem, that is angering. Twisting these statistics to make your donors feel pity on these females will perpetuate an image of Indian society that is misconstrued and extremely simplistic.

I have mapped trends in non-profit organizations, and have noticed that many are trying to escape the ‘make westerners feel pity’ concept. Many non-profits have realized that this sort of marketing strategy results in westerners’ negative perceptions of specific parts of the world and people. In the end, when westerners do not have a well rounded idea about the country and people they are wanting to help, they turn to methods of development that are inadequate and hazardous.

North Americans’, and more generally westerners’, altruistic actions have often failed overseas. While a combination of factors contribute to these failures, a lack of understanding of the society if often one of them. When organizations trying to improve conditions for disadvantaged groups promote ignorance, it is no wonder we are so often unable to address systemic issues that may result in sustainable change.

Are you okay with your campaign saying:

• Females in Indian are worse off than males (do you not want to speak about class differences, regional differences, historical processes that contributed to this)

• Indians are not capable of addressing this issue (do you really need North Americans to do this? Are you relying on old ideas of development? What message is having your store in New York sending?)

• It is material items that will bring these girls back to life? (do prostitutes and abused females not need counselling and rehabilitation more than shoes?)

I am not contending that educating these females is not what should be done. My grandmother was able to be successful because as an orphan she was allowed to stay in school. However, it disgusts me that if she was in the same situation today she could have been placed on a website, in a demure tragic pose, and been brought back to life by the purchasing power of a North American. It is the way you are presenting and selling this issue that I find extremely problematic and offensive.

If you do genuinely want to help these females, you should allow their complexities to come through in your advertisements. Each female comes from a different family and background, and she has her own story. If you are attempting to help a specific class of females, please do not equate them to the entire Indian population. Many non-profit organizations do offer sections on their websites that provide donors with background information, links to educational websites and other resources that allow individuals to hopefully get a better understanding of the contextual issues.

While your campaign has been successful in garnering donations I urge you to rethink the simplistic story, ridden with dangerous stereotypes that you are selling to North Americans. You have turned these females into commodities for guilt ridden North Americans. Do not assume your ends justify your means, the males who picked up some of these females as prostitutes, probably too assumed at least the money would help them have a better life.

I sincerely urge you to rethink the ‘Buy a Girl her Life Back’ campaign.

_______________________________________________________

Dear Ms,

This is in response to your email to Nanhi Kali on support@nanhikali.org on the 1st February 2011, please find below a brief on the campaign www.the-girl-store.org as well Project Nanhi Kali.

-Why the Girl Store?

www.the-girl-store.org is an innovative website created by StrawberryFrog for Nanhi Kali. The core idea reiterated throughout the site is that the life of an underprivileged girl is not a condemned fait accompli. It is up to the viewers to change her destiny by ‘buying’ her life back – empowering her through education. The funds raised through online donations on the store will provide educational support to over 161 underprivileged girls in India. Our agency designed the site to be provocative to create an initial shock and awareness of the campaign and break through the wall of indifference. The website not only puts the issue of uneducated girls being most vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking  up front, but also provides the viewer with a solution to join the fight against it by sponsoring the education of young girls.

Brief background of Project Nanhi Kali –

Nanhi Kali is a holistic sponsorship project which provides educational support to over 61,000 underprivileged girls from poor urban, remote rural, tribal and conflict afflicted communities across 8 states of India, while focusing on local, sustainable solutions involving community engagement and participation. Project Nanhi Kali is managed by 2 reputed not for profits, K C Mahindra Education Trust & Naandi Foundation both committed to positively impacting India’s development landscape through their work with women and children in marginalized communities. Since 2005, the two have been partnering along with various government agencies and corporate to provide 10 years of quality education to girls from economically disadvantaged families in India so that they can grow into self reliant women who in turn will educate their girls and thereby break the inter generational cycle of poverty and exploitation. Nanhi Kali provides the girls not only at academic support through 1-2 hour classes where concepts of language and maths are taught enabling them to achieve grade specific learning competency levels, but also material support in the form of uniforms, school bag, shoes socks etc. which allow the girl  to attend school with dignity. The teaching methodology includes the extensive use of innovative teaching tools and activities such as story telling, group games etc which make learning not only meaningful but also fun. Baseline and end line assessment tests are conducted to track learning levels of the girls. Nanhi Kalis are selected based on multiple criteria including family income, parents’ educational background and social background with most of them being first generation learners. Nanhi Kali is all about positive discrimination and works extensively with parents and communities to sensitize them on gender issues. The project has witnessed phenomenal success with girls even in conflict afflicted areas such as Chhattisgarh becoming district level toppers, creating positive ripple effects of reluctant village elders now becoming torch bearers for girls education in their communities.

Details of the actual interventions can be seen on websites www.nanhikali.org and www–naandi.org

If you would like any further information, please email me at this email id.

Regards,

Sheetal Mehta

Trustee & Executive Director

Project Nanhi Kali

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Filed under Charity, Consumerism, Current Events, Development, International Development, Uncategorized

“At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities”

Since my first Mad Magazine at age 6, I have always been a huge fan of satire. A variety of satirical sources have become incredibly popular, more prominently The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and the Onion. These programs and publications, humorously illustrate the inadequacies of our news sources, while drawing our attention to the absurdities of our society. ‘How to write about Africa’ is a satirical piece that is able to address the overabundance of problematic representations of Africa in literature and print. Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece may not have received such attention if it had been written in a journalistic or academic style of writing. Perhaps appealing to the shared human experience that is humour and laughter makes satire so popular, compared to appealing to intellect.

Satire may be great for a good laugh, and to numb the anger that Fox News or The Star can so easily induce. However, there are those that contend that satire is another source of misinformation and results in cynicism rather than action. If this is the case, then we are breeding many sceptics and cynical individuals.  In the United States, more people are currently watching ‘fake news’,

“In the US, a poll for Time magazine asked who was America’s most trusted newscaster following Walter Cronkite’s death. More than two fifths said Jon Stewart, the host of fake news show The Daily Show. Stewart beat more established news anchors including Katie Couric. Stewart’s show attracts 1.8 million viewers a night compared to 1.2 million for CNN’s highest-rate politics show’.

(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/6155175/How-much-influence-does-satire-have-on-current-affairs.html)

It is difficult to differentiate whether The Daily Show’s popularity reflects Jon Stewart’s likeability, or citizens’ fatigue of the awful news sources in the US, or an inability to take current issues seriously. Whatever the case, with so many people consuming political satire, it is worth pondering the implications.

  • Is political satire’s main value merely its humour and in order to be ‘effective’ it must be supplemented with ‘real’ news?
  • Is satirical news replacing ‘real’ news?
  • Does satire spread misinformation to a population who does not have adequate news sources?
  • Does a source that ridicules the current state of affairs lead people to be cynical and complacent or does it challenge them to think about the world in more creative ways?

For myself, I find satire is a means of illustrating that at the basis of the many crises in our society are deep routed systemic issues. While the Daily Show ridicules the individual actions of politicians and news commentators, it also more profoundly attacks the current state of journalism, politics and education in the United States.

As a viewer of satire, I no doubt bring my background into my viewing experience, and thus satire obviously resonates differently with various individuals. Perhaps what irritates critics of satire is that no solution, or avenue for action is offered. But quite rightly there is no single solution, to the multitude of national and international issues we.  While we are barraged with complex issues daily, sometimes it is necessary to laugh at how screwed up everything is.

To end this blog post I would like to include a bit of satire. Please enjoy the following video from the Onion that challenges the ultraistic nature of development work and the role of celebrities in development.

How Can We Let Darfur Know How Much We’re Doing For Them?


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Filed under Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina, Celebrity, Consumerism, Current Events, How to write about Africa, Politics

I may have spoken too soon.

 

Directly after finishing my blog post about the worst non-profit advertisement, I came across a program titled ‘Buy a Sex Toy, Save a Child – A Revolutionary Program’. At first I thought this must be an article written by the Onion, but no sadly it is true. 

The press release for this program reads:

“The Buy a Sex toy, save a child Charity Program is our commitment to society. We’ve always known that a sustainable business needs the support of healthy communities and a high quality environment. We aim to be the most trusted retailer wherever we trade by demonstrating a clear sense of social responsibility. ” said Jessica Blake, Sinless Touch Vice President of Corporate Communications.

SinlessTouch.com is the first adult novelty company committed to philanthropy as a way of reaching out to its customers. It is something nobody has ever done in the industry. Sinless Touch is adopting children worldwide through the donations made by generous customers. During checkout, customers have the option to round up their purchases and donate electronic “spare change” to a charitable cause. The donation is included in their payment.

“Our customers have embraced the program with open arms and the feedback we have received is phenomenal. It creates opportunities in a variety of different areas that provide practical assistance to impoverished communities such as Education, Health and Early Childhood Development. ” said Blake.

Customers can also check the adopted child’s status on SinlessTouch.com. It provides an update of each child’s well-being through a non-profit social development organization.

“This commitment has revolutionized the way we do business and its benefits translate into educated and empowered children who can contribute positively to every aspect of society. Therefore, creating a standard for the future.” says Blake.

The Buy a Sex toy, Save a child Charity Program is Sinless Touch’s commitment to society. It aims be the most trusted adult retailer wherever they trade by demonstrating a clear sense of social responsibility.

While the unicef germany advertisement was a striking reminder of all that is wrong with development, the Buy a Sex Toy, Save a Child program is a poignant example of how development through consumerism is so incredibly disconnected from the so-called issues being addressed.

Buy a vibrator, save a child.

Masterbate and cure aids.

Feel the pleasure of our items and of the smile on the face of a poor child.

I have written extensively in other blog posts about how I believe consumerism as development is harmful to knowledge transfer regarding development issues and may effectively be damaging to those receiving the so-called benefits. Instead of going on another rant about development as consumerism I would like to let the Buy A Sex Toy, Save a Child program stand for itself. I would also like to re-give the award for the worst development advertisement to the lovely people at Sinless Touch, you truly deserve it.

Please visit the link below to enjoy the worst video ad of all time.

http://www.24-7pressrelease.com/press-release/buy-a-sex-toy-save-a-child-a-revolutionary-program-99643.php

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Filed under Consumerism, Current Events, Development, International Development

And the award for the most offensive development ad goes to…

I recently had to search for non-profit advertisements to display at an event. Sifting through the various advertisements I came across the ‘crying hungry child’ vs. ‘beautiful smiling child’, that are often associated with non-profit advertisements.

However, it was not long before I spotted the pictures, hiding within the images of google search, it was the gem of non-profit advertising, which can only be described as the most ridiculous advertisement of all time.

The advertisement shown above was part of a Unicef Germany campaign raising funds for education in Africa. As if the pictures themselves are not offensive enough the text on the ads can be translated to:

First kid: “I’m waiting for my last day in school, the children in africa still for their first one.”

Second kid: “In africa, many kids would be glad to worry about school”

Third kid: “In africa, kids don’t come to school late, but not at all”

Fourth kid: “Some teachers suck. no teachers sucks even more.”

My initial reaction can be best described as:

1)     What the f*ck?????????????????

2)     Africa is not a f*cking country.

3)     Where in Africa are they talking about?

4)     Do they not think children in whatever part of Africa they are talking about go to school?

5)     Who at unicef okay’d these ads?????????

After getting over my initial disbelief I rapidly searched google for others as shocked as I was with these advertisements. I came across the following blog posting, that helped ease my sense of isolated anger:

Besides claiming that every single person in “Africa” isn’t educated, and doing so in an extremely patronising way, it is also disturbing that this organisation thinks blackfacing kids with mud (!) equals “relating to african children”. Also, the kids’ statements ignore the existence of millions of african academics and regular people and one again reduces a whole continent to a village of muddy uneducated uncivilized people who need to be educated (probably by any random westerner). This a really sad regression.

Bottom lines of this campaign are: Black = mud = African = uneducated. White = educated. We feel this campaign might do just as much harm as it does any good.

The above post by Mulatto Diaries perfectly summarized my sentiments.

Also found on this blog was a statement from Unicef:

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We agree — these advertisements are not appropriate and run against UNICEF’s mission. They have been dropped from the UNICEF German National Committee’s website and there are no plans to use them in the future. We apologize for any offence caused.

As a UNICEF supporter, you may be interested to know a little more about the German National Committee’s campaign to promote child-friendly schools in six African countries. Launched in late 2004, the campaign aims to raise awareness of the fact that nearly half of all children in Africa lack even primary education.

With funds from private donors, 350 schools have been repaired or newly constructed. In addition, several thousand teachers have been trained and school management improved. In total, around 100,000 children and young people have benefited from this campaign since 2004. The right to education for all children is a prerequisite to develop their full potential and a basis for social and economic development. Again, we apologize for any offense caused’.

While it is great Unicef responded to their critics by pulling the ads, let us keep in mind that  the communication/marketing team from Unicef Germany worked with their ad. agency to come up with the concept for this advertisement and then thought it was acceptable to launch alongside a campaign to raise funds for schools in ‘Africa’. It could be overlooked if it was only Unicef creating these highly offensive advertisements, or if these ads were acknowledged as the sad ‘regression’ Mulatto Diaries claims them as. Unfortunatly, what struck me while searching through online advertisements was the trend within the development community in their use of these sort of ‘creative advertisements’. In perhaps an attempt to move away from the sad child vs. happy child ad paradigm, many non-profits have been using advertising agencies to create ‘satirical type’ ads.

Here are a few more examples:

Ads by People in Need- You spend so much money on products why not buy some Africa hapiness?

Ad by War Child Canada- Send weapons to Uganda, no wait don’t, give War Child money to take away weapons from Uganda?

I have spent a great deal of time researching and articulating what I perceive as a continued discourse of development between the sad child,  happy child, and satirical ads. However, explaining my findings would be too lengthy. What I want to pose through this blog post is what ideas of the ‘developing world’ and ‘development’ these various advertisements project? Do the three different type of ads project various ideas? How are they similar? How are they different?

When viewing the advertisements and the campaigns they are attached to, how are the following questions answered?

Who must be helped?

Who must do the helping?

What does this help mean?

In my own opinion, while these advertisements may use different images, they all can be understood as answering these questions in the same way. As they are all connected to non-profit organizations that are involved in the business of development, it cannot come as a surprise. Ads are merely a quick glimpse into how confined and restricted our ideas and methods of ‘development’ are. It is not until our notions of development are changed, or until we finally discard development as a viable option that images linked to development discourses are likely to change. Advertisements such as the one by unicef germany, while extremely offensive, may be useful in illustrating just how problematic development practices currently are.

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Filed under Africa, Consumerism, Development, International Development, Uncategorized

Giving Without Borders- See the World and Make a Difference at the Same Time

Imagine, for a moment, the situation is the other way around – a recent arrival froma ‘Third World’ country arrives at your workplace…this person turns up out of the blue, having been invited by a fellow expatriate…. the person is not paid, but has sufficient private resources to live in the best part of town and it is clear that he/she will not be expected to conform to the hours of the working day or the days of the working week. This person apparently wants to help in some unspecified way but does not speak the language, knows next to nothing of the history of culture and has no idea of existing professional levels of expertise, nor of expectations. And yet this person expects to be given useful, meaningful work immediately and, what’s more, to be instantly socially accepted (Goudge 2003: 11).

In her work, The Whiteness of Power: Racism in Third World Development and Aid (a highly recommended read), Paulette Goudge incorporates an examination of holidays aimed at helping the ‘needy’, into her overall argument. Goudge analyses the VSO (Volunteer Service Organisation) working holiday advertisements and their representation of the ‘third world’ as an exotic other, where westerners are able to escape their mundane lives and live like the locals for a few months (2003: 35). Without delving too deeply into her work, Goudge raises important issues that are often overlooked, regarding the implications of overseas volunteer programs, which can be related to the featured article.

The above pictures are taken from ‘O’ magazine, Oprah Winfrey’s publication which features articles on the latest diets, trends and ‘inspirational’ topics, all jammed in between a ridiculous amount of advertisements. This article titled ‘A One-Man International Aid Organization’ is about Barton Brooks an ex real estate broker. According to Sara Corbett, the author of the article, Brooks left his meaningless job and took to ‘Traveling the world donating clothing, wheelchairs, books, and chickens (when he [was not] not laying bricks, building wells, and planting trees)” (http://www.oprah.com/world/Barton-Brooks-Global-Colors-Mission-Giving-Back_1/1). In the article, Brooks advocates for individuals to become involved in what he calls Guerrilla Aid. This form of ‘aid’ consists of tourists, leaving their luxury resorts to spend a few days donating their skills to development projects. Brooks advocates, ‘”If you’re on vacation in Cancún [and] there are three orphanages within driving distance, why don’t you make that part of your spring break? Go in, do something, get out ” (Corbett, 3).

While Brooks advocates for people to get involved with this Guerrilla Aid, author Corbett warns it is not without risk. Brooks has ‘been stranded on an empty stretch of the Mekong River after the boat he was traveling on broke down. He’s had dysentery and bug bites. And last March, while riding a motorbike on a rural road in Uganda, Brooks came around a blind corner and was hit head-on by a truck. He broke his right shoulder, lacerated his face, and shattered his left arm and several bones in his left leg’ (Corbett, 3). Do not fear though, illness and injury could not stop Brooks’ heroic character and he continues to bring his ‘Guerrilla Aid’ brand of development to the  ‘third world’.

My first contact with this article initially made me want to:

1)    Go on my own guerilla mission and find our dear Barton Brooks to ‘discuss’ his new meaningful life

2)    Rewire my brain so I could skim through an ‘O’ magazine and enjoy these inspirational stories and beautiful advertisements

3)    Retreat into a hole somewhere far away from humans

Luckily, I have recovered from my initial shock and compiled a few of my thoughts on what I perceive as the issues with this idea of ‘development’. Brooks’ idea of leaving the resort for a few days and becoming involved with the local people, has a multitude of contentious points. I would like to however focus on more of the institutionalization of this idea. It is not just Brooks, but various individuals and organizations that advocate for these brands of volunteer holidays. VSO, as reviewed by Goudge is merely one of thousands of organizations that uses images of lands ripe with giraffes and lions and peoples in straw roofed huts, with colourful rings adorning their long slender necks, to entice North Americans to go overseas.

What these development programs generally involve are:

1)   Paying a rather large fee for flight and accommodation (how do you say business scheme in development talk?)

2)   Some sort of pre trip information course – “ The cultural norms may differ, as these people have different customs. You may have to cover your knees and shoulders when it is very hot outside.

The conditions may be different, we will not always have hot water or cool air, but do not worry our last weekend we will spend in a 5 star resort to recuperate after all our hard work”

3)   The trip- Building something, teaching a health curriculum to the locals ‘this is how you properly wash your hands’ etc.

4)   A post trip presentation in a North American school, community centre etc.- “ The people were so welcoming and grateful. They had so little but were so happy, my life is changed forever…’

I am not condemning North Americans’ ability to travel and be exposed to various cultures (as I have taken advantage of this privilege).  What I am critical of is the portrayal of this travel as ‘development’ or as beneficial to the overseas communities North Americans visit. Aligned with North American discourse on development, these holidays depict ‘development’ as taking place in the ‘third world’ with help from the ‘first world’, rather than ‘development’ meaning the targeting of unfair global economic policies or North American consumption patterns etc.

If you have been involved with one of these overseas ‘development’ initials, like I have, you have witnessed the ways in which this ‘help’ disrupts everyday activities. Having volunteered at a school overseas, I quickly realized my help was not needed, as the local teachers were entirely more qualified than I was. However, I was welcomed, listened to and rarely critiqued, which speaks greatly to the power relations these overseas trips enforce. Goudge examines this solidification of power relations through volunteer holidays, which she locates in racially charged imagery and racial relations. As Goudge recognizes, if we are honest with ourselves, these trips act as more of a resume builder ie- international experience for us North Americans, rather than to create sustainable development in the communities we visit.

What I am trying to outline is that international development has taken the shape of travel holidays in North America. I think it is essential we review the implications of this understanding of development, questioning who these holidays actually aim to help and what ideas of the ‘third world’ this form of ‘development’ disseminates to the North American public.

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Filed under Consumerism, Current Events, Development, Guerilla Aid, International Development, Paulette Goudge, Politics, Power of Whiteness, The First World, The Third World

Purchasing the Eradication of Poverty

In a massive grocery superstore, clinical in character, housing any product your heart desires to purchase, you can find them. They sit on one of the hundreds of shelves, pressed in between a few of the thousand of products. The packaging looks relatively similar to all the other products except in one of the corners a small symbol with the words ‘fairtrade certified’ can be found.

In Canada, fair trade products include Coffee, Tea, Cocoa, Cotton, Flowers, Fruit, Grains, Spices and Herbs, Nuts and Oils, Sports Balls, Sugar and Wine (http://transfair.ca/en/products/products-canada). According to TransFair Canada, fair trade “seeks to change the terms of trade for the products we buy – to ensure the farmers and artisans behind those products get a better deal. Most often this is understood to mean ensuring better prices for producers, but it often also includes longer-term and more meaningful trading relationships” (http://transfair.ca/ en/about-fairtrade/what-fair-trade).

Fair trade products, in particularly coffee and tea have become a popular purchase. Corporate chains such as Starbucks, Tim Hortons and Second Cup often offer a brand of fair trade products, while grocery stores provide consumers with the opportunity to choose from a few brands. Would you like to support Ethiopian, Ecuadorian or Columbian farmers through your purchase? In North American grocery stores, you get to choose. While many consumers may not know the fine details of what fair trade entails, they understand it as a more ethical purchase, with benefits going to the ‘third world’.

An article in The Economist titled ‘ How Fair is It?’ reviews a piece from the New York Times on fair trade. An excerpt from this article illustrates the ambiguity and potential negative consequences of fair trade:

It seems like a lovely idea. Conscientious consumers are willing to pay more for goods produced in what is viewed as a less exploitative manner. But how well does the model hold up in practice? Dani Rodrik notes a few inconsistencies. He points out that fair-trade products often sell at no markup in retail stores, a matter explained away by retailers who claim they’ve achieved efficiency gains with fair-trade producers, allowing them to pay more for the product and still maintain their profit margins. Mr Rodrik continues:

Now, which one of us really know what “fair trade” certification is really getting us when we consume a product with that label? The market-based principle animating the movement is based on the idea that consumers are willing to pay something extra for certain social goals they value. But clearly there is an opaqueness in what the transaction is really about. And who gets to decide what the “long list of rules” should be, if not the consumer herself?

Consider some of the requirements that the fair trade purchaser imposes. The Brazilian coffee farmer mentioned in the NYT story above has to make sure that his children are enrolled in school. Wait a minute, the economist in you should say. Isn’t the farmer himself a better judge of how his extra income should be spent? Should these decisions be made by Starbucks instead? (http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2007/10/is_it_fair)

There have been various critiques of fair trade, especially regarding the idea of a wholly positive purchasing option. The examination by Rodrick of fair trade products, questions the public’s awareness of what fair trade actually entails. While the fair trade debate is extensive and only a surface level examination can be offered in this blog post, I’d like to examine a few issues I find pressing.

I have often engaged in debates regarding consumerism as a means to ‘development’. The idea that North Americans can purchase goods to save one African child or to improve the livelihood of farmers overseas is interesting or perhaps a better adjective is irritating.  The problem I have with purchasing as ‘development’ is the disconnect from the issues that are supposedly being addressed. You can purchase a hotly brewed coffee and contribute to a farmer in Bolivia’s community, you can buy a RED t-shirt and help eradicate AIDS in Africa or you can sponsor a child in Bangldesh for one dollar a day and improve her/his life (which you will get updates of through cute letters and pictures of her/his beautiful face).

What is lacking from these various scenarios is any debate regarding this notion of development and the construction of the ‘third world’ it promotes. If your engagement with ‘development’ ends after you have handed over your credit card, what understanding of the so-called issues have you gained? Development as consumerism is not conducive to knowledge transfer, as you are able to ‘help’ without too much thought about who you are helping. I believe the consequences of this may be devastating. If we know nothing about the people, communities or nations we are supposedly helping, and only know that these products cost more than non-fair trade ones to help someone, somewhere, what happens during times of economics crisis? NGOs were some of the organizations most impacted during the recent economic crisis. When finances become tight, why would individuals purchase goods that are more expensive? If individuals merely have an abstract idea that they are helping eradicate poverty, when their bank balances are drying up, this may not be a good enough reason.

An assumption underlying fair trade is that it is within the realm of consumerism that development should be situated. In North American society, all can be purchased. Self-esteem can be purchased through the newest makeup product or plastic surgery procedure, elite status can be purchased through a designer bag clearly marked with two large C’s and now the feeling that you have eradicated poverty can be purchased in your local store. This occupation with the assertion that making purchases is the only means for everyday citizens to be involved with the ‘third world’ has pervaded development thought and thus materialized in our understanding of development as consumerism.

I believe what is needed, rather than a conversation regarding how we can make fair trade more widespread, is an examination of the implications of fair trade. What message does fair trade disseminate regarding the ‘third world’ and understandings of development? What role does consumerism occupy in North Americans’ understanding of poverty eradication?  I think more thought must be given to the forms in which development takes in the ‘first world’ beginning with this idea of development as consumerism. I hope to address this issue more extensively in future blog posts.

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Filed under Consumerism, Current Events, Economics, Fair Trade, International Development, The First World, The Third World

International Development

It is them- with their dirty water, rickety housing, high mortality rates.

Them-with their lack of education, employment, understanding of what is good for them.

Them- with their unconventional cultural rituals, impeding the ability for us to help them.

It is us that will help them.

Help them to develop in our image.

Not by force- not like colonialism, no not like that.

Not by persuasion- no not like those methods forced upon them through World Bank and IMF policies.

But through empowerment.

We will help them, help themselves.

We will provide them with our knowledge, so they will know how to tend to the wells we build for them.

They will be able to teach within the sturdy buildings we enact for them as schools.

And we will help them understand how the economy works, how they must adopt comparative advantage, farm the right product, be successful.

We will travel to their resorts and gawk at their exotic animals, bringing them income and employment.

But do not worry, we will also travel for a day to their villages to experience the real conditions they live in.

We will buy the products, the fair trade products, the products that claim to provide them with fair wages.

We will sponsor them. We will phone in to those programs on television and pay one dollar a day. We will pay so they can have three meals, so they can move out of their mud huts and to ensure they will no longer have to live with flies on their faces.

And we will learn about them.

In our large educational facilities, we will read academic articles about them.

We will write essays regarding methods of changing their conditions- an introduction to become familiar with them, a few body paragraphs comparing the positive and negative development methods currently changing their societies, and then a conclusion to summarize the proper procedure for us to help them.

We will view videos about their conditions. These videos will both shock and inspire us. We will engage in ferocious debate, we will debate about the best means to help them.

Experts will come to our institutions to educate us, they will educate us about them, the experts, they will tell us how to help them.

We will hold events to educate the rest of the student body about these issues, and attempt to get them to understand the problem.

The problem that we will solve.

We will help them.

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Filed under Aid, Consumerism, Development, Fair Trade, International Development, Politics, The First World, The Third World