The Gifts of Hope
December 19, 2010 1:16 PM   Subscribe

A Humanitarian Gift Guide: Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a scarf from a brothel survivor.

One of the paradoxes of living in a wealthy country is that we accumulate tremendous purchasing power, yet it’s harder and harder for us to give friends and family presents that are meaningful. In this holiday season, sometimes a scarf from a prostituted Cambodian girl, or a scholarship for a Zambian child, is the most heartwarming gift of all.
posted by MrBCID (26 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
yeeeeaaaahh.

I have mixed feelings about the organizations that have people make something. I work in the knitting industry, where a lot of people have made a lot of money off of yarn with a story - recycled sari silk, handspun fibers made by abused women, etc. etc. etc. I am all for giving disenfranchised people tools to make themselves economically self-sufficient, but I have problems with the weird first-world fetishization that goes along with it. Oh look at the delicate craftsmanship, the tiny stitches! Only a former sex slave could have done it! Look at this scarf! Can't you practically smell the righteousness in it? This bracelet is so wonderful - no one makes bracelets quite like women escaping patriarchal terrorism do!

Maybe it's not *quite* like that, but a lot of the marketing around this stuff smacks of it. It makes for a weird dilemma - certainly you want to support these efforts, and maybe if it helps them sell more stuff the objectification is just fine. The attitudes of the consumers can be pretty gross, though.
posted by peachfuzz at 1:26 PM on December 19, 2010 [12 favorites]


terrorism was the wrong word - I should have said oppression.
posted by peachfuzz at 1:28 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


A Humanitarian Gift Guide:

I would't give a humanitarian as a gift. They struggle against the wrapping paper, making them difficult to package.
posted by jonmc at 1:36 PM on December 19, 2010 [15 favorites]


Peachfuzz, I'm a little confused about what it is that bothers you. Can you explain a little more? I guess I look at it as an item that I would buy one way or another, but if the money can go to a worthy cause then I'll go that route. Am I missing something?
posted by monkeymadness at 1:36 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the paradoxes of living in a wealthy country is that we accumulate tremendous purchasing power, yet it’s harder and harder for us to give friends and family presents that are meaningful.

I'm all for donating, etc. but there's some serious privilege in the assumption that everyone can afford to give presents in the first place. I've spent all of 2010 living paycheck to paycheck - a working vacuum cleaner would be meaningful to me at this point.
posted by yeloson at 1:42 PM on December 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Awareness of a cause goes a long way...
posted by MrBCID at 1:42 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


monkeymadness, the way I read it is that the item's origin, in and of itself, should be enough reason to buy it and maybe add a little good to the world. But buying it because of the marketing--look! sexy oppression! those starving kids your parents told you about at the dinner table! objects shaped by women who bled under their husbands' fists!--that's a little disturbing. For me, it's like the difference between quietly doing a good thing because it's the right thing to do, and purchasing smug self-righteousness at the cost of a (theoretical) person's invisible dignity.

tl;dr: Less spectacle and more opportunity, please.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:49 PM on December 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thank you for this post, Mr. BCID. I try to buy most of my presents from charities and there are lots of good ideas in that article.

Here's another organization to add to the list: SERRV.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 1:52 PM on December 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Peachfuzz is talking about the habit of ethical branding. Like greenwashing, because consumers like to buy things that make them feel giving it's a bragging point to own something that's makes them a better person. In the case of the eco-conscious, slapping a "sustainable!" sticker on things is now sensible marketing, where as a humanitarian purchase has been "blessed" by suffering.

While allowing people to work for a living and providing food, medical aid and training are all commendable, it's a little weird feeling to buy something based on authenticity of misery it stops being about giving them cash to help and starts being about how valuable the abysmal life of the producer was to the product.
posted by Phalene at 1:55 PM on December 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I guess I look at it as an item that I would buy one way or another

Would you, though? I guess some people would go, "I need a shirt. I'll buy this one because it's the same quality as the other, and it benefits charity." If that's the entire thought process, there's certainly no harm in it.

But part of the marketing spin of some of these products is the smugness that goes part and parcel with an oh-so-precious fashion accessory. "Look at me! It's handmade! I gave to charity! Aren't I so much better than you for making better choices?" And that's as far as the charitable notion goes: charity as this season's look. But what happens next season? Are we pitting Guatemalan peasant style against Afghani peasant style?

Better yet -- if the aim of a charity is sustainable economy and education, there are far better ways to do it than handmade rugs.

You can put five women to work making handmade rugs that get shipped overseas to sit one your floor.

Or you can put 100 women to work in a concrete plant that makes low-cost building materials that the locals can use to build new houses that we blew to kingdom come. Oh, but wait. Factories are bad. Worse, they're often run by corporations.

Forget I said anything. Nice scarf.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:57 PM on December 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


peachfuzz: "I have problems with the weird first-world fetishization that goes along with it. Oh look at the delicate craftsmanship, the tiny stitches! Only a former sex slave could have done it! Look at this scarf! Can't you practically smell the righteousness in it? This bracelet is so wonderful - no one makes bracelets quite like women escaping patriarchal terrorism do!"

MonkeyToes: "buying it because of the marketing--look! sexy oppression! those starving kids your parents told you about at the dinner table! objects shaped by women who bled under their husbands' fists!--that's a little disturbing. For me, it's like the difference between quietly doing a good thing because it's the right thing to do, and purchasing smug self-righteousness at the cost of a (theoretical) person's invisible dignity."

Where do you guys get this stuff from? What's with all the eye-rolling that comes from someone joining together merchandise for sale and supporting a good causes or causes? It seems like your problem is more with the some of the people who might buy such things with the purpose of lording their good-naturedness over you, but even so, so what? The money still helps people.

Honestly, I see this sort of sneering every year, people projecting the nastiest, most superficial motivations onto people who are just trying to help other people out a little bit. It's mind-boggling to me. How dare people feel good about donating charity. How dare they feel satisfied about trying to help others. Christ.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:58 PM on December 19, 2010 [17 favorites]


One of the paradoxes of living in a wealthy country is that we accumulate tremendous purchasing power, yet it’s harder and harder for us to give friends and family presents that are meaningful.

I'm all for donating, etc. but there's some serious privilege in the assumption that everyone can afford to give presents in the first place.


Who made this assumption?
posted by John Cohen at 2:00 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cool Papa Bell said:

You can put five women to work making handmade rugs that get shipped overseas to sit one your floor.

Or you can put 100 women to work in a concrete plant that makes low-cost building materials that the locals can use to build new houses that we blew to kingdom come.


Excellent! Didn't know this was an option! Instead of giving another cow or beehive through the Heifer Project, I'll happily donate to this organization. Got any contact info? Or are you just blowing smoke?
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 2:09 PM on December 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow. I rarely see a point missed so thoroughly. I mean, you really took a strong cut at that one and managed to miss it entirely. That ain't easy. Kudos.

OK, you really want to play the game? Here's one -- the Peace Corps brings a rice-hulling machine to Madagascar to increase production and divert resources away from the need to do shit by hand. That was a 30-second Google trick. Try it sometime.

Nice scarf.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:26 PM on December 19, 2010


I came off as pretty strident right out of the gate. Sorry about that.

I am suggesting that making human suffering into a branding opportunity is problematic. Maybe the linked organizations don't do that, I don't know. And as I said, if it means that more people buy it and the workers get more money in the end, maybe no one loses.

I work with/know a lot of people who are doing good, hard work on getting craftspeople paid a fair wage, stopping exploitative practices, building cooperative efforts, restoring dignity and sustainability to traditional trades. I also know some people who have found a source of cheap labor to make their luxury good, along with a great marketing hook.

In both cases, the money comes from being able to sell a feel-good story to consumers. Like I said, I have mixed feelings about it.
posted by peachfuzz at 2:34 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Who made this assumption?

Emphasized for your reading comprehension:

"One of the paradoxes of living in a wealthy country is that we accumulate tremendous purchasing power, yet it’s harder and harder for us to give friends and family presents that are meaningful."

Note the argument is that "all this money is making it harder to buy meaningful gifts"... which, also assumes you are one of the folks with all this money, or the problem of buying meaningful gifts.
posted by yeloson at 2:41 PM on December 19, 2010


Jeez, a link to gifts from charities turns into an opportunity for people to out-righteous eachother. Only on meFi.
posted by jonmc at 2:42 PM on December 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Marisa Stole the Precious Thing, I'm not sneering, and I don't object to good being done through purchases. You're right about my problem lying with the lording of the good-naturedness, and you're right about the end result being help for people who need it. (I have supported MCC disaster relief, though ugh, I'm not much for the evangelizing that goes with it. I keep telling myself that feeding, clothing and sheltering are more important things. It's a lot like the comment that someone made here about book resellers at library book sales--I don't begrudge them making a living, and appreciate the money they pay to the library, but man, they just take the community spirit out of it.)

My own preference is for non-sensationalist marketing that identifies concrete, specific goals that will be achieved with the aid of a purchase, as opposed to a pity-inducing, marketing-shaped narrative that appeals to first-world guilt and that quietly continues the tradition of seeing Them as objects of pity instead of full human beings with specific needs.

You are also right that my own annoyance about these things is small and insignificant. What counts most is that basic human needs are met. Some presentations of those needs speak to me more than others.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:56 PM on December 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell, that's kind of an odd thing for you to link to, since they want to introduce the rice hulling machines (in part) so that the women can spend their time making the crafts that you're disparaging here:

Machines to mechanically hull the harvested rice would not only reduce the time and labor necessary to hull rice, but would provide women with an opportunity to empower themselves by participating in income generation activities such as basket and mat weaving.
posted by duvatney at 2:57 PM on December 19, 2010


there's some serious privilege in the assumption that everyone can afford to give presents in the first place.

Who made this assumption?

Emphasized for your reading comprehension:

"One of the paradoxes of living in a wealthy country is that we accumulate tremendous purchasing power, yet it’s harder and harder for us to give friends and family presents that are meaningful."


I don't agree with your interpretation of that passage (or appreciate the condescension). He's using "us" loosely to mean "the typical person" or "the person to whom my message is directed," not "every single person." But it's no surprise that Metafilter is more interested in calling out "privilege" than in reasonably interpreting a New York Times columnist.
posted by John Cohen at 2:58 PM on December 19, 2010


For a critical view on these sorts of attempts to leverage consumer capitalism in service of humanitarian goals, check out Slavoj Zizek's First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. The important question, in my estimation, is whether the bigger beneficiary of these schemes is the proverbial Cambodian prostitute or the consumer him/herself. If both benefit, then great. If the latter benefits significantly more than the former, then some rethinking is required.
posted by narcotizingdysfunction at 4:17 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sorry, Cool Papa Bell, haven't found any Peace Corps projects that are hiring people to rebuild any recently (US-led) war-torn countries. Closest I found was Cambodia -- we messed them up a good while ago, and Peace Corps activities to the best of my knowledge don't really get at the point of your earlier comment (enterprise-based, sustainable charity/business hybrids, right?).

I'm serious, by the way. Instead of some village getting a few beehives or half a water buffalo or some such in my mom's name this Christmas, if I can find a charity that does what you describe and has a moderately good rating as a charity, they'll get the money instead. I have looked in the last few minutes and come up dry. Do you have examples?
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 4:23 PM on December 19, 2010


Happy Holidays! to: Marisa Stole the Precious Thing

From: Santaclavs

Ms. Clavs idea-my typing
posted by clavdivs at 5:31 PM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I feel inferior because my righteous indignation is about the fact the content is behind a NY Times registration and I'm the first one to complain about it in the thread. Or is it that no one's actually trying to read the article before they react?

I like my baby sling that was made by mothers in Guatemala. I like it as an object and I like where I didn't send my money to (Walmart, Target, etc.). It however, only profited a poor, indigenous mom from the Far East Bay, since I bought it used from someone whose baby had outgrown it. Luckily it worked fine without the paternalistic colonialism/white guilt/warm fuzzies/whatever y'all upset about.
posted by Gucky at 10:03 PM on December 19, 2010


I don't know why the subject of charity does this with Metafilter, but it certainly brings out a heap of fear that someone, somewhere is feeling smug.
posted by Harald74 at 12:18 AM on December 20, 2010


Metafilter: More smug generated every day.
posted by annsunny at 9:14 AM on December 20, 2010


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