It’s around this time each year that we start thinking about
western consumerism on overdrive Christmas. For some this is a joy, for others a burden.
Mostly, we relieve ourselves of a sizeable amount of cash and eat and drink more than is sensible. Harmless fun? Celebratory? Making memories with our families? Yes, all of these.
I love the prolonged time with people I don’t see enough of during the year and enjoy the traditions. I love the break from work, the time for reflection and gratitude, and the richness of a story about a child born in poverty to an unwed, outcast teenage girl. A child who would grow to challenge the very core of the power structures of his day and eventually get himself killed for it.
So it does often feel counter-intuituve to me that such a rich story has morphed to become a celebration often so crass and anxiety producing.
I’m sure that this is why good hearted, well intentioned people want to make it more than that, to give to others, especially those who are disadvantaged and living under the heavy weight of poverty.
We want to teach our kids about giving and for this, an activity like filling shoeboxes with colourful stuff to send overseas seems ideal. Before I worked in development, heck, it was an annual event at my house.
But here’s the kicker, helping in this way hurts.
Except in response to emergencies when specific aid agencies and local people can identify the material things they need to recover, this way of operating is harmful.*
I hear you, this is akin to telling a child Santa isn’t real, it’s devastating – we want to feel good about our giving! But really, that’s kinda my point. It’s not about us.
Giving in this way disempowers local markets and economies,
contributes to the type of consumerism that let’s face it hasn’t worked out so well in the west;
creates dependency (what happens when the shoeboxes and pretty things stop coming?)
is never able to be fairly distributed, someone will always miss out
adds to environmental degradation as developing countries don’t have recycling systems for plastic packaging and toys that will soon break;
and does nothing to address the causes of poverty
In fact in development circles it’s called ‘bad-vocacy’; Bad Advocacy.
No one is empowered, communities are not changed, and problems remain.
Does a sweet, little program like this have to solve all those problems I hear you say?
The child receiving the gift feels valued, they experience a moment of joy, they’ve never had a Christmas gift before!
AND you’re teaching a kid in a wealthy country to think outside him/herself.
What’s so bad about that?
Well, firstly, we need to acknowledge that we often don’t understand the setting, that we assume that all kids play with toys or observe a Christian Christmas. In some of the countries where I work, Christmas is often a celebration with special food (if available), flowers and palm leaves from the village woven into patterns, and a day set aside for community. Plastic, colourful toys are nowhere to be seen and are not missed. In other countries, it’s not observed at all.
Of course any kid would love to receive a gift in a pretty box, but it’s a gift from a faraway benefactor, it doesn’t fit culturally and can displace tradition. I also can’t imagine how I would feel if my children received new iPads or laptops for Christmas or expensive designer label clothes that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) afford while my gift was much more humble and about my time or my cooking. Context is everything.
Even if it’s a practical gift, it’s bound to create rifts between those who receive the boxes and those who don’t and many times, mum and dad in poor communities are trying to make a scant living at the market by selling these items; toothbrushes, stationery, or even dolls (are the gifted dolls white just out of interest?), it can undercut a living.
On teaching our kids about giving – Brian Howell writes ‘Our children certainly learn a lesson through these give-away programs, but it’s the wrong one. They learn that the problem of poverty is primarily a problem of “stuff.” One person told me that I was being “astonishingly cynical” about a program that does good by teaching our children to be generous. She defended her view by saying: “I have found that the connections that are formed by doing things like this can be used to foster further participation in missions and outreach in all ages. For example, “Remember those kids you gave presents to? They also need…’” But that’s just it. Through these kinds of temporary give-aways, we’re teaching our children, and ourselves, that the real problems of poor countries is lack of resources and their ongoing, insatiable need. Nothing could be further from the truth.’
‘The real problem of poverty is a problem of access and opportunity, not stuff. Giving stuff contributes to what Jayakumar Christian calls the “god-complexes of the non-poor.” ‘
So what’s the answer? You knew this was coming – cash. And learning. Find out about the agencies who work through local people on the ground addressing issues that resonate with you and your family – who are responding to the needs as identified by people experiencing them.
Local people always know the solutions to their own problems, they often just need friends to link arms with and move things along a bit.
We like to say that ‘a Girl & her world’ helps mend wings, the Girls we work alongside do the flying.
If you want to feel more connected than just giving cash, save up to take your kids overseas, connect with organisations that can provide photos and track progress visually for you. Volunteer. Become informed.
We have a Crowdfunding appeal open to help kick start 60 Girls back to school next year, and we’re taking orders for cakes, selling our beautiful new cards and gifts-in-kind. You could give local stationery, chickens, veggie gardens!
The cash we raise goes through our pretty wonderful local coordinator Urmila in rural Fiji to the needs on the ground, and she works with local schools and community networks to Get. Stuff. Done.
Our team is so proud of the difference she is making and it is our privilege to be part of it.
It’s not my intention to make you feel bad or discourage your desire to give, but the longer I work in this sector the more I feel we need to talk. I’m a big fan of grown up dialogue so please, comment away, disagree with me if you like!
We are so grateful for the ‘a Girl & her world’ community and the generosity that is changing lives, many of them ours,
Jane for team ‘a Girl & her world’
*Even in emergencies, however, cash is always best unless you work for one of those aid agencies or have a relationship with the local people who are asking for specific items. This is one of the best articles I’ve read on cash not stuff. This, by my colleague Bron after Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu also paints a great picture.