Why these patronising gifts get my goat

Giving donkeys, goats, therapy or campaigning packs to developing countries only helps to reinforce Third World poverty.

Sadhvi Sharma

Topics World

‘Hi, you can call me Al’ say the Oxfam unwrapped adverts on the Tube, with pictures of cute Alpacas. A £20 Alpaca package can help a farmer in Peru buy and look after ‘Al’ and his fluffy friends. The idea is to encourage people in Britain to buy gifts for friends or family members, which are then spent by charities like Oxfam, ActionAid or Christian Aid, wherever ‘the need is greatest’, and in return the chosen recipient of the present is sent a card or a magnet representing the gift donation (1).

Gift ideas range from buckets to condoms, goats to counselling sessions. Four-legged creatures are the season’s favourites. There are no discounts, but your online shopping basket will apparently change the life of a family in Haiti or lift a farmer out of poverty in Peru. The Action Aid website tells us that they’re ‘Wrapping up poverty’ – in fact, these gift ideas paint a quaint picture of the developing world as a farm, even promoting subsistence farming as a desirable way of life.

The various fundraising ideas illustrate the low horizons that many campaigners and charities have for the developing world. Although the blurb on the campaign groups’ websites claims the gifts will ‘change lives’ and ‘help poor communities overcome poverty’, the stuff being offered will in fact have little impact on the material wellbeing or living standards of the poor. Oxfam suggests ‘donkeys make kick-ass gifts’ (2). For £50 you can send a donkey and help ease the burden of farmers carrying large loads over long distances. ‘Plus there’s the bonus of free fertiliser!’ So even donkey excrement is celebrated as a wonderful gift. Oxfam’s allocation of £250,000 in Malawi includes distributing ‘bicycles which can be used as ambulances’ (3). What about some real ambulances – and some real roads to drive them on? Action Aid’s £24 goat-breeding programme provides two goats to the poorest families in Mozambique, so that they don’t have to struggle to feed themselves.

In Britain, animals have long ceased to be a mode of transport. Cars, trains and planes have replaced them. In some countries, a donkey would no doubt ease the burden of carrying loads long distances – but it does not address the lack of roads, transport or infrastructure in underdeveloped societies. These ideas will help the poorest people in the world to get by, but no more. WORLDwrite, the charity based in East London where I work as a volunteer, managed to raise £2,000 to acquire electricity for a village school in Ghana, equipping it for a shipment of computers that the village students asked for. Resources raised or allocated by high-profile UK charities have the potential to provide far more for developing countries, yet they continue to back patronising and basic survival schemes for countries in the South.

These low horizons are packaged and often justified as culturally appropriate for the developing world. Adverts present a cosy picture of life on the farm. ‘Four-legged friends’, says the Oxfam Unwrapped adverts, with a picture of a goat and the caption ‘great for kids!’ (4). ActionAid has gift categories ‘for green fingers’ and ‘for animal lovers’. These slogans fail to make a distinction between lifestyle choices and underdevelopment. What is seen as ‘gardening’ in the UK is in fact subsistence farming in Ghana; and while animals may be seen as pets or ‘friends’ in the UK, they are merely tools for hard work in the developing world, and far less sentimentality is attached to them. It would be like giving a lathe as a Christmas gift to someone who works the rest of the year in a factory.

Action Aid’s gift idea for ‘chocoholics’ is to send 128 cocoa tree seedlings for Ghana. ‘Better than chocolates’ says the caption, with a picture of a bent-over farmer (5). The cocoa seedlings make a good present because, according to ActionAid, farmers have been cultivating cocoa for years, but ‘their way of life is under threat’. This assumption of farming and living off the land as a ‘way of life’ – rather than as something poor people have little choice over – only reinforces the image of the developing world as a big farm, rejecting any discussion about the desirability of development.

No doubt some of these gifts may be welcomed by those most desperate for resources, but the wider impact made by these patronising campaigns should not be overlooked. Oxfam and Action Aid clarify that these gift ideas are really only intended to raise much-needed resources and the money will actually be spent on related activities. Yet the images of goats and donkeys flagged up in adverts do reflect the anti-development agenda of today’s NGOs and charities, which play an influential role in directing and setting priorities in developing countries. Sixty pounds can buy a ‘People power pack’ that supposedly gives poor communities a voice and trains them to lobby those in authority for change (6). Similarly, £88 for ActionAid can help get a campaign group together ‘helping local communities gain the skills they need to approach their governments’ in order to demand access to the nearest hospital (7). Under the guise of acting as ‘facilitators’, charities are demonstrating a paternalistic attitude towards developing countries, doubting the ability of local people to run their own lives.

In using ethical gift ideas as a fundraising tool, charities not only paint a picture of developing countries that suits their own agendas; they also try to tap into Western guilt over materialism and consumerism. Their own disenchantment with development and lifestyles in the West is imposed on to poor countries. Instead of demanding better lifestyles and more material wealth in developing countries, charities have actually accepted low horizons as an end goal. ‘From a patch of land, grow health and happiness’ is the idea behind gifting a community garden through ActionAid. The idea of organic farming and subsistence living is presented as an ideal lifestyle option. The trouble is, having a patch of land will ensure that people are poor and have to toil just to get by, just to exist.

The developing world could use some of the consumerism and glitz of Oxford Street this Christmas, instead of the miserable ‘ethical’ gifts advocated by Western charities.

Sadhavi Sharma is a volunteer with the youth education charity WORLDwrite.

(1) See, for example, Gifts in Action

(2) Oxfam Unwrapped: Donkey

(3) Where you gift goes: Malawi, Oxfam Unwrapped

(4) Great for kids!, Oxfam Unwrapped

(5) 128 cocoa seedlings, Gifts in Action

(6) People power pack, Oxfam Unwrapped

(7) Get a campaign group together, Gifts in Action

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Topics World


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