It’s time to unwrap ‘Oxfam Unwrapped’

Celebs want us to give ‘funusual’ Xmas gifts to Africans, like goats, cans of worms and dung. A new film says the recipients are not impressed.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Topics Politics

Want to send rural communities in the developing world a can of worms, help subsistence farmers realise that poverty can be tolerable, or tell AIDS sufferers that they need therapy? If so, you should hand your money over to charities like Christian Aid or Oxfam, which, through its celebrity-led Campaign for Decent Christmas Presents, is encouraging us to send ‘funusual’ gifts to the Third World.

No amount of cheesy marketing speak or celebrities with a twinkle in their eye can mask the fact that giving poor people the ‘gift of dung’, which is how the new Oxfam campaign refers to fertiliser, is a stinking insult. Just because poor people have very little, that doesn’t mean we should expect them to smile and be grateful for the paltry gifts that patronising Western NGOs dump on their doorsteps.

In an ironic Oxfam TV ad (view below), the singer Will Young, actresses Dame Helen Mirren and Helena Bonham Carter and comedian Rob Brydon urge us to save our family and friends from the pain of receiving disappointing presents by buying a ‘poverty-fighting pressie from Oxfam’ instead. In return for buying ‘ethical gifts’ like fertiliser, goats, condoms and loos for communities in the Third World, you will be rewarded by the comforting thought of having helped to put a smile on a poor person’s face. You will even receive an Oxfam fridge magnet, which actually has a picture of a smiling, grateful Third World farmer, who perhaps has been lucky enough to receive a pile of shit from a British celebrity.


The Oxfam Unwrapped advert, currently being shown on British TV.

‘Ethical gifts’ are in. Many charities and development organisations use this clever fundraising method around Christmastime, cashing in on the anti-consumption vogue in the West in order to provide small-scale solutions for poor people in the developing world. But according to one UK-based charity, the poor are not buying it.

Volunteers from the youth education charity WORLDwrite went to Ghana to make a series of short documentaries investigating life at the receiving end of debt relief and development initiatives. One of their films, Keeping Africa Small, which premieres at the Rich Mix cinema in London next week, challenges ‘Western “feelgood” shopping for goats and hoes’. The film crew found that the friends and strangers they met in Ghana had aspirations that are way out of line with Western development programmes that champion sustainable development and small ways of coping with poverty.

The Ghanaians interviewed in WORLDwrite’s film dream of living in concrete houses instead of mud huts; of owning washing machines instead of having to trek to a bore hole several times a day to fetch water. They want motor-powered fishing boats instead of wooden canoes, which have to be dragged to the shore by hand. They want university education, not lessons in how to use a condom; and they prefer having regular work in factories to the hand-to-mouth existence offered by NGOs’ micro-credit schemes. They do not, as the charity Water Aid argues, think that extracting water by rope pumps from hand-dug wells constitutes ‘appropriate technology’. And they do not want a goat for Christmas, thanks very much.

Yet development organisations working in the areas that WORLDwrite visited don’t seem to offer things that locals actually want. A resident in the village of Anamole received three grass-cutters from Action Aid. No, a grass-cutter is not the latest electrical lawnmower; it’s a cane rat, a rodent that is commonly reared in West Africa and which eats long grass. As one man points out in Keeping Africa Small, this is not a serious development initiative; it is a ‘pet programme’. NGOs are clearly not heeding the Anamole village chief’s call; in the film, chief Nii Ayitey Tetteh Okpe II says ‘people must come up with what they think the best solutions are for themselves so that, at the end of the day, they can take their destiny into their own hands’.

Development organisations claim they do listen to local communities. Oxfam’s supporter marketing funding manager, Sarah Critchley, tells me the organisation prides itself on ‘only selling “gifts” for which there is evidence of a significant need in our projects in some of the world’s poorest countries’. Critchley is confident that this year’s Unwrapped fundraising campaign meets the real needs and aspirations of people in the developing world because, she says, Oxfam went through a diligent consultation processes with on-the-ground staff before deciding what kinds of gifts to sell. And Oxfam project managers frequently report back on how the funds are being used ‘to make a difference’.

Critchley tells me: ‘All Oxfam Unwrapped gifts come as part of a package of assistance. We never just distribute the items themselves; we ensure that funds are also used to make sure those items will have a greater impact and are able to make a long-term change.’

Yet the demand for constant monitoring and evaluation to make sure communities are using items appropriately often involves stifling bureaucratic exercises, during which locals must prove that they are meeting external requirements. For example, Nuertey Nortey, who works for an urban community development project in Accra, told WORLDwrite that World Education and USAID, which sponsor his organisation’s HIV/AIDS programme, demand complicated monthly monitoring reports that take one to two weeks to complete. These American NGOs refuse to supply medication for those already infected with HIV, and instead prefer to focus on prevention and ‘attitude changes’. It is peculiar that while NGOs insist on meeting ‘immediate needs’, they are not willing to provide AIDS sufferers with drugs. This shows how narrow their definition of ‘needs’ really is.

Oxfam focuses as much on being accountable to the Western public, who ‘give so generously through Unwrapped’, as it does on helping the poor. Critchley says ‘flexibility in how the funds can be used is built into the way we communicate to our supporters so that we can ensure that if needs change for whatever reason… then Unwrapped funds can still be used to make a significant difference to overcoming poverty and suffering without spending the funds on something so unrelated that our generous supporters would have been misled’. In truth, the kind of things that the Ghanaians interviewed in Keeping Africa Small really want – houses, cars, 9-to-5 jobs – are entirely ‘unrelated’ to anything that appears in the Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue: alpacas, condoms, dung.

The flexibility Critchley talks about really means that Western shoppers’ gifts for Africa can come in all shapes and sizes. For example, you can buy ‘gifts that grow’, which can include agricultural tools and also training in farming methods; you can buy ‘positive pressies’, which can mean actual condoms or possibly counselling sessions for people living with HIV and AIDS; or you can buy ‘four-legged friends’, which can mean real-life goats or ‘animal-support activity’. In other words, buy your mum a certificate for a goat or a pack of condoms this Christmas, and an African family may end up with an NGO worker giving them advice on how to ‘support’ animals, or some Western-style counselling for how to cope with disease. That is about as practical as, well, a tonne of dung.

Despite the impression given by Western NGOs and charities, the developing world is not a giant HIV-infested countryside, and the people who live there aspire to more than animal rearing, sex education and subsistence farming. Why is Oxfam so reluctant to acknowledge this basic fact in any of its marketing material? It hopes to raise £14.5million through this year’s Campaign for Decent Christmas Presents. Surely an organisation with such a big budget can come up with more inspiring and fun Christmas gifts than goats and dung? Or are the poor not allowed to have fun?

Or how about at least acknowledging that people in developing countries should have the right to get their hands on the kind of consumption goods we in the West enjoy and take for granted? Oxfam and others claim to be working towards ‘global equality’ – but campaigns that offer only small-scale solutions to Third World problems, and which do not put the case for everyone’s right to aspire to, and reach, the living standards we have in the West, are not championing anything like genuine equality. They are championing coping mechanisms, and an attitude of make-do-and-mend.

Critchley tells me that if a community really needs a tractor to increase its productivity and provide a living for more people, then Unwrapped funds from the ‘gifts that grow’ category of presents could be used to fund it. But why shouldn’t all of the farmers that Oxfam works with automatically qualify for a tractor? Do you know of any Western farmer who would willingly till their land with a hoe? Critchley tells me that Oxfam would not sell something like a washing machine as a gift for the Third World poor, ‘unless we had information from the communities we work in that that is what would help to lift them out of poverty, and there was a substantial need for funds for that item; otherwise we would be misleading the public who give so generously through Unwrapped’.

Of course, a washing machine alone won’t make anyone rich. But it would certainly save villagers from having to lift gallons of water in buckets every day; and it would meet Ghanaian water engineer Kweku Ofori-Bruku’s modest demands in Keeping Africa Small for more items that ‘make life more convenient’. Convenience is not on Oxfam’s agenda. The current issue of Inside Oxfam magazine has pictures of smiling children queuing up with buckets by a hand pump, a young woman weaving carpets on a dirty floor, and a group of people receiving hygiene lessons under a tree. None of them looks like they are benefiting from modern conveniences, much less are they being ‘lifted out of poverty’.


A clip from WORLDwrite’s film Keeping Africa Small.
(See below for more details)

WORLDwrite argues that by focusing on small-scale initiatives like micro-credit schemes, pet programmes and environmentally friendly constructions such as the deficient solar water pump that WORLDwrite volunteers saw in one village, development NGOs are helping to sustain a hand-to-mouth existence for the poor. And just as in colonial times, Westerners working in Africa today seem to have an unhealthy obsession with the sex lives of the natives. Focusing on family planning, countering teenage pregnancy and dishing out condoms, charities obsess over containing the size of poor communities. The logic seems to be that population control is one surefire way to reduce the number of the global poor.

Representatives of NGOs like Action Aid, Save the Children, Traidcraft and Water Aid are interviewed in Keeping Africa Small. They say that they will continue to focus on basic needs such as sanitation rather than on helping Africans to ‘become rich’ or have access to ‘luxuries’ such as cars or PlayStations. ‘There’s no point in campaigning for people to be rich’, says one activist interviewed in the film. ‘We’re not talking about allowing poor people to have access to what we consider luxuries’, says another. No doubt development workers are serious when they say they want to ‘make poverty history’, but in setting the bar so low, their work actually undermines efforts to eradicate poverty and bring about global equality.

By focusing on alleviating only the most crude manifestations of poverty, NGOs are, at best, being pragmatic, and, at worst, denying poor people in the Third World any realistic chance of achieving material comfort. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’: the beggars will get whatever Western Christmas shoppers decide to give them. If Oxfam, Action Aid and the rest ever sent out a Christmas catalogue with pictures of people waving wads of cash, or showing off mod-cons and big, shiny universities and museums, then I might consider their campaigns ‘ethical’ enough to donate to.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Keeping Africa Small and I’m a Subsistence Farmer…Get Me Out of Here premiere on 16 December at the Rich Mix Cinema, London. You can book tickets here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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