There’s nothing “ethical” about these patronising Christmas gifts
SO-CALLED “ethical Christmas gifts” have become a familiar feature of the holiday season. Every year, charities like Oxfam, Christian Aid and World Vision encourage us to give up presents in favour of certificates for things like goats, dung, condoms and hygiene instruction for people in the developing world.
It is customary for these initiatives to adopt a patronising tone, both towards Western consumers, who are encouraged to have a guilt-free shopping experience, and towards Third World recipients, who are encouraged to smile and be grateful for the paltry presents charities bestow on them. Just take a look at this video by Oxfam. It explains to shoppers how the charity’s scheme, Oxfam Unwrapped, works as if they were five-year-olds.
Ethical gift schemes tap into the anti-consumption vogue in the West, whilst perpetuating the idea that people in the developing world should gladly accept small-scale solutions that may help them cope with poverty, but not escape it. In the West, a familiar dilemma for shoppers is what to buy for a man or woman who has everything, but when it comes to the developing world the message is that beggars can’t be choosers.
The grandiose claims made my charities in relation to ethical gifts – which are said to be life-changing and life-saving – far from match their actual worth. For instance, Action Aid offers “gifts that change lives” – including a package containing a pick axe, hoe and shovel for two families. The World Vision gift catalogue includes a shared sewing machine, which the charity claims “lifts a woman out of poverty”. Christian Aid sends cans of worms to women in India to help them grow crops and consequently feed their families and get cash from selling surplus produce.
Yet few farmers in the West would want to till their land with a hoe, few women would regard sharing a sewing machine as en empowering or enriching experience, few land owners would see worms as a route to wealth. Just because poor people have very little, that doesn’t mean they should be prepared to accept lifestyles that we in the West would deem unbearable.
It seems that for every year that passes charities come up with even more patronising marketing ploys and gift tags. Oxfam is particularly adept at this. Last year, for instance, it offered the “gift of dung”, a supply of fertilizers. But just as you thought they couldn’t get more condescending, this year Oxfam introduced the gift of “hygiene hints”, which can include “classes for adults and children, putting on plays or sticking up posters, through to delivering the message [about the importance of safe hygiene] at events like football matches”. Wouldn’t you, too, want to see an instructive play by Oxfam-trained children about how to shower before kick-off?
Oxfam also offers “hygiene kits”. Incredibly, the charity says that this gift, which contains things like soap, a bucket and cotton wool, can not only help save lives but will also do wonders for someone’s dignity. Wouldn’t you, too, be filled with a sense of self-worth if an Oxfam worker showed up at your home, handed you a bucket and soap and told you to have a wash?
These ethical gift schemes, however well-meaning, don’t even acknowledge that poor people can have ambitions and aspirations that match those of Westerners. And in setting the bar so low for people in the developing world, they actually undermine genuine opportunities to eradicate poverty and to bring about global equality. They send the message that, in the developing world, getting a goat for Christmas is enough, farmers don’t need tractors and bucket-showers will do.
They also paint a picture of the Third World as a giant (filthy) rural region when in fact more and more people there are seeking out city life. In fact, the mass migration from countrysides to cities speaks to the aspiration of rural populations who often prefer urban life (even if it can be harsh) to the subsistence farming lifestyle promoted by Western charities. At least in the city you have the chance of helping yourself, or your children, escape the kind of life that is focused simply on surviving.
There’s no reason why people in the richer parts of the world should expect people in poorer parts to make do and mend, to accept meagre handouts and lifestyle lessons from do-gooding outsiders. After all, most of us wouldn’t stand it.