I subscribe to a lot of social justice oriented newsletters and campaigns, and my mailbox keeps getting jammed with solicitations to buy holiday gifts that will “give back.” As an added bonus, many of these gifts are handmade by survivors of the worst kinds of violence (a major selling point apparently)!

So where to shop for gifts that give back?

From war survivors in Bosnia: this cozy look for your dog $95 (via Women for Women International and Kate Spade)

From Invisible Children, comes the MEND bag, handmade by women living in the Gulu, Uganda war zone, $75.95. “Each MEND bag carries the name of the maker, leading to an online profile which connects the consumer to the journey of their tailor in a powerful way.” color: purple tribal (emphasis mine).

Also from Invisible Children (I would import their entire store if I could), The White Innocent Bracelet, also handmade in Uganda, $20. The accompanying film tells the story of a night commuter. (“The money raised helps sustain valuable programs on both sides of the globe.” Really? You couldn’t just send it all to Uganda? ).

From ONE, come hand painted pashminas from Nepal created exclusively for ONE by Elizabeth Caldwell Designs, $190 (how she made them all herself I can’t imagine). I hope someone else can appreciate the fact that this pattern is called Maasai.

If you’re looking for clothing, look no further than the Product Red Gap line. Half of the profits (is that $.50, $5? no one knows…) from this t-shirt will go to The Global Fund to help fight HIV/AIDS in Africa $28 (for my rant on RED, click here).

Of course the must have gift of the season, and I have to thank Wronging Rights for the tip-off, is a whistle from Falling Whistles, $30-200. Blow the whistle literally, on the use of child soldiers in the Congo with this amazing piece of awareness raising jewelry. Full story here.

I could go on, but I won’t. The first question this merchandise raises for me, is who wants to own/wear it, and why? Is there some sort of intrinsic excitement in explaining to your friends that your bag was actually made by a former LRA child soldier? Is it the idea that almost no one else will own it or is it the smug satisfaction you can have in knowing that not only did you make a purchase, but you also did something good for someone else? I won’t even get into the fact that many NGOs don’t state exactly how much of your purchase price is being donated or specifically where the funds are going.

I understand that it’s a savvy move for non-profits to target a wider audience through awareness raising consumer goods. There are real benefits to this model. It is a reality that some people are never going to make a donation period, unless it is part of a purchase. Other people may be pulled in to learn more about an issue when they buy a handmade bag or scarf. But I remain cynical about the overall effectiveness of these efforts and the motivations behind them. Take Product RED, for example. Way more has been spent on advertising the products than has ever been donated to The Global Fund. Then there’s Invisible Children. Much of their clothing seems like a brand, and the founders exhort their members to buy their merchandise:

Tell everyone what you’re doing by wearing Rescue promotional gear. It’s all up for grabs in our online store. And for those of you that already have your Rescue shirts and bags, it’s time to break them in. Every day, from now until April 25th, wear them and pair them with your other IC merchandise.

The other aspect that seems problematic, is the whole survivor-made goods idea. My real issue, is that respected organizations such as Women for Women International are essentially offering their clients (women survivors of war) crafting skills, rather than hard vocational or educational skills that will create a more likely sustainable livelihood. Perhaps it is possible that the best vocation for a woman survivor of war in Bosnia, is knitting luxury dog outfits for Kate Spade (this is actually happening). But I have real doubts about this. Also, what happens when the Kate Spade contract ends, and everyone gets tired of hearing about Bosnia?

In the development sector, it just seems like every time you turn around, some well-meaning person is setting up a crafting group for women. When will the day come when carpentry and computer technology training groups for women start popping up all over the place? I’d invest in that over a handbag any day.

*Women for Women International does have another section on their website where you can donate items such as sewing machines and wheelbarrows. So props to them for that.