Who Made Your Bag?! Holiday Edition!

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.


Refugee Travel Loans-WTF?

Since I started working in refugee resettlement, one of the many issues that has bothered me, is refugee travel loans. Here is a description provided by the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops (they are heavily involved in resettlement):

Refugees traveling to the United States are issued loans by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to pay for the costs of their transportation from overseas to U.S. resettlement sites and for various medical and screening costs. The funds to cover the transportation were provided to IOM by the Department of State’s Bureau for Refugee Programs.

A promissory note is signed by every refugee 18 years and over. This note confirms the refugees agreement to make regular monthly payments to the sponsoring agency – the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). These payments will be used to reimburse the U.S. government for the funds it provided to IOM for refugee transportation.

This just grates on me. The vast majority of refugees arrive in the US with the clothes on their backs, and nothing else. Many come here having lost family members to conflict, disease or displacement. Some have been tortured and can barely cope. Others have spent fifteen or twenty years living in a refugee camp, without any way to develop skills or live independently. Then they arrive here, and the International Organization for Migration saddles them with a huge loan to repay (but don’t worry, it’s interest free!), which they should begin payments on within six months. What the hell?! Like refugees don’t already have enough to deal with while they are acclimating, trying to find jobs, learn English, and survive on extremely low benefits which run out rapidly!

The apparent wisdom behind this loan program, is that the repayment money allows the “U.S. government to continue assisting more refugees.” If the US government is so impoverished that the only way they can assist future refugees, is off the backs of newly arrived migrants, then something is seriously wrong with program funding.

According to the director of my resettlement agency, the default rate on these loans in very low-less than 10%. This makes sense, given that when you default, the Credit Reporting Agency is informed, and you will have a negative credit history until such time as you repay the loan. Way to make new arrivals feel welcome in America!

If anyone has an informed argument as to why refugees should be made to repay these loans, I would truly love to hear it.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell: Film Review

  • Pray the Devil Back to Hell
  • Fork Films
  • Produced by Abigail E. Disney, Directed by Gini Reticker
  • Run Time: 1 hr. 12 min.
  • My rating: 4 out of 5 chapatis

I’ve been waiting to get my hands on a copy of the documentary ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell,’ for a while now. Thanks to Netflix, I was able to watch it this evening.

The film chronicles the story of  ordinary Liberian women who created an extraordinary peace movement during the country’s bloody second civil war. Using graphic footage from the war, along with testimonies from the women who led the peace movement, ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell,’ effectively pulls viewers into the tense and passionate struggle to end the violence. Tracing the peace movement from its fledgling beginnings as a daily protest by the roadside along President Charles Taylor’s motorcade route, to a dramatic sit-in at the 2003 Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement talks, the documentary shows that these efforts were certainly instrumental in bringing about a negotiated end to the war.

If you are looking to be informed and inspired, look no further, ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell’ will do both. A word of caution, however, the film contains many scenes and descriptions of graphic violence, so be advised before watching.

Cellphone Cameras and Human Rights Abuses

Cell phones are ubiquitous, and most of us now carry one with the ability to capture pictures and even video footage. It’s fun and easy to whip out your cell phone, take a picture of your friends, and then email it or post it on Facebook, Flickr, etc. But some people also use their cellphone cameras to document human rights abuses or breaking news. This happens in the US and abroad. A recent example of this, is the shooting and death of a young Iranian woman named Neda, during political protests. A brief cellphone video which captured her shooting and final moments, was posted to the internet, and quickly made its way to viewers around the world, galvanizing  further protests in Iran and other countries.

But when it comes to human rights abuses, what is appropriate to document with a cellphone camera? The recent case in Guinea where a stadium full of opposition supporters were attacked, raped, and murdered in full view of crowds on September 28, provides a salient example of what the repercussions can be for the victims whose images are captured on cellphone videos.

During the chaos and violence that erupted in the stadium and the outlying streets, many women were sexually assaulted by soldiers. These assaults were witnessed by many fleeing Guineans, some of whom used cellphone cameras to snap pictures or film video of the assaults. While it is likely that this footage was collected in order to provide proof of the horrific crimes that were being committed, the photos and footage were unregulated and made their way to the internet.

National Public Radio correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton observes,

Rape is surely horrific, but becomes even more so when the images of alleged crimes are recorded on cell phones, because the alleged rapes happened in the middle of the day, in public.

The sometimes grotesque photos are then splashed on the internet, a record of the humiliation and shaming of women, making the violations even more painful.

How would any of us feel if the worst moment of our lives were captured on film and posted to the internet, shattering our anonymity, and leaving traces that will remain on the web forever? This additional loss of control for people who have already been victimized, is horrible.

While it is understandable that people will want to document human rights abuses with any means at their disposal, including cellphone cameras, sexual assault should NEVER be broadcast on the internet under any circumstances. If people have footage of abuses that they feel will make a case against a government or other another group, they should provide the footage to rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or give it to a lawyer for safekeeping.

A Debit Card for Somaliland?!

There’s lots of news out of Africa to cover, as usual, but one particular piece by the BBC about a money-transfer company which is introducing a debit card to Somaliland, caught my eye. Dahabshiil, a firm with a long history in the horn of Africa, has dreams of creating a cashless society there.

Anyone who lives or has spent a serious amount of time in sub-Saharan Africa, most likely understands what functioning in a cash-driven society entails. For example, there are countries like Tanzania, whose largest monetary denomination is a 10,000 shillingi note, roughly equivalent to about $7.50 US. In Tanzania, many everyday transactions are made in small change, and any major purchases often require large amounts of cash. While there are banks and ATMs in the largest cities, customers must often contend with long lines and machines that are subject to power failures. If you happen to carry a VISA, American Express or other ‘universal credit card,’ you may find few places where you can actually use it, other than high-end hotels, tourist enclaves, and pricey retail outlets.

A child in Harare holds Zimbabwean dollar notes acquired by begging on the streets. In 2008, when this photo was taken, the county’s rate of annual inflation was over 100,000%. (Associated Press)

Then there are countries like Ethiopia, which lack ATM machines altogether, and whose largest denomination, the 100 birr note, is roughly equivalent to $8 US. Not to mention places like Zimbabwe, where rampant inflation has necessitated the use of the black market, with US dollars and South African rands being traded against quickly depreciating Zimbabwe dollars.

So what would a ‘cashless’ society in Africa look like? Would it be possible to create one, with such a dependence on small change and currency, and with such a lack of infrastructure like banks, ATM machines, and businesses which can process card transactions? Would any new attempts to unveil a system of debit and credit cards simply create a similar situation to that of Tanzania: where some people can access cash at a small number of ATMs, but where there are few outlets equipped to actually use credit?

Dahabshiil, Somalia’s largest money transfer company, is currently rolling out an electronic cash system in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. A press release from the website notes,

The General Manager of Dahabshiil Money Transfer, Abdirashid Mohamed Saed said the computer generated Internet based system will allow their customers to obtain debit cards to withdraw funds from Automated Teller Machines.

The ATMs will be placed in secure places such as hotels and business centers. Customers will be able to purchase items with their debit cards.

“We started this project in Hargeisa (Somaliland) because of the stability and the good internet connections but we’ll spread it to other safer areas of the country,” Saed told VOA Somali Service.

It will be the first time in the history that e-cash card system is launched in Somalia.

Dahabshiil made their mark in the private money transfer business in Somalia. Relatives and friends of Somalis who live abroad, use the service to send money home. The BBC observes that some estimates place the transactions at as much as $1 billion.

I’m personally thrilled to see a debit card system being offered in Somaliland. I hope that the user fees are fair and reasonable, and that many people will have access to this service, not just elites. While the prospect of ATMs placed at hotels and business centers for security reasons makes sense, this restricted access, will likely keep services out of the hands of many people who could benefit from the machines, and who don’t have the extra money or confidence to travel to a wealthy enclave to access cash. Just a thought. Also, as long as access to ATMs and credit processing machines is limited, it will be difficult for Somalis to truly benefit from these cards in a substantial way. But as with any new technology, it will takes time for it to infiltrate society. Hopefully, Dahabshiil will be able to promote access to debit and credit cards as well as places equipped to process them.

All currency calculations are via The Currency Converter at coinmill.com

What do you think?

FreeRice Addiction Causing Carpel Tunnel :(

A stroke of genius has occurred, and the good people at the UN World Food Program and Harvard University have created a vocabulary game that not only tests your intelligence, but for each question answered correctly, donates 20 grains of rice to help end hunger (the site pays for itself through ad revenue)! The game is called FreeRice, and it has proven immensely popular since it launched in October of 2007.  Since then, the site has donated more than 40 billion grains of rice and fed more than 1 million hungry people. 


You can’t go wrong with FreeRice, unless of course you forget to look away from your computer screen, and develop bloodshot eyes and a severe hand tremor. It’s a price I’m willing to pay to know that I probably donated at least one 35 kg bag of rice ( not to mention exponentially increased my vocabulary) in my marathon session last night. 

Also, mad props to the people at WFP and Harvard. They have raised the bar for everyone in the field of development fundraising.

Africa Reading Challenge Review VIII: All Things Must Fight to Live



All Things Must Fight to Live picks up in 2003, when Ugandan troops were pulling out of eastern Congo, and tensions between ethnic Hema and Lendu had reached a peak. Journalist Bryan Mealer stepped in to cover the conflict, intending to write one article, and ended up staying for three years. Based out of Kinshasa and Bunia, he traveled with the war, reporting from the front lines. 


Bryan Mealer and Col. Joseph Tyhalisi (South Africa), Kamatsi, Congo [Photo by Lionel Healing]*

All Things Must Fight to Live stands out for me because it is not gratuitous. It would have been far more easy to write a book that focuses only on the depravity of the war (and it has been done too many times already-The Rebels Hour, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, etc.). Instead, Mealer offers balanced war reporting and a nuanced look at the lives of ordinary Congolese. 

In addition to following the war in both urban and rural conflict zones, the author immersed himself in a two-thousand mile journey by barge, bicycle, and train through the heart of the country. While his meandering trip was fraught with complications such as a train derailment, he was able to see the impact that the war has had on Congolese living in the vast and impoverished interior. 

Here’s a brief except to pique your interest:

We went in first with soldiers, young and terrified Ugandan kids straight from the villages, whip-thin in their baggy fatigues and wound tight around their triggers even high above the clouds. The Ugandan army flew Antonov-26s into Congo, scrapped by the Soviet bloc and born again for African war, steel Trojan horses loaded with gun-mounted jeeps, barrels of diesel, and crates of banana moonshine. You found a place on the floor and instantly started sweating, nestled between rifles and rocket launchers so close to your eyeballs you could study the paint chips on the grenades. There was little cabin pressure to soothe the landings, and going in fast, you felt like your eyes would pop out of your skull. The soldiers buried their faces in their hats to hide the tears. And all you could do was wince and give a thumbs-up and be thankful that the engines were so loud that no one could hear you scream. (xiii)

*Photo ripped from the author’s website http://www.bryanmealer.com/