Friday, April 26, 2013

Made in Bangladesh

This is a blog post I've had in various draft forms for a while now, but I think it might be ripe, considering the recent events in Bangladesh. This past Wednesday, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, and the death toll has recently passed 300.

What might be most remarkable about this is, it's not news. We're used to seeing Made in China (Vietnam, Singapore, wherever) on most of what we buy; and we know what this label implies about the conditions that the products were made in. The reality of where our products come from is pretty easy to put out of our minds, and the casual acceptance of this is commonplace. At least, if it's not acceptance, it's the acknowledgement that we wish things could be different, but what can you do when almost everything we consume is made on the other side of the world - fair trade coffee and used clothing can only go so far. Knowing that what we buy was likely made at the high price of the oppression of an anonymous person almost requires that there is a certain degree of acceptance (I'm considering throwing around the Orwellian buzzword of 'doublethink,' but maybe that is too sensationalist) because it is so difficult to step out of this framework.

Although images of oppression, long hours, and unsafe conditions evoke visceral reactions to what clearly seems to be injustice, there is a growing field of thought that sweatshops are actually beneficial. This position may seem counter-intuitive, but you can read some of the positions in defence of sweatshops here, here, here and here.

Basically, a defence of sweatshops appeals to points along these lines:
  • People who work in sweatshops are pursuing the best option they have; working in a sweatshop is better than starving to death, rummaging for food or things to sell in a garbage dump, or prostitution. And even though it may seem like it is just the best of a handful of terrible choices, sweatshops actually offer wages that are more than the national average income.
  • Unsafe conditions and long hours in a factory are not unlike any other country's that has gone under industrialization. What developing countries are undergoing is no different than what we saw in Industrial Britain, and we need to allow this process to go its natural course. In fact, this process is getting faster due to the technology and capital we have available, and places like Hong Kong and Singapore are largely past this phase, in only 30 years.
  • Not only are sweatshops a natural part of industrialization, but they are merely a symptom of poverty, not a root cause. It would be misguided to ban them, and would ultimately hurt a country's economy.
  • Simply offering higher wages is not necessarily a solution either; this often leads to bribes being used get a job, and if work became expensive in a given country, a company would likely just move their business where they could get the most profit. Further, compensation in other ways (shorter hours, more bathroom breaks) do not affect a worker's overall productivity, so there is no incentive for employers to implement these.
The main thing that these articles came down to was that sweatshops are simply the best option that people have, or else they would not be working there. They cite quotes from people who wish they could be working in a factory, or of factory employees wishing that more people would buy their products.

Of course working in a sweatshop is better than garnering wages from a garbage dump. It is misleading to say that people are "choosing" to work in sweatshops, if the only reasonable options they have are working in a sweatshop, living off a garbage heap, or dying. Characterizing people as having "chosen" to work in a sweatshop misrepresents their situation, as if they could reasonably do  otherwise, and are there out of their own volition. Simply because a sweatshop is the best out of three terrible options does not mean it is something we should endorse, or not seek to improve.

All that said - it is easy to be outraged at situations like the events in Bangladesh, or deaths and difficult lives that are never reported on. But, this does not mean that banning sweatshops is the best route either. In some cases, sweatshops make up a significant portion of a country's manufacturing sector. To ban them would be shortsighted, and very damaging to an economy, as well as its residents. If sweatshops are the best option that people have, taking this away can be detrimental to their livelihoods if they have nowhere else to turn. An example of the negative effects that can occur with outright banning is during the 1990's, a German-run garment production company in Bangladesh laid off around 50 000 children; follow-up from Oxfam found that most of these kids turned to prostitution, crime, or just ended up starving. We need to fully understand issues in another country before acting, as well as treat the root causes of poverty rather than symptoms.

This discussion essentially comes down to two main questions: can sweatshops bring a country out of poverty? Are there any other options? I don't know the answers to these questions, and I think attempting to address them would be out of my breadth, right now at least.

Events like those in Bangladesh often spur a wave of guilt - and, this is not wholly misplaced. But, guilt and outrage are easy, especially when we see death tolls in the hundreds. What is hard is really changing our buying habits, finding ways to invest in our local communities, and becoming informed on what our role is as North Americans in addressing global poverty in a meaningful way - most important is to continue this pursuit past the feelings of the shock of tragedy and into our everyday lives.

Food for thought and related reading:

"The Complexity of Complicity"

"Slavery must be recognized in all its guises." - The Guardian

"Creating a Sweatfree World" - International Labor Rights Forum

Thursday, April 26, 2012

a bit more on stuff...

I know I am long overdue for a new post (I have been working on one for ages, not sure how to wrap it up...) but I just came across a talk at a TEDx conference that is really relevant to what I addressed in my last post of trying to fix problems with 'stuff' - even stuff that seems more readily helpful than a truckload of t-shirts, such as a water pump, or a school. 

Daniela has an awesome blog, Lessons I Learned where she addresses issues like this, drawing on her experience working in Cambodia. A lot of great food for thought!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

talking about stuff.

Last week I finished up a month of trying to not buy anything that I didn't need (I don't know if it was cheating to buy dinner with friends, but... I may have done that - that's filling a certain need though I think) as a way to evaluate what I really need and to help me value what I already have. It was kind of freeing to know that certain things were off-limits. In the same vein of "things we don't need" (sort of) I want to take a look at this issue from a different perspective.

You may have heard the term "SWEDOW" - stuff we don't want. It's used to refer to donations that are unnecessary and even harmful to those to whom they are given, usually under the pretense of aid. A classic example of this is World Vision's donation of Superbowl t-shirts, branded with the losing team.

Every article I read on this topic had this photo, so I thought I'd throw it in too.
Donations of 100 000 free t-shirts can inefficient at best, and harmful at worst. The main reasons for discouraging SWEDOW are:
  • the financial cost to ship the products over. Donating something you already have may seem handy, because you have it, you don't need it and other people [seem to] need it, so it seems to follow that you should fill that gap. However, this isn't as simple as dropping off some clothes at your Goodwill downtown. Shipping, packaging, customs -it adds up. But it's not even as if all that is somehow worth it. Typically donations of this kind are items that are readily available in a given country anyway, so all the money spent on bringing over the donations is wasted.
  • Even more, this is money that could be invested into local suppliers. What if you had a coffee shop, but then someone decided to fly in and start giving out free coffee right in front of your shop because they wanted to help. Bringing in a bunch of free stuff can be pretty damaging to a local economy.
  • It's really just sloppy, and disrespectful to people's real needs. If everyone had enough shirts for a year, there would still be big issues. It feels good to treat a symptom for a while, but ultimately you're doing more harm by not addressing the illness. By not even taking the time to understand the issues at play in a developing country we are acting in ignorance and blatantly disrespecting the people we claim to care about.
Probably one of the most dangerous things about SWEDOW is that it makes you feel like you're helping, when really you are not at all. Your conscience may be temporarily salved so you don't feel a need to enact any real change. This concept is articulated by philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his compelling (and in this link, animated!) lecture, First as Tragedy, then as Farce.

Don't get me wrong - there are certainly times when it is important to intervene and provide free "stuff" that people need. I'm not saying let people go naked and hungry while we wade through red tape and sort out policy and systemic issues. But of course, the costs (I don't mean just financial) and benefits must be weighed, and the time and place for this type of intervention must be carefully discerned.

P.S. In the interest of keeping this a balanced discussion, I'll link to World Vision's defense of its donations.

Monday, February 20, 2012

a different kind of victory garden.

There is something really exciting happening in Hamilton! Hamilton Victory Gardens are in their second official year of operation, and I am so excited to be involved.

For one thing, I am looking forward to digging my hands into soil again - I had a garden when I was younger that ended up with my dad taking care of it and a cucumber takeover. More importantly though, this is an amazing model for holistic community development.

Hamilton Victory Gardens is an urban gardening project where the harvest goes to food banks as well as the surrounding community. It involves people who live in the neighbourhood as well as those who use the food banks so it is a real community effort. I went to the first meeting of the season last week and I was truly impressed with the mission of this organization. One of the things that I was most taken with was their emphasis on having this be a truly communal effort; one of the speakers was a man named Carl, who was a patron of the Good Shepherd food bank and became involved in the Victory Garden in order to contribute.

That is something that really makes this project stand out. Rather than simply providing people with handouts (although they are much fresher and healthier handouts than typical food bank fare!), the gardens allow people to take ownership of their situation and provides autonomy and a sense of purpose for those in need. A project like this has the ability to change the tone of a community – people feel like they are involved in something, and they are also reaping the rewards of their work. The garden is in the north end of the city, and of the things that the speakers noted last week was that they had never encountered any problems with vandalism or people interfering with their crops. It seems people appreciate having empty lots turned into useful, beautiful areas.

It is such a simple, exciting idea! And there are a ton of ways that this can grow and really make an impact, including evolving into a business endeavor for those in the community, and a community event center (see Hill St. Community Garden for the potential that urban agriculture has!)

This isn’t just a good idea for addressing poverty though.  As a culture, we are very separated from the food that we eat - where it comes from, how it is made, what it is made of. The ability to grow your own food isn't just a useful skill for those who are short on it. When I go to pick up groceries I often marvel at modern, Western conveniences. Around the corner I can get Mini-Wheats at ANY hour of the day or night. And I do. In the scope of all the people who have lived, and all of the people on the planet now, our way of life is incredibly unique – it has to be, it’s not very sustainable.

This year, Hamilton Victory Gardens plans to add six more locations, and provide ten times more produce than last year - so there is plenty of room for helping hands, both clean and dirty!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

is there any room on the bandwagon?

It seems there has been talk around the blogosphere (is that an okay word to use unironically?) about No Buy February. I'm not sure how much of a thing it is, but what I buy and how I spend my money has been on my mind lately.

And by 'lately' I mean my whole life, but things have been different recently. It seems I've been using buying stuff as a coping mechanism for stress as of late, which is quite out of character. Growing up in a relatively frugal family, when I was a kid if I bought a bag of chips at the corner store I would be plagued with guilt. So rather than adopting a moderate approach with how I spend my money, to deal with the guilt I have just gone to the complete other end of the spectrum. Kind of. I buy things I don't need more often than I would like - but I am not sure how to reintroduce my conscience into my spending without letting it take over and weigh me down.

The main thing that worries me about my thinking is that I keep thinking in terms of needing something - and it's always something I really don't need. I might buy something because I have been stressed, mad, sad, whatever, and then using it will help me get through the day, whether it is a book of poetry or nail polish. At least that's what goes through my head. I have typically prided myself on being something of a minimalist, so this is hard for me to admit.

I'm going to try and not buy anything I don't need (really need) this month. I want to divorce my sense of well-being from what I can buy. My material needs are met on a daily basis - I don't want that excess to get in the way of getting to know God better, or living as He'd want.

In this same vein of consuming responsibly I'm going to be reading this book this month, given to me from a dear friend:

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.
(if you don't want to buy it, there is a pdf available here!)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

a glass half empty? a look at microfinance.

The first time I encountered the idea of microfinance was at a church conference, and one of the interviewees was a co-founder of Kiva. "This. Is. Amazing," I thought. So simple! So effective! And above all, not paternalistic in the least, pointing toward long-term development that is actually effective. I was definitely smitten.

For the uninitiated: microfinance is the idea of making small loans to people in developing countries (either through community groups or a bank established for this purpose) to help them start a small business or endeavour of a similar sort. This is meant to help people to gain workable skills and establish themselves in a sustainable manner.

Microfinance has made great gains in popularity lately, and certainly seems to have a lot of the answers that people are looking for in terms of addressing poverty in a meaningful and effective way. The idea of mere financial aid is one that is often met with a healthy amount of cynicism; people are disillusioned from seeing money go to developing countries only to be mismanaged, get lost in inefficient government systems, or to go to something that doesn't actually benefit a community in the long run. The more we learn about poverty it seems that the obstacles are that much greater, and it seems like there is not that much that can be significantly accomplished.

Microfinance takes a different approach, and there are a lot of good ideas here: dignity of the poor, cultural sensitivity, the whole "teaching a man to fish," thing, and it inspires a reciprocal relationship between the donor and the receiver, rather than dependence on handouts and encouraging the weird power balance that so often accompanies aid. I think though, that microfinance is more complicated than it initially seems - it is certainly not the messiah of the developing world, as it is so often esteemed. Some of these cracks in the surface are starting to show, such as violence and shame surrounding pressure to repay loans. Impatience with faulty development strategies might hasten someone's dismissal of microfinance, but this should not be the case. By looking critically at the benefits and drawbacks of microfinance we can better assess how to apply it, and how to avoid these pitfalls.

Food for thought and related reading:

"How Microfinance Changes the Lives of Millions," Shweta S. Banerjee. Foreign Policy. October 26, 2009.

"India's Looming Microcredit Crisis." Sanjay Kumar. The Diplomat. October 30, 2011.

Microfinance and its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh, Lamia Karim

Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Where Have All the Mothers Gone? By Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese

This book is amazing. It kind of ties together my last two posts by telling the stories of women and what they have to deal with in childbirth. The stories are just...staggering. It's written by an obstetrician gynecologist, Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese who has worked primarily in Uganda and Yemen. This book shows so many different sides of the obstacles that women in developing countries face to have a child. It shows the forces of social pressure to have natural childbirths, when medical help would be available. It also depicts the difficulties of getting to that medical help - hours long crowded bus rides that can barely be afforded; lifelong incontinence due to either negligent or unavailable medical care.

These stories broke my heart. Among them, there are stories of hope, of overcoming adversity. What is most striking of each of these accounts is how very avoidable they are, from our perspective. For more information, see Save the Mothers.