How Cute

I was watching a TV program that showed NGOs helping women worldwide by teaching them skills so that they could earn money by making little objects of art in their homes. It was all very cute and uplifting, with dozens of women working together, often singing, while they made all sorts of baskets, boxes and little packages of homemade food. But it takes them all day to make one or two little items that they maybe can sell for a couple of dollars - better off getting a job at the factory. Maybe singing could be optional.

There was a similar show about small agricultural producers someplace really dry and bleak in Africa. Western NGOs were teaching the local farmers how to plant crops in what they said was a sustainable fashion. I don't know if it was really sustainable or not (my guess is not), but the poor farmers were essentially doing the work with pointy sticks. It didn't look like fun. The narration said that this was a way to "feed the world." It won't even be a way to properly feed the guy wielding the pointy stick.

There is a lot of this kind of crap on CNN International, people making "objets d′art" out of old beer bottles or recycled garbage. The stories usually feature some appropriately typical poor natives and some articulate westerner with a plan to sell the stuff in big galleries in New York, London or Paris. The story often ends up in one of these places where a fat-cat gallery owner praises the work and claims there is a big market for recycled garbage.

These kinds of things are part of the problem, not the solution. A few people can make living making art of out garbage but not very many. It is a cruel hoax to imply otherwise.

Pretending that we can feed the world by using tools that became obsolete at the end of the Neolithic age is just stupid. It is also a colossal example of arrogance. Does anybody really believe that it is a good thing to keep these poor suckers in perpetual poverty? These boxes, baskets just won't sell for enough to keep anybody in anything but near abject poverty.

Growing crops with ancient methods won't feed the world. There is a good reason we gave that stuff up. Life sucked before the industrial revolution. People were hungry much of the time and starved to death with monotonous regularity even in "rich" places. The old methods are nothing but hobbies today. Hobbies that only people in the rich world can afford because they don't really depend on the handmade baskets or crops grown with stone age methods.

The best thing we can do for the poor is help them to stop being poor. This means changing the equation and the cultures of poverty. Programs and plans that sustain them in poverty are immoral, no matter how well-meaning or politically correct.

Africa will help feed the world - after it enjoys the benefits of modern fertilizers, soil and plant science and new varieties of crops. We cannot and should not try to go back to the benighted times of the past. Artistic design will permit these women to raise their families in dignity, but only if they are coupled with efficient modern manufacturing. Let's leave the cute to kittens and kids. Real world solutions require real world ideas.

Posted by Christine & John at April 22, 2012 8:22 AM
Comment #342469

Cute? My how smug, elitist, and “ugly American” you sound.

And, you’re wrong. Using Garbage to make art can definitely change lives for the better. And, the human race should also start viewing garbage as a resource — because there is a lot of money that can be made by reclaiming raw materials out of garbage dumps.

On the other hand, I agree that ancient methods of farming probably aren’t too likely to change the world (unless of course we’re talking about growing region-specific crops or using heirloom seeds that are better suited to growing in a particular soil, rather than adding tons of petroleum-based fertilizers which are expensive and toxic for the environment). However a new method — namely hydroponic vertical farming and gardening could definitely change the world — even in some of the harshest regions around the world when it comes to trying to grow food, because it uses less space, far less water, far less compost, and far less fertilizer.

Posted by: Adrienne at April 23, 2012 6:22 PM
Comment #342471


I live in Brazil, have been to Rio and met lots of these garbage guys. It is not a solution for 99.999% of the people. It may be “ugly American” to point out the truth. However, I think it is even uglier American for our NGOs and others to go among the poor and create false hope.

The human race has always viewed waste as a resource. It depends on how you plan to use it and what methods you employ to get it.

I sponsored a seminar way back in the early 1990s about looking at the whole product life cycle. We advocated treating pollution and waste as the cost it is. A good process will produce little waste and/or reuse it. It is just good business and we are getting better and better at this as a society.

Waste already is a big business, with firms specializing in getting materials from garage. But it depends, again, how you do it.

Most garbage, however, is not easily made into art and most of the poor people living near garbage heaps could not add enough value to it to sell it.

Posted by: C&J at April 23, 2012 6:42 PM
Comment #342472


BTW - in the book “Ugly American” is about applying inappropriate solutions to problems of development and not trying to understand the problems. The “ugly American” in the title is actually the one who tries to understand the local culture. People unfamiliar with the book have since changed the term to apply to the opposite group. This is what I am complaining about with these “cute” projects. They are not appropriate to the people they are supposed to serve. They are ideas and prejudices thought up by rich fat-cats in rich cities. That is why I am against them.

I know you have your stereotypes about me, but one thing that I do very well is get into places and talk to people. I learn their languages and cultures and literally walk among them. I have been to many of these really poor places. I have seen the damage that well-meaning foreign experts can do. On the other hand, I have seen the leverage a little thing can have.

Many programs aimed at the poor are really for well-off groups to make them feel better. These clowns show up, sing a few songs, make promises and then go home. The local poor wait in vain for real help.

I am not saying here that I am better because I help the poor. In all honestly, I rarely help the poor directly. It is not my business. I just use my talents to try to understand how things work and where leverage could be applied. This may or may not help the poor. But I am honest with the people I talk to. I never promise them things that I cannot deliver and do not give false hope.

Posted by: C&J at April 23, 2012 7:00 PM
Comment #342478

Dreamy eyed liberals usually give false hope to those in need and go to bed feeling they have really helped someone. To change a life for the better requires more than a simple handout. Their programs and ideas usually make folks more dependent while the noble goal is to make folks more independent.

Posted by: Royal Flush at April 23, 2012 8:05 PM
Comment #342479

So, you promise nothing, and give no hope, and you think that’s the best thing you could do.
I don’t see it that way. I’m a lot more in line with that
Apple Computer ad that said:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The Misfits. The Rebels. The Trouble Makers. The Round Heads in the Square Holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of the rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. The only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

I like the crazy ones. I like the people who make art and crafts out of garbage and found objects. I like the people who want to help those people sell it. I like the people who go out of their way to buy it. I like the people who see misery and feel the need to try to end it. I like the people who want to help make that happen and lend their time and money to those causes. And I like the people who smile even when making the world a better place seems completely impossible.
Just a different way of looking at the world, I guess. And, as they say, it takes all kinds.

Posted by: Adrienne at April 23, 2012 8:12 PM
Comment #342480

I am surprised, C&J, for your criticisms of the NGO entrepreneurial projects in undeveloped countries. They may not, today, produce the quantity or even quality of products that are needed to feed the population or provide sufficient income to lift them from poverty. However, from what I understand, that is not their principal purpose. Such projects and World Bank sponsored micro small business loan programs are truly designed to develop an entrepreneurial spirit within the population. To produce a confidence of self sufficiency.

In the past, all too much “foreign aid” and trade agreements have gone to very large “top down” projects for agriculture, manufacturing, etc., only to see it “ripped off” by the elite or to produce sweat shop working conditions and wages for the population.

I, for one, applaud the efforts of micro loan and training programs to stimulate and reward the entrepreneurial efforts of those in third world environments.

Please don’t confuse the “objets d′art” produced by westerners of garbage and garbage pickers with real training and micro loan programs for the garbage pickers themselves.

Given some proper training in agricultural techniques and modest financial support, there may well be one in a thousand such farmers that recognizes the profit potential of modern techniques and invests in such an approach growing his business and providing not only increased food but employment for others. I thought that was how the theory of markets worked. In my opinion, criticism of those attempting to get the common man into the game is misplaced.

Posted by: Rich at April 23, 2012 8:51 PM
Comment #342481


Lots of people like the crazy ones. But for every Mr. Deeds (or Steve Jobs) there are hundreds who are just plain nuts. They are not going to create anything but trouble.

As I have said many times before, I am morally certain that I give more of my own time and money to good causes than most. I just try to be smart about it. I guess I know more about most things than those crazy people you talk about. You make the world a better place by working at points of maximum leverage.

Tell me, how much of this garbage art have you actually purchased and how much have you paid for it. If the woman works two days to produce it, you would have to pay thousands of dollars to make it worthwhile for her.

Of course, you never did. It is not only you. Almost nobody does. All those “crazy, misfit, rebels” always have good reasons not to take part. Most of those people you talk about never really get to know the poor at all. They don’t learn the languages and they are afraid to go alone to poor places.

My outlook is indeed different and my standards higher.

Posted by: C&J at April 23, 2012 8:51 PM
Comment #342482


Some NGOs are very good. They take the time to understand and do good work. My favorite is the Nature Conservancy and I give them thousands of dollar a year.

Micro loans are also good. I have contributed to them too personally and helped run programs provided them. I worked with micro-loans in Eastern Europe and Iraq. I know how they work and do not work.

If you read what I wrote, I am against those feel-good projects that really can never succeed. They are the ones they like to show on TV.

My criticism is that they are NOT helping the common man. They are making movies and playing political games.

I agree that most foreign aid has been wasted and some has actually caused harm.

Posted by: C&J at April 23, 2012 8:58 PM
Comment #342485

You always sound so overly judgmental and so full of yourself. I’m really glad I’m not like that. I leave room open for all kinds of people, and I don’t always expect everyone to live up to my idea of what constitutes “higher standards.”

Posted by: Adrienne at April 23, 2012 9:00 PM
Comment #342487


I actually try to get things done. I too leave room for all kinds of people, but I understand that some will not achieve the things they claim.

I may seem judgmental because I have had responsibilities. In some jobs I have had getting things wrong could mean getting people killed. Fortunately I don’t do that anymore. But I still see the results of mushy headed thinking on real things that I care about.

I am being judgmental when I ask you how much of that garbage art you have bought. Nobody buys much of it. It doesn’t support the poor people and it never will. There is way too much talk and “concern” and not enough thoughtful action. I find that the more people talk about helping the poor the less they do about it. They march and scream slogans, but don’t leverage their real abilities.

Re being like me - It is hard. Most people cannot. I suppose most don’t want to be. Don’t care.

Posted by: C&J at April 23, 2012 9:25 PM
Comment #342488


We basically agree. It just seems so pointless and discouraging for you to write about some NGO entrepreneurial projects that you find too “feel good” and without practical long term promise. “Feel good”, after all, is what sells the overall effort.

The programs, on balance, are a legitimate effort at awakening a concept of self sufficiency and empowerment for the poor. Perhaps a “top down” approach is better, but a “boot strap” approach deserves a fair chance at succeeding.

Maybe we cannot give the dirt poor farmer a couple of diesel powered tractors and a few tons of fertilizer, but perhaps we can give him something more important in the long run, the development of his basic skills and the opportunity to participate in a market economy.

Posted by: Rich at April 23, 2012 9:35 PM
Comment #342489


I believe in bottom up or at least middle up.

I just don’t like the CNN crap. There is “feel good” and there is the PC feel good. Of course, people need motivation to do the right thing and feeling good is motivation. But some of it can be negative.

The examples I mentioned. If you teach women to make art by hand out of garbage, you are harming them in the long term, since they will not be doing useful skills. If you get small farmers to use old methods, you are condemning their children to poverty. The people who do these things should not feel good. Yet these are the things CNN highlights. These clowns win awards. They draw resources from good projects and their projects actually cause harm.

Posted by: C&J at April 23, 2012 9:45 PM
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