The Bracelet Economy
A pair of girls no older than six approaches. Each with an arm full of bracelets. In case their innocence and obvious needs weren’t enough to arouse your empathy they have other trinkets in their bag to spark interest. The girls are persistent. They follow you as far as they can. You are torn. It’s rarely a good idea to buy something from these kids. Not because you lack empathy for their plight, but because you know if they are able to make money, they will keep selling bracelets to tourists rather than go to school. Yet one does not necessitate the other. Perhaps you give in, believing that even a dollar or two will help more than walking away.
These girls and boys are everywhere in the developing world.
I was living in Istanbul in 2015-16 at the height of the refugee crisis. Everyone wanted to help. New NGOs were formed, existing ones added new programming to address the urgent need and, with surprising frequency, handicraft was the principle skill taught. I was astounded. Before the crisis, Syria had one of the highest literacy rates for girls in the region. Yet once they become refugees, we stopped seeing them as capable, intelligent, educated.
Women and children are the most vulnerable in any crisis situation. The narrative of their suffering and vulnerability writes itself, making it all too easy to relate to potential donors. The baseline logic is sound. It would be great if the women can bring in some monetary assistance to the household. Independent income is the first step in women’s empowerment. One must have skills in order to earn a living so what is the easiest skill to teach? Handicraft.
Earrings, bracelets, tote bags, knitted scarfs, hats and tea cozies. Let’s get some sewing machines donated and teach them how to sew! In every crisis country, you will find someone leading refugees in making handicraft. In every developing country, you can find people hawking the same wares.
Is this really the best skills to be teaching? Or is it simply the by-product of inherent biases? We need to reexamine how we think about funding nonprofits and what we are willing to support with our dollars.
The true value of craft circles is the community that is built amongst the women. Socialization can help in trauma reduction. Beyond the yarn and the hand-twisted copper wire earrings, the core of these programs is the sense of place and belonging that is crucial for the participants. Except it’s hard to get donors to fund a sense of belonging and community creation in which they do not benefit. With handicraft, the donor at least has a story to tell, a trinket to show off. So, busy work gets labeled as skills education and women continue to be offered low-wage manual labor-based training. It fits the linear logic that underpins our capitalistic mindset.
We need to evolve our thinking and re-imagine a longer-time horizon. We need to invest in long-term education, 21st-century skills training and embrace the difficult investments that bring us little immediate gratification.
Let’s find innovative ways to get girls to stay in school longer, be it mobile classrooms or bicycle donations to solve the transportation issue in rural communities. Imagine STEM education for refugees, skills that will help them find meaningful long-term employment that will transform their lives and their families’ lives. Let’s not only provide hardware (PCs and Tablets) or invent educational games, but train them in digital literacy so they maximize these tools. Replace handicraft with language and financial literacy; create communities for continued support and the fostering of self-expression.
Let us look beyond numbers that fit easily on a spreadsheet, the quantifiable, scalable and self-contained. We need to broaden our view on aid, development, and charity, and re-imagine it as an investment in our collective humanity.
The lack of educational opportunity and poverty are inextricably linked and issues that come with massive displacement in the case of Syria are complicated. Solving for one isn’t enough. Hello Future is working in Iraq with Syrian refugee youth. Heifer International and Kiva are doing excellent work in creating sustainable solutions to alleviate poverty. Malala Foundation has an ambitious goal to bring twelve years of education to girls worldwide.
Charlie Grosso is a writer, photographer, and adventurer. She is also the founder of Hello Future, a nonprofit providing digital literacy training for adolescent refugees in Iraq. After decades of traveling the world and dissatisfied with meaningful and substantive ways to give back, she leaped and founded Hello Future to provide Syrian refugee youth much needed 21st-century skills.