July 23, 2012
Have you ever thought of charity work in Africa as a non-Christian, non-Mormon, etc., etc. endeavor? Aside from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that is. I've (achingly) noticed that all appearances have pointed to the fact that it has historically been missionaries, now more so young religious folks on a mission through their church, that go to developing nations--such as Africa--and well, do good. And in practice, Christianize. Or Catholicize. Why is there such a strong connection between religious conversion and charity in developing nations?
Why is there a noticeable social, socioeconomic, linguistic, and savior/heathen difference that distinguishes the haves from the have nots around the world when it comes to religious conversion, charity, and marketing?
There is a huge, discomforting capitalist slant in all of this to me--case and point: today, I read a blog on a lifestyle blog (name withheld) that I tend to frequent about once a week. The blogger mentions/adorns a piece from an organization that sells/donates the proceeds from their goods--which were made by a group of women in Africa--to women in Africa. Disclaimer: I am by no means putting down the organization's goal, which I truly believe is a thoughtful and helpful, ongoing task. Instead, I am merely pointing to the capitalist, have-and-have-not mentality that this organization attempts to bridge, but nonetheless reinforces through their marketing to appeal to the female American buyer.
Back to the charity site. Interested in this organization, I click on the link to its website. Instantly, I am bombarded by photos of very young, happy, golden-haired (looks to be dyed) women with glowing, perfect skin and skinny bodies modeling the goods for sale. Even the aesthetic was bright and cheery; staged and perfect. Think stereotypes. Granted, one model was dark haired and perhaps racially ambiguous, but still. The model photos look like they are straight out of a J.Crew catalog (but even J.Crew is now seeing the need for models of different races). Is this a luxury goods site masquerading as a charity organization? I wonder. That question is quickly followed by another: Why does the site solely promote American capitalist, consumerist ideals when it is supposed to be a charity site with proceeds going to Africa?
All I could think was, "Savior. Heathen. Savior, heathen. Savior/heathen." And the lines blur.
I finally click on the charity site's "Designers" link--and images of the goods' creators emerge, tiny thumbnails of reserved-yet-smiling black African women (many of whom look like they've seen many bad days). Greatly contrasting with the images of large, bright, peppy images of the models, the designers' images are small, dark, and slightly somber. By the photo comparison, these two groups of women seem light years away from one another. And I imagine that buyers will solely identify with the models--I am doing some good!, they must exclaim before purchasing--and shy away from the discomfort that images of poverty and social/governmental upheaval evoke in us. Stirring us to action. But then, playing devil's advocate, maybe the designers' photos were meant to look somber. Buy more, help out! (Yes, I see the irony: I am also a shop owner.)
Lastly, I click on the "About" link, and there is an image of the founders, who, by all appearances, are merely older versions of the models, themselves. Not literally...but just add five-to-ten years on the ages of the models, and you get the probably age of the founders. It finally dawns on me that the site appeals to a certain demographic that I am clearly not a part of, even though I want to help out in some way. Because of the marketing, I refrain. It's the stark contrast between capitalism and exploitation, the haves and the have nots.
In this consumerist nation, I have the choice to refrain, just like the charity's founders have a choice in the design and marketing of their organization. For the charity, underneath the pretty facade is ultimately an origin and a meaning...a goal. What it all boils down to in developed nations is choice, and for that freedom, I am consummately grateful and decidedly, relieved.