First as tragedy, then as farce

By Melissa Levin

What is it with the conviction, held primarily in the West, that you can save yourself and the world (well, usually Africans) by shopping? Last week the tony Canadian chain, Holt Renfrew, began selling “the bag that can change the world.” For just $50, consumers can purchase a Tory Burch designed sack, some of the proceeds of which will go to feeding hungry African children. Feeding hungry children, wherever they may be, is a noble cause. But the persistence in undergirding a system that starves them in the first place detracts from the gesture.

The bags have been produced in partnership with Lauren Bush Lauren’s “FEED” NGO (she’s the niece of the former president and married a guy whose last name is Lauren; and that’s her modeling the bag in the pic above). In a promotional/informational article in the Toronto Star, the gorgeous white face of charitable and entrepreneurial giving is foiled by the black mass of youthful faces representing all African children. It is hard to tell whether their little hands are waving to the camera or hailing their saviour.

I am struggling with the arithmetic: consumption of luxury goods = food security.

The straps of the tote were sewn in Spain. Given the precarious nature of the Spanish economy, I would hate to make an argument for doing such creative labour elsewhere. But the charitable face of capitalism would surely shine brighter if it mustered up the courage to manufacture, to set up shop in its zone of generosity.

This FEED/Tory Burch effort comes hot on the tail of an email I received the other day urging me to buy a pair of TOMS shoes, both because they are trendy (and they really are) and because my purchase will result in the company donating a pair of shoes on my behalf to a poor person in a developing country. Again, giving shoes to the shoeless is all very well and good, but we must ask, who labored to make these shoes, in which place, under what conditions?

It would be useful to pause and watch Slavoj Žižek on the ethical implications of charitable giving again:

* You can read Melissa Levin’s previous posts for AIAC here.

19 thoughts on “First as tragedy, then as farce

  1. I am left feeling almost nauseated with the idea that clothiers to the elite and the most obscenely wealthy, Hillary and Galen Weston, engaging in their five minutes worth of “saving the world”, as they simultaneously gear up to this falls’ other worldly orgy in extravagence and conspicuous consumption, the Toronto International Film Festival. They are hosts to an opulant, over the top orgy in haut couture fashion, food and drink. When I think of Holts, charitable casues would be about the last thing that comes to mind as they support and abet lifestyles and economies that are themselves largely to blame for much of the immiseration that we see around the world. Humility is not a word that begets Holts. The idea that they are selling these hand bags next to an Eve St. Laurent night gown is about as pale as it gets.

  2. In a way, you guys have shot yourselves in the foot.

    Since discovering this blog about a month ago and reading through your archive, I’ve noticed a consistent anti-west bias and a passion for pointing fingers at any white people innocently trying to “save the world”.

    I would be impressed if you guys got in contact with the organizers of this campaign and all involved parties for a bit of fact-finding and maybe an interview, but unfortunately this blog post falls flat. Not even the red herring worked (the red herring being the superfluous paragraph about TOMS shoes).

    The FEED N.G.O. involved in this project currently operates in America helping to feed disadvantaged kids, and they also operate in Mexico. This is something you’ve poked fun at before. “Why don’t these damn NGO’s help people in America??” Well here you are.

    The campaign is also linked to Micro-financing for women via the Troy Burch Foundation, which, according to their website “is a non-profit organization that provides economic opportunity to women and their families in the United States.”. No mention of Africa there. Why is Microcredit for American women a topic of discussion on this site?

    If you delved a bit deeper into this campaign and unearthed a scam, for example, only 20cent per sale goes towards charities, then I’d be on your side. But if that was the case, you’d be defending poor American people who are getting ripped off by this American NGO, so then what?

    I must say though, those kids in the photo don’t look happy at all. There’s not one smile between them! I LoL’d.

    I look forward to your reply, and if I’m wrong, tell me where I went wrong.

    • That’s interesting, because quite a number of us are white!! No self-loathing here, I’m afraid!. Just the willingness to criticly reflect and to realize that not all narratives that come from a white place are worthy of praise – are therefore worthy of critique. And, you need to read further, this site delves far deeper and into a number of areas that have nothing to do with the racial politics that you speak of. If you look for one thing, that is what you will find.

      • I know a lot of you are white. In fact it is my understanding that this site is 100% American owned and operated.

    • there are two issues here that are inter-connected: the one is about capitalism and the other is about race. the photograph is troubling because it perpetuates an image of white subjectivity and power and a mass of needy blackness. the charity should be more aware of its place historically and subject the images that it generates to critical scrutiny. on capitalism and food security – the globe has enough to feed itself, but some of us are abundantly endowed while billions are constantly under-nourished. to consider that continued over-consumption by some will change the world is, at best, naive.

    • The problem you discuss is valid, but not on point. What this article, specifically in its reference to Zizek, are about is a systematic critique on charity. The thought is that charity does ‘patchwork’ (i.e., it helps individuals by giving them food or some basic need) without considering changing the society that causes people to be in need. It is the capitalistic structure and consumer culture that relishes in luxuries that require minerals, precious metals, and cheap labor. Thus, no specific number regarding the percentage of revenues that some company keeps versus gives to charity will reveal the heart of this critique.

      What this asks for is something akin to the behavioral suggestion of the book/movie, “Blood Diamond”: stop buying diamonds. They are unnecessary luxuries that foment violent conflict elsewhere, and thus, it is our responsibility to actively shut down this market (at least until it can transparently prove the ethics of its purchasing practices, which is going to be almost impossible since there is no legal precedent forcing corporations to offer details of the labor behind their products).

      What this article asks for is a charity that not only does patchwork, but challenges its supporters to be more conscious consumers. Look to some of the organizations that create products to reduce water waste in Africa – they are very unconnected with consumer culture and have purely ethical and environmental messages in their products.

      Let’s re-imagine your ‘red herring’: A girl throws a pair of TOMS into her closet when she gets home that contains 6 other pairs of shoes and a line of jackets. Meanwhile, an African child receives his second pair of shoes in a lifetime and has a wardrobe smaller than the ‘jacket closet’. The same girl later buys a bottle of Coke. The water in this Coke comes from a water plant in the same city the African child lives in, and Coke is placed their because water is very cheap – about 25-30 cents cheaper per gallon (I’m sure labor costs help this decision, too). The African child is then forced to limit himself to two cups of water per day and one bath per week because it is scarce in his city and his mother can only fetch so much water by hand. I suppose the shoes were donated so that it would be a bit easier to walk 12 miles for water.

      -Is this imagery clearer?

    • People who’ve never had their photo taken don’t smile for cameras – they haven’t got ‘smile for the camera’ in their experience. A bit like old photos from the victorian times when everyone looked grumpy on pictures. Doesn’t mean they aren’t happy – just that they aren’t smiling at this moment in time!

    • strap is sewn in Spain. the rest is not advertised and a relatively quick search couldn’t find anything and that silence is usually code for China. but i’ll follow up.

  3. @Jaimy: we are neither 100% American ‘owned’ nor ‘operated’. We wish someone owned and operated us, sometimes – then we’d get paid for doing all this work! And besides the fact that being white is a misnomer – though it does function as a marker of access and power often, as do other so-called racial markers – not all of us at AIAC are. But asking after national belonging and racial identification are such 20th century interrogations. So I’ll leave those toys there.

    Other finer thoughts: I’ve often wished Lauren Bush would feed herself just a little bit more. She’s got that Lollipop look (big head, stick body).

  4. “But the persistence in undergirding a system that starves them in the first place detracts from the gesture.”

    What do you mean here by “a system that starves them in the first place”?

    • I presume it means restrictive trade laws designed to keep the money in the west, combined with unethical behaviour of large companies in exploiting local people and not paying tax, and thirdly the meddling in politics.

      If this lot was sorted out they wouldn’t need aid. But giving a bit of food relief now and again is an awful lot cheaper than genuinely levelling the playing field.

      Political campaigning and donating to charities that aim to improve the system and employ local people rather than giving out. People in Africa, as elsewhere is the world, need jobs, education and healthcare, and they also need to have choices and responsibility. Birth control is a central part of choice that is often conveniently ignored. Too often NGOs and governments with their own agenda make funding dependent on leaving out education about birth control. Aid where given needs to be focused on needs and not our own agenda!!

  5. “I must say though, those kids in the photo don’t look happy at all. There’s not one smile between them! I LoL’d.”

    I’m a tad perplexed at Jaimy’s almost jubilant discovery of these children’s unhappiness at being fed. Clearly it has something to do with them living in “Mexico and disadvantaged America”.

  6. Reblogged this on DrSapna and commented:
    Charity as hypocrisy. Best of all the little Youtube video at the end visualising the wisdoms of Slavoj Zizek. Read and watch. Very connected to the latest Indian fad of ‘activism as fashion’.

  7. Those children are in school uniforms. I wonder which classes they were pulled out of to facilitate this photo-op by a non-entity who didn’t even bother to dress up for the occasion. Where I live, in South Sudan, a lot of the school kids have caught on to the whole ‘smile and have your photos taken with the white lady’ thing, and are not as thrilled as they once were. So many NGOs, all with an insatiable hunger for pictures of children with just the right poor-yet-smiling, scruffy-yet-dignified, dependent-yet-grateful ‘look’. I’ve seen some of these photos on websites which are full of factual inaccuracies and frankly mendacious claims about their activities, all asking for yet more donations. I also know how little of that money reaches the actual ‘targets’. Angry of Juba

  8. I was raised in the “developing world” – namely Mexico. And although I recognized poverty I never saw anyone “starving to death” as sometimes the media outside Mexico portrayed. I had always thought of people in Mexico as happy and safe (the latter as a matter of fact is something which has sadly changed a lot over the last years and now it is not anymore). Anyways… I studied development economics and have changed a lot of my perspective about “Africa” first of all because all the info we got was digested by the media. I myself had a hard time changing my perspective about the “developing world” because of that – and then I thought about how many people must have the same trouble changing the labels about my country – which sometimes can be funny like people dancing in a jungle-like scenario to very nasty images like everybody involved in the drug cartels or stuff like that. From an “academic” perspective aid can be sometimes a bad thing because of the conditionalities (e.g. countries lack policy space) and other macroeconomic adverse impacts. Aid-dependant countries often have governments that are accountable to their donors and not to their people (can you call that a democracy?). I think if we want to help countries we need to change a lot of our ideas and pre-conceptualizations, like that of “the country Africa” and that has nothing to do with being white, black, brown or yellow! Anyways…my point is we need more awareness like the one is being created through this website.

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