Philanthropy

Made for good

Philanthropists are helping to empower artisans in developing countries by improving their skills – and connecting them with wealthy consumers in the west. Sarah Murray reports.

October 09 2009
Sarah Murray

As Goldman Sachs’ first female sales and trading partner, Connie Duckworth was used to a rather different kind of business trip. In 2003, still in her 40s but having retired from the bank, she found herself on a noisy military plane en route to Afghanistan, part of the first US delegation to be allowed to stay overnight in a country still considered a war zone. It was a trip that was to open what she calls “the next chapter” of her life.

Deeply moved by the devastation that the conflict had wrought across the country and on its people, Duckworth resolved to embark on a philanthropic initiative to try to help Afghan women. But ultimately she wanted to give more than just aid; she wanted to change their lives, not merely improve the difficult conditions they lived in. Even if Afghanistan was worlds away from the high-octane environment of Wall Street, there was surely, she thought, something to be done that would draw upon her skills as a businesswoman. “What the trip did was get me completely committed and passionate about finding economic empowerment opportunities for these vulnerable women,” she says. “It completely sang to me; it really was a seminal moment.”

The key to this empowerment, she decided, was rugs. Not the kind you find in the local market, but artistic pieces of exquisite quality in soft textures and rich, earthy colours. The refugee camps, she learned, were filled with highly accomplished weavers not using their skills. By harnessing their talent for rug-making, they could earn a sustainable living for themselves and become self-reliant. But they needed an infrastructure within which to work.

Her solution was to found Arzu Rugs, a not-for-profit business that produces stunning hand-knotted wool rugs, selling to clients all over the world. The architect Zaha Hadid has produced designs for it, as has the renowned interior designer Thomas Schoos.

More importantly, however, Duckworth’s project means that more than 600 jobs have been created in rural areas, providing support for some 2,100 individuals. “I could not have predicted six years ago that I would become a rug merchant,” says Duckworth, who initially used her own money to start the venture, but subsequently received a grant from the US Agency for International Development. “But I am deeply involved in this venture now. It is tremendously engaging work. It feeds my soul.”

Duckworth is not alone in having seen the transformative power of using charitable funds to seed commercial activities that assist people in developing countries. She is part of a growing movement of international philanthropists who are helping potential but impoverished entrepreneurs boost their livelihoods by improving their technical and business skills, and connecting them with consumers in the west.

In May, for example, Manhattan’s spectacular Tribeca Rooftop restaurant was the venue for a gala dinner for Aid to Artisans, a US-based charity that helps craftspeople across the world to raise their standards and designs to meet the demands of western consumers, and better their sales and marketing techniques. During the dinner, auctions raised more than $20,000, with the beneficiaries last year collectively turning over more than $15m in retail sales.

Philanthropists are increasingly recognising that by giving entrepreneurs the tools and networks they need to expand their businesses, precious donor dollars can be stretched much further. Regular work and income not only raise the living standards of the recipients and their families, but the creation of a small business can lead in turn to the creation of jobs, so extending the economic benefits into whole villages, suburbs, even nations, if the income generated is taxed.

“You can feel good about giving money to people to make money,” says Bruce McNamer, president and CEO of TechnoServe, which supports entrepreneurs in rural areas of the developing world. “For a long time, people had a hard time with that. But donors are getting used to this now, and the appeal of it all is the sustainability issue. They see it empowering people.”

Dr Salvatore LaSpada, chief executive of the UK’s Institute for Philanthropy, agrees. “There’s an awareness of the enormous problems out there – that they keep on growing, that there has never been enough money to address all of them, and that now this pool of money is shrinking,” he says. “This means that we all need to look at other tools at our disposal, and income-generating possibilities are very important.”

In Armenia, for example, Aram Sharambeyan, a jewellery designer, was struggling to rebuild a livelihood in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He and his sister established a small centre where a few craftspeople produced carved wooden objects and knitted and embroidered textile items, but though they were skilled in making them, selling them on was more challenging. In 1995, however, Sharambeyan began working with Aid to Artisans. The organisation’s consultants helped him to acquire essential marketing and accounting skills, and to come up with new formats for his products, such as pillowcases in sizes that would fit standard pillows sold in western shops, which massively increased the market for his products. Within a year of working with the consultants, Sharambeyan had hired 150 workers. Today, most of his artisans earn more than $200 a month, with woodcarvers bringing in up to $1,000.

Evidence of this kind of progress is what David O’Connor, president of Aid to Artisans, believes encourages donors to open their wallets. “It’s the success stories and the understanding that artisans or people in low-income communities need to develop businesses to support their families,” he explains. “And it’s a business based on cultural traditions and artistic heritage – people really respond to those stories.”

Of course, this artistic heritage also creates an extra appeal for donors who are giving away funds to support artisans. For, while assisting the world’s poorest entrepreneurs is a motivating force for many donors, the chance to give money to those producing craftwork and artefacts has an added attraction – the beauty of these objects and the link with the traditional cultures appeals.

This was certainly a powerful draw for Toni Sikes, a senior adviser to the boutique investment bank Gruppo Levey & Co as well as a supporter of Aid to Artisans, on whose board she sits. “What first brought me to Aid to Artisans is that I believe very strongly that original hand-crafted work enriches our lives and helps us place a personal signature on our homes,” she says.

Andrew Corrie, another board member, points to the tables ($550), stools and decorative objects being produced by a group called Haiti Marche, which is assisted by Aid to Artisans in Haiti. “They are really beautiful things,” he says. “And they are the sorts of things interior designers absolutely love.” Corrie should know, for he is a partner of Ochre, a London-based design company, and owns an interiors store in New York where craft items such as wooden spoons and baskets sit alongside antique French furniture and contemporary chandeliers.

It is all a far cry from the charming but rough-and-ready quality of objects normally associated with craftsmanship in the developing world. “Often when people think of a ‘charity product’ they think of junk, a trinket, a change purse or scarf,” says Duckworth. “That’s not the approach we’ve taken with our rugs. They have a wonderful quality and they are well priced [from $500 to $15,000]. And then there’s the whole back end of the social mission attached to it.”

Not that this was easy to attain. For Duckworth, achieving the quality she wanted was as great a challenge as anything she’s faced. At the time of her first visit to Afghanistan, the ancient rug-weaving industry was debilitated. Materials were shoddy and natural dye processes had largely been replaced by synthetic alternatives.

Duckworth set about rebuilding the infrastructure needed to revive this traditional craft. This meant filling in the missing links, not only by raising quality and helping weavers give their traditional designs contemporary reinterpretations, but also by providing much-needed access to quality yarn and dyes.

Equipping artisans with business skills is equally important. This is one of the services offered to artisan groups by the Craftmark initiative – a Delhi-based enterprise run by the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA), which certifies handicraft items. The organisation holds workshops across India to help artisans improve their understanding of areas such as sales and accounting. Anubha Sood, market access initiatives manager at AIACA, says that the greatest challenge for artisans is their distance from potential customers in western markets. “The biggest gap is location, because they don’t know what is ‘in’,” she explains. “So we send out information to them about colours and pricing – because they have to know their market.”

Non-profit organisations can even influence the export markets on which craftspeople rely. In one of its most ambitious initiatives, Aid to Artisans spearheaded the Lead Free Alliance with the help of traditional potters in Mexico, where exports had fallen dramatically after the US banned their products because of toxic lead glazes. In 2006 – with more than 1,000 potters trained in lead-free glaze application and US Food and Drug Administration approval secured – export sales exceeded $200,000.

Most importantly, the charities supporting artisans connect their grantees with affluent buyers. With help from Aid to Artisans, craftspeople have sold goods to US outlets such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel, as well as to smaller boutiques. And Arzu Rugs now sells in the UK at Hub Culture Pavilions in London, the US, New Zealand and Kuwait.

These sales play a critical role in combating poverty. For artisan businesses are – as development experts point out – the second largest source of rural employment after agriculture in many places. With low start-up costs and the ability to run small enterprises from home, craftspeople can thrive in developing countries, where they also create employment for seasonal farm workers outside harvest times. “In the rural areas of Afghanistan, there’s virtually no employment for men or women, so these talented and highly skilled rug weavers are the sole supporters for the larger household,” says Duckworth.

Evidence from other charities also indicates that supporting artisans is an effective way of creating jobs and incomes. O’Connor says that over the past decade Aid to Artisans has directly assisted 125,000 artisans across the world, helping generate $230m in retail sales. In the UK, Traidcraft Exchange helps producers in Africa and Asia to expand businesses that the charity reckons benefits 350,000 people directly and 1.4m indirectly.

In Latin America, the handmade jewellery, scarves, wraps and table-top accessories produced for Mercado Global, a fair-trade, non-profit organisation, generate income for more than 360 artisans and their 2,100 dependents. Meanwhile, in Swaziland, Gone Rural provides work for more than 700 women producing home accessories, with each woman supporting an average of eight dependents, including husbands and partners.

However, increasing the incomes of poor people is not the only benefit of donating in this way. “It’s about reinforcing the dignity of the artisan and the craftsperson through the beauty of handmade,” says O’Connor. “The things they make in India, for example, are exquisite – it’s unbelievable stuff, so to be able to bring those skills to western markets is very exciting.”

And it is also about preserving heritage. Arzu Rugs also draws on such skills, adapting ancient Afghan carpet designs that date back centuries to the Silk Road, when nomadic tribes passed through the region, each contributing to the rich creativity of carpet patterns and weaving techniques. “It’s the link to history, tradition and authenticity that’s so valuable to this kind of development work because it helps preserve culture, while also connecting artisans to the real economy of the 21st century,” says Duckworth. “That’s why I find this so appealing.”

Meanwhile, the donors supporting artisan entrepreneurs have an unusual long-term goal: to make themselves redundant. For the greatest testimony to their success will be when those artisans can stand on their own two feet, as many are already managing to do, and expand the businesses themselves unaided by any organisation.

As Toni Sikes puts it: “Economic stability is often achieved one person at a time.” And such stability has benefits that go far beyond the individual and their own community. “Strong economic environments where people are not living in poverty contribute to the stability of a country,” she adds. “And of the world.”

And as a philanthropic goal for us all to try and aim for, what could be finer than that?

See also

Not for Profit