We’ve all seen the commercials on television that go something like, “for $1 a day, you can feed this child.” These ads that push cash donations to charity foundations are well meaning, but international advocacy work is often a lot more complicated than throwing money at poor communities abroad. Sure, that dollar will feed one child, but will that child ever learn how to earn her own bread as a result? And what about the local wheat farmer American aid money put out of work because he can’t possibly afford to undercut our price of “free?”
If we are looking to make a long term difference in the developing world, we need to focus more on building sustainable capacities in local people and stimulating local economies. After two years in the Peace Corps, I believe that the best way to do this is to expose local small business owners to internet marketing and good web design techniques. The price of mobile technology has dropped so dramatically that today there are 4 billion mobile phones in use in the world, and over a quarter of those are smartphones. In fact, some estimates have it that mobile internet usage took over desktop internet usage in 2014, and many of these mobile internet users come from developing countries. The landscape in many places now is such that people who may not be able to afford utilities like reliable water or housing can afford some form of mobile technology. This mobile internet revolution has blown the world wide open, removing barriers to information and making us more interdependent than ever. Most relevantly, a lot of small business owners in developing countries do beautiful handicraft work that is worth far more than local consumers can pay, but is priced at a comparative bargain for foreign buyers looking for authentically crafted products. Internet marketing can help expand the market for these handicrafts and increase profits dramatically.
One real world example lies with Anou, a handicraft marketing web site modeled after Etsy based in Marrakech, Morocco. This locally run nonprofit runs workshops for promising Moroccan art associations in web design and internet marketing, and specifically gears their workshops towards the best small business web design practices. We courted them to come to my village where they worked with the local sewing association, a group of seven moms who made less than $100 a year and were at risk of disbanding. Anou taught them the best internet marketing techniques and how to use mobile technology in a way that was understandable even to the illiterate memebers of the association, and today the sewing group is a respected crafting hub with a formidable mail order business. With just a few photos and product blurbs a day, they have accessed the global market and can now meaningfully contribute to their families’ income, no charity needed.
As Americans continue to try and help the world, we cannot underestimate the power of empowering local populations via training in skills, rather than the giving of resources. I won’t repeat the proverb about teaching a man to fish versus feeding him some tuna, but the analogy is clear and more apt than ever before.