Have you ever thought about world poverty and wondered what you could do about it? After all, you may not personally know any truly impoverished people and you are only one person, and what difference can one person make? I would like to share with you a story about how I came to see a little more clearly the issues of fair wages and improved working conditions, and how I could make a difference.
For most of my five years living in Lae, Papua New Guinea I employed a Papua New Guinean national lady to work one or two days each week to clean my house—the local term for maid is haus meri. I can't say it was an arrangement I was entirely comfortable with, but it seemed to be the expected thing—and I liked providing some local employment—so I went along with it.
It wasn't until watching the controversial film The Help one evening with friends that I began to think more about my relationship with my haus meri and others in similar situations. It was the scene where Hilly Holbrook declined Yule May's request for a loan of $75—the difference between sending one or both of her twin sons to college. Hilly's statement floored me: “a true Christian don't give in charity to those who is well and able. Say, it's kinder to let them learn to work things out themselves.”
It reminded me of an exchange I had had with my haus meri a few weeks prior. She came to me one day and informed me that her daughter was involved in a special children’s program at church and all parents were to prepare a chicken stew. She said that she did not have enough money to buy a chicken (about $10) that week and could I? I am embarrassed to say that instead of cheerfully obliging her simple request I instead waxed eloquent about how disgusted I was that the church leaders would expect the impoverished members to provide such an expensive dish and how risky it was to serve chicken dishes given that they would not be stored appropriately and would likely sit for hours before being eaten—the average Lae day is 86 degrees Fahrenheit and no refrigerators are available at the churches. Anyway, my haus meri didn't say anything more about the chicken and neither did I.
In hindsight, after observing Hilly and Yule May's interchange I felt ashamed of my inappropriate response to my haus meri’s simple and inexpensive (for me) request. I tried ever after to be more perceptive and more Christian in my relationship with my haus meri after that, whether she needed paint or glue for her child’s school project or help with school fees when her husband was out of work.
You might be wondering how all of this relates to you, and I will now explain the link.
The bible says, “the laborer is worthy of his wages” (Luke 10:7b). It also says, “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8 NIV).
It is easy to see how the employer of a poor person can make a significant impact on at least that one person, but how does that relate to those of us residing in a developed, western country without any poor folk in our employment?
We are the end-consumers of a host of products manufactured in developing countries. It is so easy to purchase our goods at fabulously inexpensive prices from the mega chain stores without any thought for the workers, their rate of pay or their working conditions. Our habit of spending as little as possible on any given item affects more than just our hip pocket—it drives down wages and the working conditions of those who already are impoverished. The people who produce the goods that you and I consume deserve to be paid a fair wage that will meet their needs and their family’s needs. The impoverished need not suffer unnecessarily because you and I want to extend our dollar a little further to buy yet more luxury and possibly superfluous items.
You may be wondering “But what can I do about it? I am only one person amongst millions of consumers?” And of course you are right, but little by little you and I can make a difference by purchasing fair trade and ethically produced goods, and by raising awareness in our social networks and community. Like Mahatma Gandhi said you can “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
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A fair trade model is more than just good economics. It’s a moral imperative.
Seventy percent of impoverished adults are women, according to Fair Trade USA. While the reasons may vary from region to region, in many societies, women are put at a distinct disadvantage because of long held patriarchal beliefs and gendered assumptions. This problem is only heightened when resources are already limited, like they are in the developing world. In these regions, women are often excluded from key industries and denied an education; instead of seeking work, women are encouraged to tend to the home and community. In addition, women often have less access than men to important community resources such as medical care, credit, and career training.
When women are offered few resources and few opportunities for their voices to be heard, they have little ability as individuals to improve their means. Yet they have the potential to make an extraordinary impact on their households and communities if given the chance. They’re often tasked with the society sustaining responsibilities of rearing children, tending to crops, and providing clean water. If given the proper information and adequate resources, women make immediate improvements that serve as building blocks for future growth.
When considering sustainable aid, human rights organizations and fair trade companies seek to break down traditional employment barriers by offering impartial, equal opportunity employment. Fair trade jobs not only provide consistent work and a livable wage, they create an infrastructure that empowers women through training, educational opportunities, childcare, microloans, team building, and savings matching programs. They give women independence and they give them a safe space for voicing concerns. In the long term, they help balance the power between male and female, making it possible for societies to function for the benefit of everyone.
But how do we ensure that fair trade opportunities are truly fair? How can we, separated by hundreds or thousands of miles from fair trade co-ops, provide opportunity without encouraging dependence? This is an issue I think about often, as someone who runs an online store and blogs regularly about the topic; here's what I've found.
A successful fair trade operation relies on strong local leadership. Take Marceline Ouedraogo—she founded a woman-owned Shea co-op in her native Burkina Faso (a country located in West Africa) to address the economic disadvantages of women in her community. The program is self-sustaining and profitable for all members. The Hinga Kawa Women’s Association in Rwanda functions similarly. Rather than working for a larger coffee plantation, women earn wages directly from the coffee they produce, providing for basic needs and education for their children.
Likewise, Jesus’ Economy’s Empowering Women program in Bihar, India relies on local representatives to organize community projects, provide training, and spread the message of Christ’s redemptive love. It’s a fair trade model with the potential for longevity—for positive, society wide change.
In the words of the secretary of Hinga Kawa Women’s Association:
“[Fair trade is] a way for us to sell the coffee that we grew. It allows us to take pride in our work, and it is also a support network. It is a time for us to come together and talk about our hardships with other women who have experienced the same challenges. And it is a time for us to sing and dance... and laugh. For many women, this meeting might be the only time they've smiled all day."
We Can Change the World by Promoting Fair Trade
Fair Trade empowers women, thereby empowering communities. Empowered communities can change the world!
We as Christians have an obligation to support and promote fair wages and safe working conditions for all, to build up our sisters and brothers, to walk beside them on this rocky path of life.
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It was a hot Saturday morning. My family had driven two-and-a-half hours from our home in Lae, Papua New Guinea to worship with a growing village church in the Markham Valley. We sat under a shady tree on a woven mat just meters from the over packed church listening to the pastor’s sermon. Seated beside us were a young woman and her 12-month old son. My husband had given the baby our keys to play with—I couldn’t help but notice that the little fellow had one significantly crossed eye and had difficulty focusing on objects he was trying to see.
With the mother’s permission, I took some photos of the baby playing. After the service had concluded I introduced myself to the mother, taking mental note of the names of her and her baby so that I could locate them again after I talked to an ophthalmologist friend of mine.
“The child has esotropia,” my doctor friend said. He gave me a run-down on how it would affect the child and how it would best be managed. With difficulty we located the child’s mother through a pastor from a nearby village and made arrangements for her to bring her baby to Lae to visit an optometrist with me. The optometrist was to assess the baby and decide whether glasses would correct his conditio or whether he would require surgery.
In Papua New Guinea, gaining an education and obtaining a good job seems to be the best way out of poverty. And since parents depend on their offspring to care from them in their old age, parents have a vested interest in ensuring their children overcome poverty. It appeared to me that the small amount of money I might spend on the child’s eye treatment could have lasting dividends for his family.
But on Mary’s two visits to the optometrist in Lae, she appeared to begrudge the time spent in both travel and consultation, commenting that she didn’t think it was necessary: her baby would only pull glasses off anyway and she had relatives with crossed eyes that corrected as they grew older.
I paid for the consultations and both times gave Mary enough money to cover the cost of her travel. However, before leaving Mary asked if I could meet two immediate needs (or at least perceived needs): a mobile phone and accommodation when she visited Lae. It appeared that she would prefer I spend my money on these things, rather than on her son’s eye condition. Perhaps we might question Mary’s wisdom in this regard, but it did change the way I think about poverty.
Throughout the Bible, there are references to assisting the impoverished with their needs:
“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17).
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:1).
“In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of our Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).
These are just a few of the biblical passages about the impoverished; so there is no doubt in my mind that we who love the Lord are called to bless those in need around us. We are meant to use the blessings that we have graciously been given from above to offer hope to others. But my experience with Mary raises an issue with that in my mind: How often do we in our approach to the impoverished decide for ourselves what they surely must want and need, instead of asking them?
I think Jesus has an answer to this dilemma. When responding to the cries of the two blind men in Matthew 20:29–34 and Bartimeus in Mark 10:46–52, Jesus both times asks “What do you want me to do for you?” He does this before taking action.
Before moving to Papua New Guinea, I lived in a remote country town in Australia with a large aboriginal population. I had heard that many aboriginal people slept on mattresses under the bridges around the town and many other places that did not seem at all appropriate to those of my cultural background. I had even heard of the aboriginal people in the town breaking apart their government-funded housing as quickly as new housing was being built. This all disturbed me, until I read an article that explained everything. In a local newspaper, an aboriginal person stated that the government need not spend its money on things that the aboriginal people, with their unique cultural background, did not need or want. The author believed that the aboriginals did not need or want housing. They merely wanted some land, with some shady trees and a washing/bathing block.
It is profound that countless dollars are probably spent on aid work meeting needs that are perceived by westerners, but not felt by the recipients. Naturally when something is not wanted it is hardly going to be appreciated, preserved or respected in the way that donors might expect.
It would appear that the best approach to meeting the needs of the impoverished would be to follow Jesus’ example: Ask the question, “what do you want me to do for you?” The answers of the impoverished might surprise us.