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#80 Innovative Livelihoods Approaches (a.k.a. Handicraft Projects)

August 8, 2011

As my esteemed co-blogger so astutely notes, in the aid industry if you are not “being innovative”, chances are you are not “being funded.” And so it should come as no surprise to anyone that innovation is pretty much the trendy theme-du-jour among Expat Aid Worker intelligentsia. But in no sub-sector of the humanitarian world is awesome trendiness of innovation more universal than in livelihoods.

It makes sense, right? You can only “innovate” so many high-yield varieties of maize (North Americans grow corn; everyone else grows maize) before people eventually have enough to eat. Or if you find a cool way to get all the village moms to breastfeed = infant morbidity goes ‘waaaaayyy down = cha-ching! You’ve just worked yourself out of a job.

Wait… what?

But Livelihoods is the great untapped source of EAW livelihood for the future. Inside every rural African or Latino or South Asian villager is the next Donald Trump or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg yearning to break free. Everyone is a latent entrepreneur. They just need the right innovative livelihoods approach.

And here, as any EAW worth her HRI per diem knows, the hands-down, top-of-the-line marketing department wet-dream innovative livelihoods approach is the handicraft project.

Poor people the world over are sitting around drinking banana beer or smoking hubbly-bubbly right on top veritable gold mines in their own backyards. All they lack is a bright-eyed, think-outside-the-box EAW to build their capacity with an innovative livelihood approaches handicraft project.

Project beneficiaries will break the poverty cycle making and selling hand-painted cats (photo by @shotgunshack)

All those old tires? Don’t be burning them during demonstrations. The astute EAW seconded to the innovative livelihoods handicraft project will teach villagers to tear them apart and use the radial bands for shoes! Voila! TOMS Shoes is out of business, everyone has shoes, and before long aid workers whose Chacos have worn out will be wanting to buy them for $5.50 per pair.

Or those old coconut shells piled up everywhere? Think of the potential! Form a women’s cooperative, learn all about basic double-entry accounting, and then in month seven a consultant from the Philippines will come teach everyone how to carve awesome-looking monkeys out of those. All you have to do then is establish durable linkages between the informal and formal commercial sectors, ensure representation of “your beneficiaries” at all relevant forums, and then leverage local relationships with the commercent class (“sustainability,” hello!) to ensure viable long-term market access so that villagers (who would have never thought of this all on their own) can keep on selling those badass coconut monkeys in high-end tourist markets for a really, really long time.

Of course the awesomest handicraft-based innovative livelihoods approaches are those that involve synergistic partnerships with hoity-toity retailers in the USA or Europe (or maybe duty-free shopping in an international airport). The developed world wealthy and socially conscious alike are a virtually inexhaustible market: they just cannot get enough recycled hemp apparel, tacky jewelry, or kitschy cause-marketing trinkets. A “Dhaka 2001” T-shirt is just a T-shirt. But if it’s hand-made in Mymensingh by a single mother of five who’s breaking the poverty cycle during her “free time” it becomes a fashion statement. Add the “fair trade” logo, and you’re looking at synergistic partnership with Nordstrom or Macy’s.

classic women's handicraft economic innovative livelihoods cooperative..

So, seriously – get “your” villagers to start turning their trash into stuff to sell. At Nordstrom. With your agency logo slapped on the packaging.

See, if you…. “teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime..”, then the next obvious level is…

“innovate a sustainable livelihood solution and this community makes bracelets out of recycled newsprint which they sell to DKNY and all retire in ten years with plump 401(k)s…”

Development win!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa permalink
    August 8, 2011 8:16 am

    Next to (1)sewing (2)tie-dying or (3)soap-making as “livelihood” projects, handicrafts is the way to go!

  2. mgreenall permalink
    August 8, 2011 12:21 pm

    “if it’s hand-made in Mymensingh by a single mother of five who’s breaking the poverty cycle during her “free time” it becomes a fashion statement”

    Exactly – the hard sell is more often tied to the disadvantage of the producer than to the product itself. There’s a restaurant in Kigali, where as well as food they sell greeting cards made by orphans; jewellery by saved sex workers; and baskets woven by people living with HIV. In the short term they may sell a few but the statement that this sort of thing makes is troubling…

  3. August 8, 2011 12:59 pm

    this blogs fits totally with the job I am doing currently in the Unicef Innovations Lab in Kosovo!! congrats.

  4. Rachel permalink
    August 22, 2011 8:52 am

    My boss just asked me to implement a project in the community where we take old foam from mattresses, stuff them into material and sell them as pillows. ‘Microfinance for the community,” she beams. And so empowering, given that this is obviously the community’s idea. Hmm…

  5. kyoungish permalink
    June 16, 2014 9:14 am

    An old post… but just what i needed before i make the same mistake..


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