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This video was taken of our panel about Jita, formerly the CARE Rural Sales Programme, in Bangladesh. at the Skoll World Forum.  It was a good panel.  We had an excellent moderator and a full range participants–CARE, DfID, Unilever–and I think we covered most important aspects of the program.  It never fails to amaze me, however, the way that people will lose sight of the effectiveness of systems like this one (and Avon, results forthcoming) because they get so twisted into moral judgments about the products involved.  I find it particularly upsetting the way the gender empowerment aspects get lost in a lot of disapproval of cosmetics–the cosmetics complaints themselves are, I feel, a thinly veiled form of gender hostility.

Beyond the cosmetics question as such, other moral judgments made by Westerners (such as those against sanitary pads) are becoming such a problem that I “blogged” for the Skoll Forum about this destructively self-righteous behavior (see “Seven Moral Failures“) and I am repeating that blog on this site, because I think it is important to maintain the argument where people can see it.

The big issue for Jita is Unilever’s Fair and Lovely, an enormously popular skin whitening product throughout South Asia.  In a recent article in The Guardian, referred to in the video of the panel below, the journalist, who had visited the system on the ground, allowed the considerable work and estimable benefits represented by this innovative system to be upstaged in favor of criticizing Fair and Lovely.

Now, I myself am not real happy about this product nor the reasons for its popularity.  But I have been called on the carpet for my attitude so many times by women in Asia that I now realize it’s actually my problem.

First, I think it is important to note that virtually all the global cosmetics brands now offer such products in Asia–this is not just a Unilever item.  Secondly, as I have been told in contemptuous tones several times now, the line is really no different from tanning creams popular in the West.  Thirdly, the preference for light skin in this part of the world predates European involvement by hundreds and hundreds of years–it’s not an effort to try and “look European” (that is to say, it’s not “all about us”).  Finally, if you understand the cultural norms behind the purchase, it doesn’t seem “irrational” to buy it, even for the poor.  In such communities, an unmarried daughter is a major financial liability, not unlike a mortgage.  The women we have interviewed among the aparajitas, for instance, consider the need to save for their daughters’ marriage among their very top priorities.  To the degree that having lighter skin will allow them to make a better match, and at less cost, it is economically “rational” to think an object that will deliver that benefit (assuming that the product actually does do what it claims to do) is a “necessity.”

I don’t like the gender politics of this product line any more than do others.  I don’t like the cruelty that often seems to accompany the preference for light skin, even within families.  I really don’t like the way the commercials for these products involve whole families pressuring daughters to lighten their skin or promise to help careers.  I do think it’s only fair (so to speak) that there are now skin lighteners for men-and that they, too, are very popular. But, at the same time, I do think it is hypocritical and myopic for Western commentators to obsess over the sale of these creams in programs that are otherwise providing important benefits to poor women, while locally their compatriots snap up skin darkening products.

Anyway, here is the panel:


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