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Imperialist Morality: Losing Sight of Avon’s Contribution in Africa

From the start, it was clear the interviewer was unprepared.  Though all the materials had been provided to The Woman’s Hour, and in spite of my strong suggestion that the case, in particular, should be read in advance, BBC’s Jenni Murray swooped in with the predictable “moral question,” clearly assuming that her own view was the universal truth and that all right-minded individuals shared it.

Ironically, the Avon in Africa Case Study and its accompanying teaching note are written with the very clear intention of countering these cultural prejudices that so many in the West think are universal precepts.  Had Murray done her homework as was suggested, we might have been free to concentrate on the real news:  that a private system is successfully helping poor women to achieve economic independence under deeply desperate conditions–and doing so in a way that many government and charitable programmes have tried without success. The lessons learned from the Avon system are really important because they offer straightforward advice on how existing efforts in microfinance and entrepreneurship can be adapted toward a more hopeful effect.  Current not-for-profit programmes that try to support female entrepreneurs fail often, while also causing serious financial distress for the women in developing nations.

But all some can say is that it is “immoral” for women to be selling lipstick to the poor.  If Jenni had read the materials, she would have learned, first, that the consumers in this South African system are not buying makeup in any substantial numbers.  She would also have learned that the things they do buy–especially lotions–are considered “necessities,” not “luxuries,” in the black South African culture, unlike some of the things British consumers would feel are staples, like soap and deodorant. She would also have learned that the flexible pricing in the Avon system makes these objects affordable even for the poor, especially when you consider the transportation costs of buying something at retail.

But it is the imperialistic attitude that I find so disappointing.  Human beings have painted their faces and bodies throughout history, all around the world.  The practice was stamped out by the European colonial powers during their era of expansion.  The Europeans–especially the English–saw painting as idolatrous and promiscuous–even though much body painting is done for spiritual and ritual purposes (as in the mehndi practice typical among many Hindus and Muslims even today).  The conquerors also felt that the practice of painting was a waste of time, which was an important consideration since the whole point was to enslave the indigenous people to work for the imperial powers. And, of course, the Europeans’ own face-painting, very common among aristocrats during this time, was seen as an entirely different thing, perfectly permissible.  Much like our own purchases of lipstick are fine, but when poor South Africans buy the same things it is a moral outrage.

As modern consumer goods came into being, the English-speaking Western nations experienced a profound conversion to soap-and-water hygiene–and built enormous infrastructures that brought those practices into everyday use, making them seem “natural” and “necessary.” But in South Africa, that infrastructure doesn’t reach most black people.  They continue, therefore, to clean themselves with a variety of lotions and creams.  They also make heavy use of fragrance.  And so, the big sellers in the Avon system in South Africa are lotions and fragrance, not soap and lipstick.  Importantly, smelling a certain way is necessary for getting and keeping a job.

Avon also sells antiperspirants and deodorants, but these are new items in rural South Africa and many poor people see no need for them.  Are deodorants necessities because people in Europe think they “need” them?

Southern Africa, like North America, was once home to peoples who painted their faces, oiled their skin, plaited and beaded their hair.  Today, the use of lotion among black South Africans mirrors the past practice of oiling skin.  But the use of coloured cosmetics has shifted.  Today, our respondents told us, use of lipstick is associated with “modern,” “emancipated” women, much as it was when first popularized in America.  We were told repeatedly that women in South Africa liked using lipstick, felt good when they wore it, and should be allowed to have it.

But who gets to decide what the poor may have?  If the Western press believes such decisions are up to them, they would do well to become more informed about existing practices and morals among the many other peoples of the world. They should also become aware of the considerable literature showing that allowing people only food, shelter, and other forms of physical sustenance, as if they were livestock merely to be kept alive, is profoundly dehumanizing. And if we stick strictly to this way of thinking, we will deny people not only the means to dress and groom themselves (as is often done to slaves, prisoners, and concentration camp victims), but also books and music, which are no more necessary to sustain life than lipstick.

So are we to “allow” the poor in the former colonies only those things that will suffice to keep them alive and allow them to work?  That is, indeed, a moral question.

Fortunately, the other press coverage we are receiving today is thoughtful and well informed.  In particular, David Smith’s piece for the Guardian, which is also appearing in South Africa, is really excellent.


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