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Making Money Off the Poor? Women, Poverty, and Consumer Goods

This aparajita was photographed by my husband, Jim, in 2008. In front of her is a bag donated by Bata Shoes, the first company to take the risk to join the system. They donated bags to carry the goods, as well as designing shoes especially for rural conditions.

Tomorrow, at the Skoll World Forum, I will join with a long-time partner, CARE Bangladesh, as well as leaders from DfID and Unilever to introduce an innovative system I have been studying for four years. It will be an interesting–and probably controversial–session because this innovation provides sustainable employment for the poorest women, but it does so by selling a basket of consumer goods, some of which are supplied by multinational corporations.

I first learned about this system when one of my students, Jesse Moore, a Skoll scholar who had worked for CARE Canada, visited me in my office.  He had learned that I was working on a new research project, later funded by ESRC and DfID, that intended to determine whether the Avon system worked and could be adapted for poverty alleviation.  Basically, Jesse said:  “If you are interested in that, then you should be interested in this.” And he proceeded to tell me the story of the emergence of the Rural Sales Programme, now called “Jita,” under the auspices of CARE Bangladesh.

Tomorrow, we will post for the first time a case, teaching notes, and a scholarly article about the Rural Sales Programme and its impact on the “aparajitas” (means “women who will not accept defeat” in Bangla).  The very human and compassionate story behind the birth and growth of the system is told in the case, authored by my colleagues, Catherine Dolan and Mary Johnstone-Louis.  The aparajitas’ stories are recounted and analyzed in a new article soon to appear in Gender and Development.  All materials will be available on this website, as well as the Said School site, tomorrow.

The panel discussion will be tomorrow at lunchtime, but will be available on video within 24 hours.  I have posted a blog on the Skoll Forum site, outlining the main objections I anticipate will come from the audience.  Having now spent five years studying consumer goods and women’s empowerment in developing countries–first Avon, then the RSP, and then sanitary pads–I have seen that the objections to consumer goods are largely rooted in “seven moral failures,” rather than in clear-cut, universally agreed beliefs about what goods the poor should have or do need.

Last summer, my husband, Jim, who is a wonderful photographer, went to Bangladesh at CARE’s invitation, to photograph the women and listen to their stories.  Over the next few days, I want to try and give some new exposure for the work that he did, which has been published as a “coffee table book” on this blog.  These faces and stories say more, in some ways, than anything else can about the power of this system.


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