The concern motivating the Jita test is that, regardless of how well the system performs to help poor women earn a living, selling Western packaged goods through them will be seen as an immoral act. People who make that criticism attribute a number of negative properties to these objects, from ruining self-esteem to creating too much rubbish. They very seldom realize the positive potential, such as the improved health that comes from regular hand-washing (you need soap to do this).
We will be testing for both the positive and negative properties. But there are two other assumptions that underpin this discourse: (1) that the current environment is free of such goods and (2) that such a world is a better place, unspoiled by modernization.
Today, we were in the village that has no aparajitas (the “control” village). I listened as Radia, one of our terrific research assistants, conducted an interview with a clean,well-groomed woman wearing a pretty orange and ochre sari, as well as gold bangle bracelets, gold earrings, and a gold nose jewel. Based on the respondent’s memory of the 1971 war, we put her age at about 45–like most adults here, she did not know her own age. But she looked, by Western standards, to be about 70. People in the villages here often look older, due to hard work, poor diet, and exposure to the elements.
This woman’s home was much poorer than any we have seen on this trip. Indeed it was poorer than any I have seen anywhere, including Africa. The “house” was four walls of woven bamboo, from the ground up to about five feet, then open for about four feet up to the corrugated tin roof. There were two beds, as she shares this space with both her husband and her son. There was one object you might call a table, though you could not sit at it and share a meal. The floor was dirt. There were old bottles and cans strewn everywhere, as well as unidentifiable bits of garbage. They had used sheets of plastic to try and cover the gap between the walls and the roof. Even in the beautiful weather we are having right now, the plastic was coming off. In the floods and cyclones that plague Bangladesh, this will be a house of sticks surrounding a mud bath. It will provide no escape from the wind and rain.
While we were conducting the interview, the woman’s extended family (about 15 people) worked on what was clearly an improvement to the compound, some kind of building structure. This family lived together in a set of clustered houses, some more solid than the respondent’s. They were fighting bitterly the whole time–often the shouts of rage made it hard to continue our questioning.
Yet, amid all this din, I could hear the words “shampoo” and “toothpaste” in the exchange between Radia and our respondent. Afterward, I asked Radia whether, in fact, the word here for shampoo is “shampoo.” It was. And the word for toothpaste? “Toothpaste.”
So, even in the poorest part of the village where there is no aparajita selling toiletries, we are finding enough knowledge of consumer goods that “shampoo” and “toothpaste” mean the same thing they do in English. And even a woman who lives in a house open to the elements wears the jewelry that signifies she is married–in a society as conservative as this, she and her family would otherwise have no dignity at all. Similarly, in spite of her impoverished condition, she was still cleaning herself as humans do–using shampoo and toothpaste. Rituals like marriage and grooming are among the things that differentiate between this group of folks and a pack of animals, much as the thin walls of her house do. Dismissing the need for such things, admitting only the needs beasts have, such as for food (and perhaps shelter) is to treat them as such.
I was reminded of a village I visited in 2009. This was a very poor village indeed, in northern Bangladesh, and so removed that, when the road stopped, we had to be carried across a shallow river in shallow boats, then ride an ox cart the rest of the way. In this area, the people were still practicing open defecation. There were no electricity or plumbing–or media. Three people had cellphones. They had so little market access that CARE had actually assembled a trading center there, in hopes of stimulating the economy of the place.
I will never forget this village because the men simply would not let us talk to the women. CARE had worked very hard to institute programs to soften the gender attitudes, including both “rights-based” and “market-based” approaches, but the community resisted. These are the kinds of places where men throw acid in the faces of disobedient women. Early marriage and domestic violence are the norm.
On that day in 2009, the men gathered to hear what we had to say (though we were there to speak to the women). I remember asking, at a loss for what else to do, whether any of them had ever heard of Wheel, the laundry detergent Unilever has developed specifically for such communities. When the question was translated, every single hand went up.
So, yes, consumer goods are known and used even in the most remote places, to one degree or another. But as far as I can see, the societies that globalization is replacing are hardly a lost paradise.