In Bangladesh, jute products made by a women's cooperative are paying for children's shoes and, for the first time, letting those youngsters go to school.
In Nicaragua, refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador are making painted wood boxes, keeping alive their native arts and at the same time earning money to send home to their families.
In Mozambique, farmers are negotiating for export of their traditional wood carvings--with the assurance that they will not be asked to cater to the American market by whittling spice racks and salt and pepper sets instead of authentic figures and animals.
An Economic Boost
In each instance, artisans in developing countries are being given an economic boost--and an infusion of dignity--by an Indiana-based organization calling itself Friends of the Third World.
Friends, and its network of affiliates, call themselves alternative trading organizations and their mission, as president and administrative coordinator James Goetsch sees it, is to make changes in a system of doing business that "has left some people out," to find a practical way to "solve the problem of poverty and injustice in a permanent way."
Under the commercial system of export, Goetsch points out, the people who produce the goods in the Third World get back only about 10% of what the products bring on the international market. Under a system of alternative trading, the producers can expect to see about 50%.
These alternative traders are not out to strike down free enterprise, but they are dedicated to the proposition of giving the poor and powerless of the Third World--and America's have-nots--the slice of the pie that in mainstream trading goes instead to middlemen.
Guaranteed a Fair Share
What that means is that when the American consumer buys tea from Tanzania, cashews from Africa, wind chimes from The Philippines, potholders from Guatemala or corn dolls from Appalachia through an alternative trader the people who produced those goods are guaranteed a fair share of the profits.
And, equally important in the view of alternative traders, the American consumer gets an education with each purchase--a label explaining economic/social/political conditions in the area of origin.
As Goetsch explained, "Very few people are really helpless" but many in the world are starving because they do not have access to the system. "We're trying to provide that opening."
There was a bit of '60s deja vu at last weekend's alternative trading conference at Loyola Marymount University--wire-rimmed glasses, Birkenstock sandals and all. These new-age traders came from Puerto Rico and Massachusetts and Maine and El Paso and Santa Ana and Albuquerque to talk about networking and better marketing strategies and production glitches.
They shared a vegetarian banquet (eating less meat means more grain for food in developing countries) and, in small group discussions, they shared their concerns about things such as how to better sell their products without stooping to crass commercialism, how to obtain capitalization without going to the big banks and how to ensure some kind of size uniformity in clothing imports from the Third World.
As one participant noted, when you're dealing with imports from these countries, "an extra large shirt could be from small to extra large."
Should alternative trading organizations go into shopping malls? Should they continue to rely on churches, together with fairs and bazaars, as a primary outlet for the goods they buy from the Third World? For the masses in America today, one participant noted, "their church is the mall."
Importance of Education
And they agreed on the importance of educating the American consumer to quality imports in the face of competition from quick-buck entrepreneurs who, as one alternative trader put it, "steal designs from Mexico, get them mass-produced in Hong Kong and sell them."
Sales have been somewhat sluggish for alternative traders. There are language barriers, problems with inferior or uneven quality, late deliveries (a disaster at Christmastime), the reluctance of Third World producers to explore new ideas for the American market, high prices and even pest infestations in shipments.
As marketers, said Angelika Bensch of Fort Wayne, "We're doing a miserable job."
But that is not to say that enthusiasm for the alternative trading concept is flagging or that there are not small successes. A financial statement for Friends of the Third World for the fiscal year ending last August showed sales of imported crafts and foods close to $350,000.
That includes mail order and walk-in trade at the shop in Fort Wayne and at seven Friends-affiliated shops, among these Third World Handarts in Orange.
The concept, which started in Europe a decade ago, is slowly catching on here, alternative traders believe. Now they need to get the message out; indeed, a media campaign was one of the discussion topics at this conference.
Third World Motto