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Consumermas - Oxfam raises the tone

by James Graham 

Posted: 24 October 2006
Word Count: 1248

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The Oxfam Christmas catalogue is a good read. It hits us between the eyes with its startling idea that instead of buying Dad a Micro Road Pilot, or cousin Andrena a new mobile/digital camera, we can give much more imaginative presents...to complete strangers. We can give a school desk and chair, or an emergency shelter, to someone in a developing country. Gifts you'd never have thought of - safe water for 100 people; 'Change Maker' Kits (educational materials to help stop violence against women); condom kits; two mosquito nets; or an animal care kit including food, water, shelter and vet care for goats, donkeys or alpacas.

But the catalogue works on more than one level - not least, it's a send-up of consumerism. It's got all the jokey stuff, all the cute puns, you expect from the best tongue-in-cheek advertising copywriter. 'You don't have to be flush to give a toilet...it's most definitely not money down the pan'. Just beside the picture of the loos is a gold star with 'Great gift for dads'. The free offer tactic is neatly satirised in the offer of free fertiliser with every donkey. A nice touch to the send-up is the single page of ordinary gifts, things to buy for family and friends: a packet of seeds, a calendar, a set of colouring pencils. The top-priced gift in this section is £6.99.

Will you spend £1600 this Consumermas? There are those for whom that would be quite a modest festive spend. There will be some whose Christmas dinner alone costs something in four figures. Anyone who was bloated and hung over after last year's £1600 dinner could avoid the nasty consequences this year and pick a luxury pressie from Oxfam's splendid catalogue. For £1600 you can give a whole mango plantation to an African farmer and his family. It's not a throwaway gift; it's not just for Christmas. Baane Tahiru, a Ghanaian who received his plantation last year, says, 'It will be a source of income for my family for generations to come'.

There is an implicit comment here, and throughout the catalogue, not only on consumerism but on the space of light-years that now exists between the top and bottom ends of the scale of wealth - in a world where, grotesque as it may seem, it is possible for one individual to possess wealth equal to the total assets of ten poor countries.

The supply of donkeys and mango trees is all part of the enormous world-wide effort of the anti-poverty charities. Enormous, but - as most people would agree, not least the charities themselves - woefully inadequate. It is awareness of this inadequacy that in recent years has politicised the major anti-poverty organisations. For the leading charities, two courses of action must now run parallel: their own practical work in poverty-stricken areas, and political pressure on governments and global institutions to take action on a much more comprehensive scale.

The politicisation of War on Want is perhaps more radical than that of Oxfam. War on Want campaigns along with local pressure groups in the Third World to ' keep local services like schools and hospitals out of the hands of private companies'. In poor countries, whenever water, electricity, health services or education are privatised, charges rise beyond the means of those who most need these services. People in the poorest country districts or urban areas don't get services at all, because corporations see this sort of provision as a bad investment. War on Want's call for public, subsidised - loss-making if necessary - services for the poorest communities, is socialistic in the tradition of 'Old Labour' and the European Social Democratic parties.

War on Want recognises that international corporations, and the World Bank and IMF acting on their behalf, do little or nothing to alleviate world poverty. Indeed, as privatisation of public utilities in poor countries has shown over and over again, their policies have actually deprived people of many of the small benefits they previously enjoyed. There is no better example than the privatisation of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The company, having already hiked up charges by 68%, then attempted to charge struggling peasants for the right to collect rain-water in butts. As Mark Curtis put it recently in The Guardian - in another context - to talk about poverty without mentioning global capitalism is 'like talking about malaria without mentioning mosquitoes'.

We might even go as far as to say that global business thrives on poverty, and is therefore very slow to join the ranks of those who want to make it history. There's a telling quote in Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with America? Writing about the entrepreneurs and corporate whizz-kids of Mission Hills, a super-rich suburb of Kansas City, he says, 'They may be too polite to say it aloud, but they know that poverty rocks. Poverty is profitable. Poverty makes stocks go up and labor come down.' Frank is referring to the widespread use that business makes of low-waged immigrant labour, and of sweatshop labour in poor countries. Sweatshop workers producing commodities earn between 50c and $2 an hour; chief executives' salaries range from $1000 to $10,000 an hour. Poverty is mega-profitable. That being so, it's hardly surprising that anti-poverty NGOs have begun to adopt an anti-capitalist stance.

Where Oxfam is strongest is on the issue of arms control. Together with Amnesty International, it has called for an international treaty to deal with such absurdities as the proxy systems - production under license in third countries - whereby official restraints on the arms trade can be sidestepped. Why should an anti-poverty charity take up this issue? A recent Oxfam policy statement explains the connection: 'Armed violence...seriously limits people’s ability to earn a living, grow crops, or benefit from education. This is currently the case in northern Kenya, for example, where arms fuel conflict between communities competing for scarce resources during the present drought. Years of development are rapidly undone by war and conflict, while billions of dollars that could be spent on health and education are instead poured into arms'. Here again we see a major charity confronting not only poverty, but also the causes of poverty.

The Oxfam Christmas catalogue is essentially part of the traditional charitable role of Oxfam. But it makes a political point too, by calling attention to the annual spree in the developed countries, the consumer festival in which spending sometimes goes to quite disgusting extremes, and which reflects the growing and unacceptable divide between rich and poor on a world scale.

Its gifts fly in the face of the consumer spree. They render absurd and shameful the rich-world 'problem' of what new toy to buy for the person who has everything. A celestial gemstone globe, for example, 'the continents and countries individually cut into the globe using mother-of-pearl, amethyst, turquoise, black onyx, malachite, agate, crystal and tiger's eye'. This exquisite object is offered at a surprising bargain price of £149.95 - no more than the cost of three donkeys or ten school desks and chairs.

Well, Christmas is a time to indulge in fantasies. Perhaps we could imagine a very special catalogue being sent to all the famous financial Wizards of Oz - Gordon Brown, Paul Wolfowitz, et al. 'Give a really terrific pressie this Xmas! Instead of splashing out on state-of-the-art bunker-busters, why not give clean water, essential medicines, farming equipment and new loos to the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa? Are you in?'


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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 20:31 on 24 October 2006  Report this post
This reminded me, James, that last year one of my 'green' pals gave me the back leg of a goat for Christmas. Not for the freezer, you understand but some village in Africa would benefit from the donation. Well, I had already been softened up, so to speak, by another friend who for some time has been sending me cards saying I won't be getting a present but there'll be a tree planted somewhere in one of these deforested areas. Fair enough, sign of the times, etc. and I said no more. That was until I read in some magazine in February about villages where people couldn't get enough to eat because all the goats sent by well-meaning foreigners were stripping the greenery.

So I'm in, but with reservations.


James Graham at 18:26 on 25 October 2006  Report this post
This explains why the goats in the catalogue are labelled 'Limited Edition'! 'Because so many animals have been given as gifts already, there is now limited availability'. Mmm. A bit of an Oxfam fudge.


radavies1uk at 18:03 on 28 October 2006  Report this post
Hi James

Very meaningful, it's really is a shame the level of consumerism in our society, good to see it is still possible to make light of search a grave injustice with intention to spread the word :)



search = such

Cornelia at 22:05 on 28 October 2006  Report this post
An Oxfam donation is not just for Christmas. Many people in this country occupy big house with gardens and keep second homes at a time when homelessness is endemic. The privileged need to revise over-consumption of living space and the resources that maintain under-occupation. Riding bicycles and giving up air-travel may salve consciences , but revised thought is needed concerning reasonable domestic space. The aristocracy set the worst example, but the spare change of the well-to-do just skims the surface of real need. What is required is a political regime able to face up to domestic as well as global challenges.


James Graham at 18:58 on 30 October 2006  Report this post
Yes, I agree about 'over-consumption of living space' - that revision of thought is needed on that. It often seems nowadays, though, that as soon as we start to talk about what is needed, it all begins to seem utopian. Who is going to persuade (or compel) the super-rich to downsize their living space? Or give up significant parts of their wealth to be redistributed on a global scale?

I've never forgotten hearing, some years ago, a Swedish business woman interviewed on radio. Asked about high taxation in Sweden, she said people like herself had come to accept that 'we have to pay more so that people can have good housing and services. That's what the state's for, isn't it?'

Only in Sweden! I wouldn't be surprised, though, if that civilised attitude is getting to be old fashioned even there. Redistribution of wealth (from the rich to the poor, rather than vice versa) is hardly on the political horizon - certainly not on a global scale. It's so badly needed, but it's hard to see how it could become a reality.



Bob, many thanks for your comment.

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