Does the Developing World Really Need Another Tailor?

Meet Jenifer. Jenifer lives in a rural village in Northern Uganda and is the mother of twins with another baby on the way. She was trained to sew by friends and partners of Canaan Farm and is really quite adept at tailoring school uniforms, aprons, handbags and the like on her foot treadle machine. During half of the year, Jenifer and her husband are subsistence farmers who grow enough maize to feed their family plus a bit extra to sell in nearby markets. They earn around $332 per year during the biannual harvest. Every so often, the tailoring project she is a part of provides enough orders from organizations located in the US and Uganda to supplement Jenifer’s meager income. Other times however, there are no orders to be had and Jenifer’s family must find a way to survive on their less than $1 per day earnings.

When Jenifer was first trained to sew along with a class of 18 other village women living in her area, she had high hopes that this skill would provide the means to support her family and provide a quality education for her children. The buying power of America alone could provide a good wage for the items Jenifer could produce and she imagined that her life was about to change for the better. But Jenifer quickly learned alongside the other women in her class that orders were not consistent, that the American market was always changing and that producing the kind of quality desired was difficult on her machine. If a needle broke or material ran out, the nearest market was several hours walk along dusty roads. She began to understand that her hopes of a new vocation may not be realized.

Jenifer is one of many men and women living in developing communities who was singled out to receive skills training when NGOs began to rethink their method of foreign aid distribution a decade or so ago. Many began to adapt their strategies to what they deemed more “sustainable” approaches to poverty alleviation, including the important piece of encouraging business and trade infrastructure within many impoverished nations. Well-meaning philanthropists and ministries soon caught on and the fair trade industry was launched along with the “business as missions” model. At first, it seemed like we may have found the solution. Instead of giving hand-outs, we were giving hand-ups. We were empowering people to learn a skill and work ethical jobs to support their families. Ideally, aid would no longer be required after a relatively short period of training.

And let me say first of all that many of these initiatives have been incredibly successful at creating industry where there may not have been otherwise. They have offered hope through empowering work opportunities and connected Western consumers with the people behind their products. They have given many under-employed individuals the dignity of vocation and guided the global poor into new export marketplaces. We applaud those who have been able to do this well and to bring good news to the poor in this tangible way!

I have also watched many of these tailoring, jewelry making, and basket weaving startups begin with great expectations only to falter, limp, and eventually fail.

There are many reasons for this, ranging from poor quality and work ethic, to inflated and unrealistic wages paid to artisans, poor design and marketing, lack of infrastructure and communication, unreliable supply chains, corruption, and lack of product diversification.

These are challenges that Yobel Market (the direct trade business I co-founded and currently own) has confronted every day in our 8 years of working with global artisan groups. Yobel currently contributes to the fair wages and market access of over 1,500 tailors, farmers, jewelry makers, leather workers, weavers, and carpenters working around the developing world. We recognize that those living below the global poverty line have typically less than a 2% share of the international export market. We love that we can help connect the beauty of these people and their handiwork with our community here in the United States!

Let me also say that we have had a hand in supplying either tailoring training, quality control, design, and/or color theory courses directly to another 90+ women and men trying to improve their livelihoods and become more profitable in emerging marketplaces since 2008. We did this out of our heart to empower those living in poverty to have a sustainable means of providing for themselves. Sometimes we were successful using this model, other times less so.   

This is why I grit my teeth a little when I hear of yet another passionate ministry or organization supplying tailoring (or jewelry making, etc) training to another group of hopeful women living in India or other far off place. Not because what they are doing is BAD. And not because I have seen particularly limited outcomes result from these trainings.

Largely because of basic principles of supply and demand coupled with the fact that many of these organizations have conducted little research into the needs of the market they are getting ready to flood with hopeful artisans. This is a mistake we have made and had to rectify with a broader version of entrepreneurial training here at Yobel.

This is the mistake that we in the West make so often when we act as the “Planners” identified in William Easterly’s book entitled White Man’s Burden. Planners are agents in charge of distributing an aid organization’s assets to attempt to fix large scale problems (like poverty or trafficking) utilizing an outside-looking-in approach, making recommendations based on what we think a community needs based on our own first world values and experiences.

If we are planners as Easterly describes them, we would utilize our best intentions to locate a group of women needing empowerment and then rightly ask ourselves a series of questions that might sound a little like this:

Question: What is better than giving these women a hand out?
Answer: How about the ability to provide for themselves?

Question: What are relevant jobs women can do in this culture with a relatively low entry level?
Answer: How about tailoring? Or jewelry making. Retail. Perhaps cosmetology or catering?

From this conclusion, planners formulate a solution and create a proposal that will provide the requisite funding to train 50 or so women to become artisans of some kind. Then after a year or so, they determine the women have graduated and give them a sewing machine or loom as a parting gift and expect them to now be able to provide for themselves and vacate poverty or prostitution for a better life. If we elected to teach them make a handicraft then we think we can probably get people in America to buy their products and that these women will have the added benefit of a Western market. Success!

The problem is, it’s hard to get a high quality product with good design using local supply chains while maintaining both a fair wage and an accessible end price point for a US customer. You have to stay ahead of the trends. You have to work with artisans who have never met international standards or deadlines before and maybe have never developed their fine motor skills. You combat transportation issues, strikes, natural disasters, foreign holidays, malaria, deaths in the family and lack of child care. And at the end of the day, if you can’t dream up a quality product that is easy and affordable to create that stays on trend, you can’t market it over and over again and your newly trained tailors are out of a job, or at least lacking consistent wages. This isn’t to discourage you, it is simply reality. There are many successful companies and organizations doing this and some really beautiful products with purpose in the marketplace as a result. It can be done!

“Well, what if I train them to sew for their local marketplace instead of an international one?”

GREAT IDEA!!! Really.

This will be successful in accomplishing your goals of:

  • Empowering women
  • Increasing their confidence and social standing
  • Improving their ability to earn a consistent income
  • Improving their opportunities for employment, self or otherwise

IF the following is also true:

  • The women themselves came up with the idea of wanting to be trained as a tailor/weaver/caterer/cosmetologist in the first place
  • The women have the fine motor skills, health, time and commitment to gain these skills
  • You have conducted local market research and determined there is a need for more tailors/weavers/caterers/cosmetologists in the area
  • You are training the appropriate number of tailors/weavers/caterers/cosmetologists to fill this gap in the local economy, no more
  • You are also equipping these women with necessary entrepreneurial and job acquisition skills to be able to secure employment. Meaning for example, that these women are not only learning how to sew, but they are learning what to sew, and how to determine profit margins, set proper prices, keep accurate records, maintain budgets, acquire and retain customers, forecast budgets and reinvest profits
  • The women trained have the support of their family and spouses to pursue employment in the future
  • The project is properly funded and managed
  • The women have access to some form of start up capital or an initial loan of equipment and materials
  • The women know how to set appropriate goals and move forward post training
  • The women realize from Day 1 that you are not the one providing jobs for them, only training. Acquiring a job or income post training is their responsibility, even though you may help with the process.

But rarely do we take the time to conduct the due diligence necessary to ensure we are doing more than cranking out dozens of women who are trained in the same skill as their neighbor with little understanding of how to turn that skill into a business or reach a marketplace. Trust me, I have learned this the hard way.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about how to address unemployment and gender related issues young women face around the globe. We absolutely should.

Denise Dunning put it this way in her article for the Pulitzer Prize winning Guardian:

Despite the clear benefits of investing in employment opportunities for girls, the global economic crisis has created serious challenges for youth employment. According to the International Labour Organisation's 2012 report, the global youth unemployment rate has risen since 2007 and medium-term projections suggest little improvement in the next few years. Further, macroeconomic conditions create particular challenges for adolescent girls, who experience greater rates of unemployment compared to boys in nearly every region of the world. Given these challenges, vocational training can play a key role in helping girls get jobs. Vocational training typically includes development of technical capacity, entrepreneurship, and business skills. Ideally, vocational training is demand-oriented and builds specific skills tailored to prospective employers' needs.

‘Vocational training for young women: what works and what doesn't.’ By Denise Dunning 

Yobel believes that looking for solutions to poverty and vulnerability in the business sector is definitely the way forward. But we need to stop and think before we plunge blindly forward into funding another under-researched program just because it sounds like a good idea.

We must tread carefully in our development attempts and be the question askers rather than the answer givers.

We must be Easterly’s “Searchers,” seeking out what communities in the developing world truly want for themselves and the best way to achieve those goals, rather than acting as “Planners.” And we must rely on the expertise and knowledge of those whom we are desiring to serve rather than acting as though our education, experience, or access to finance make us the authority in solving their problems.

So don’t let this article stop you from seeking to do good unto another. Don’t be discouraged if you, like me, have trained people in the developing world with the hope they will have a consistently paying job as a result when this is in fact not how things turned out. DO seek to offer the skills and connections that will enable others to seek out a sustainable future utilizing their assets and abilities (we can help).

Reformers are always looking back and criticizing the actions of their predecessors. This is a good thing when it leads to more effective ways of doing things based on what history has taught us. 10 years from now, we will be the ones they are evaluating. I think if we can keep this inevitable future in mind as we initiate programs, it will help us to constantly be measuring and evaluating our success and apologizing and improving when necessary. If we are motivated by the desire to love our neighbors as ourselves and willing to be humble seekers in our approach, I know that lives will be impacted in positive ways. Even if it means we must consider more carefully before training another tailor.

- Sarah Ray