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Where Do Craftspeople Fit into International Trade Agendas?

Jongeward, Carolyn is an independent researcher and consultant on artisan issues and trade support.

World leaders clash over international trade rules and regulations during the latest round of World Trade Organization trade talks. Policy analysts debate the pros and cons of trade and aid as means for less developed countries to find ways out of poverty. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is increasingly a factor in social marketing and investment strategies. In 2005, “31 million people from 84 national coalitions around the world” took part in a global campaign to Make Poverty History, calling for “governments of the richest countries to make the political decisions that deliver justice for the world’s poorest people” (www.makepovertyhistory.org). How do the worlds’ craftspeople fit into this picture?

Millions of artisans work skillfully with wood, clay, fibre, metals and other materials creating a vast array of beautiful and functional handmade items. They add finishing touches, display, and when possible, sell the products of their labour. Much of this work goes unrecognized or unaccounted for in international trade statistics. However, there are encouraging signs. The International Trade Centre (ITC) in Geneva, over many years, led negotiations that resulted in a harmonized system for codification of crafts. This system not only facilitates the collection and analysis of craft trade data, but also helps “measure the impact of crafts, and demonstrate their important role in economic development and world trade” (Caroline Ramsay, Crafts News Magazine, Summer 2000).

Many governments and international agencies now recognize the role of craft in poverty reduction strategies, women’s income generation, enterprise development, and cultural heritage preservation. In each case, decisions are made about how best to apply limited resources to optimize the beneficial impacts on craft production and trade. One Canadian example of international trade support directed towards strengthening the craft sector is a partnership project between the Trade Facilitation Office Canada (TFOC) and the Board of External Trade of the Tanzanian Government. This project is part of PACT, Programme for Building African Capacity for Trade, which “primarily targets small and medium enterprises and their support institutions” and “addresses supply-side constraints of developing countries and the goal to diversify their production and export base” (TFOC). Although Tanzanian craft companies constitute a very high proportion of Tanzanian participation in international trade fairs, the country’s craftspeople are not organized and there is no database on craft supply. TFOC has designated project funds towards the creation of a directory of craft producers and products. Additional support is directed to the establishment of a national craft association to represent the needs of the craft sector, particularly for export marketing.

International trade policy makes little reference to craft, but on-the-ground projects and programmes in many countries support the work of craftspeople. Inevitably issues of international aid and trade arise as each craft organization struggles with questions about the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of their initiatives: How can technical programmes for artisans be maintained or expanded? How will craft organizations strengthen leadership and institutional capacity? How can craftspeople acquire current market information and make products that fit with changing markets? How can sales be maintained or increased so that artisans are paid properly and benefits accrue to their communities?

Handmade traditional craft and textiles possess distinctive cultural, economic and environmental value. This is a significant leverage point for craft trade in a world where the concepts of social responsibility and social marketing are increasingly in play. A new form of political consumerism is emerging among a growing number of people with concern about global poverty and sustainability issues. For these people, each buying decision (when possible) is a vote for the kind of world they want to live in. The Fair trade movement is now an established expression of this and has gained sufficient ground to influence mainstream shopping: “A recent survey, carried out in 25 European countries, shows that Fair Trade sales in Europe have been growing at an average 20% per year since 2000. The annual net retail value of Fair Trade products sold in Europe now exceeds EUR 660 million…Fair Trade has thus become one of the fastest growing markets in the world. Fair Trade products can now be found in 55,000 supermarkets all over Europe and the market share has become significant in some countries” (Karsten Weitzenegger, Development Gateway, April 21 2006). Although primarily focused on coffee, cocoa and other foods, networks of Fair trade shops do link many craft producers to international markets. There is great potential. But how will this trend of a new consumerism translate into increased access to viable markets for handmade products and greater benefit for craft producers?

Traders -- exporters and importers-- are an important link between craftspeople and craft buyers. How can the numbers of “traders with integrity” be increased? Although far too many craft producers suffer economic exploitation, there are good examples of traders who make the rights and well-being of artisans central to their marketing plan. MAIWA is a Canadian company working primarily with women’s cooperatives in India. MAIWA has defined itself by paying good prices for high quality work based on traditional skills and designs. The company helps craftspeople view themselves as international traders. MAIWA organized the exhibition Through the Eye of a Needle: Stories from an Indian Desert, opening July 2002 at The Vancouver Museum, and subsequently in other North American Museums. The exhibition displays Gujarati embroidery as artwork, along with stories of women who made them. Charlotte Kwon, founder of MAIWA, writes, “This embroidery tells of their past, their journey to the present, and the possibility of a future rich with heritage and cultural memory” (www.maiwa.com/exhibitions_1.html). Vision and trust, and also a great amount of learning through experience, are part of the trading process. It would be valuable to pool the resources of such experienced international traders and create some kind of “school” for traders with integrity.

It is not clear to what extent anti-poverty and sustainability issues are impacting people’s buying decisions, particularly purchases of handmade items. Market research is needed to reveal how attitudes of consumers are changing in directions that improve craft trade and also to provide information about niche markets and types of saleable craft products. At the same time, people who want to buy ethically produced and traded handmade crafts need to know what products are available and where these can be obtained. And they still look for things that are well-made and useful or appropriate to their lifestyle. Product design, product branding and internet communication are powerful tools that can be utilized in response to these contemporary marketing issues.



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