“The Wonderbag was developed to ease the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the current global circumstances. Wonderbag is a simple catalyst for global change.”
I had just opened my email from Lori Carlson, the wonderfully candid president of PLF, expecting a response to the brochure design that I sent her. Instead, I saw a link to the Wonderbag (a bag that doubles as a slow-cooker) website. In between all of our email exchanges about projects, events, meetings, and deadlines, we were discussing the types of interventions that different people (NGOs, donors, missionaries, celebrities, etc.) bring to “problematic” situations (“developing” countries, poverty, famine, child exploitation, etc.), and the unpredictable ripple effects that these development interventions can cause.
So, as a response to our previous email thread about these potentially unintended effects of intervention in Cambodia, Lori sent me the link to the Wonderbag website and posed the question: “While we’re on the subject of good ideas gone bad, what is your opinion of the ‘buy one give one’ model?”
As I tried to gather my thoughts to respond to Lori’s query in an honest and thoughtful way, I glanced through the Wonderbag website. It explained the company’s mission to give one Wonderbag to a person in poverty for each one purchased by an “everyday consumer,” (ostensibly not one living in poverty). Hence the “buy one, give one” model. I reread the claim that this is intended to be a catalyst for global change and that will ease, what Wonderbag interprets to be, the world’s current “social, economic, and environmental impacts.” The simplicity in Wonderbag’s claim to provide an easily accessible solution for world poverty creates a detachment between consumers and the lives of the “helpless” people they are aiming to “help.” The difficult and complex reality that Wonderbag neglects to recognize is that there is no simple answer to end poverty, as poverty is a complex issue with many contributors.
I believe that the “buy one, give one” method is a raging success as a business and marketing model; NOT a development model. Having thought about it some more, I detest the “buy one, give one” model because it breeds the idea of what Paulo Freire would describe as “false generosity,” and it could be considered another way to objectify people and their lives. By this I mean it simplifies the reality of suffering by isolating the conditions that cause the suffering, rather than specifically targeting the societal structures that create these complex social, political, and economic conditions. I would argue, in fact, that it may also undermine and cripple “developing” economies by flooding the local markets with free products with which local entrepreneurs cannot compete.
Further, it allows individuals to continuously and recklessly CONSUME without guilt because there is a “justification” that their purchase will “help some poor kid” living in poverty on the other side of the globe. It provides these consumers with the validity to feel good about their purchase and their “donation” and “contribution” to all the social problems they think exist around the world.
To put my critique more succinctly, I would argue that the “buy one, give one” business and marketing models do nothing to actually solve the real social, environmental, economic and political conditions that produce great social inequality throughout the world. They simply define these problems to better fit into a consumption lifestyle, and allow people to continue contributing to their destructive involvement in parts of the world from which they detach themselves.
Each day that I spend in Cambodia I realize how much time and thought must go into the process of creating social change. And of equal importance, being reflexive about the ways we (and I am defining “we” as consumers in the global economy), are complicit in creating conditions of mass injustice in spaces all over the world, including Cambodia. The way we come to understand the world matters, the lenses we use to make sense of what we see also matter greatly. All of this is linked to how we come to understand both “intention” and social intervention. My guess is that the inventors of the “buy one give one” model still have some thinking to do.