Recent civil unrest and a turn to the left among Latin America’s electorate should be drawing international attention to a long-simmering issue—the failure of globalization to adequately meet the needs of Latin America’s poor.
As a college student at Yale, I witnessed this failure first-hand through my work and thesis research in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. I spent my summers working on and researching economic development projects with an association of rural indigenous communities in the highlands region. Many of the communities we worked with were returned refugees from Guatemala’s civil war period, and other communities had lost their entire male population during that period’s massacres.
While the communities I worked with faced a complex array of challenges, I came to believe that many of those challenges were related to a single, core issue: a lack of access to decent income in the regions where they lived. After spending two years raising funds for local scholarship programs, I realized that helping communities earn a decent living was the most sustainable way to ensure families could send their children to school.
After conducting dozens of gender training and self-esteem classes for young women in these communities, I realized that achieving financial self-sufficiency was an integral component to any woman’s effort to address issues such as domestic violence and the right to send her daughters to school. And after viewing the complete disuse of a World Health Organization–funded local health clinic, I recognized that fundraising for the construction of health clinics needed to be coupled with an effort to ensure families had access to the funds needed to purchase medicines.
Without fail, the women in every community I have ever worked with in rural Guatemala have asked me to help them find a market for their artisan products. In most cases, these women said finding a market for their products was more important to them than the other projects local non-governmental organizations were conducting in their communities.
Mercado Global was founded as a response to this need. We recognize that providing a dignified and stable employment outlet is the first step toward ensuring that local communities have access to the resources and tools they need to address other challenges. We have seen how fair-wage employment has allowed our partner artisans to ensure that, for the first time, every child of elementary school age attended school this year through a combination of Mercado-funded scholarships and their earnings from Mercado Global sales. Fair-wage income has also resulted in a significant increase in nutritional and health levels in our partner communities.
We have also seen how partnering with local artisan cooperatives has provided a framework on which a community can organize and address other challenges. For example, our partner artisans played an important role in coordinating relief and reconstruction efforts in the wake of Hurricane Stan, which hit Guatemala’s highlands region in the fall of 2005. Our partner artisan cooperatives worked with our staff to identify the food and healthcare needs in each of their communities and to ensure that resources arrived despite challenging travel and governance issues. This framework and their new earning power provide women a means for asserting their voice in local government in a way I had never seen them do before.
While the success of Mercado Global is primarily due to the efforts, dedication, and creativity of our partner artisans in Latin America, we as Americans can play an important role to support such initiatives. Mercado Global has succeeded in building a market for our partner artisans because of a growing demand for socially responsible products. Mainstream companies are recognizing that their customers are demanding products that are made under dignified, fair-wage labor conditions
Americans should recognize that by purchasing fair trade and other socially responsible products they help address social challenges around the world. Providing handouts and funding for educational and health projects in Latin America is important. But I would argue that providing communities with a means for generating the income they need to address those needs is more effective and sustainable.
As social enterprise becomes an increasingly central tool for addressing problems traditionally handled by charity organizations, the social enterprise sector also needs the help of business leaders and innovators who may never have identified themselves with charity work in the past. Organizations such as ours are successful because we have tapped leaders in the for-profit sector. Our success is based on the successful partnership between individuals with a background in community development and those with a background in marketing mainstream fashion accessories.
The unique problems of a globalized economy require creative solutions. We must think beyond the traditional stereotype of nonprofit and charity work. Supporting social enterprise and purchasing fair trade products is one starting point.