On this blog, I occasionally feel an overwhelming urge to self-destruct for the amusement of others. It is in that kamikaze spirit that I bring you….. Oxfam’s ‘big bra hunt’. The story so far: on 1 April (but not linked to April Fools’ Day, as far as I’m aware), Oxfam’s trading team in the UK launched a campaign to get women across the UK to donate a million bras from their underwear drawers to Oxfam’s string of second hand clothes shops (which raise some £25m a year for Oxfam’s work). Many of the bras will be sold in West Africa by Frip Ethique, a social enterprise funded by Oxfam, and the proceeds ploughed back into development work in the region.
Cue ‘giant bra window displays’, staff and celebs like Helen Mirren (below) ’sporting underwear as outerwear’ a la early Madonna etc etc. The press loved it (and spiced up their coverage with some entirely fabricated and deeply dodgy quotes from Oxfam trader Sarah Farquhar); our shops are already inundated, and we may well hit our target.
Cue also, a lot of outrage, some of it manifested in heated internal email exchanges, but spilling over into the blogosphere. I tried to get the critics to debate the issues in public, but they were all too hopping mad to be fair and balanced and all that, so they asked me to do it instead (cheers, people). So here goes.
I think there are three broad areas of concern: development impact, public messaging about aid and undermining Oxfam’s work on gender equality and women’s rights.
Development Impact: concerns include both undermining local clothing production and flooding existing second-hand clothing markets. I’m pretty sure these concerns are misplaced: Oxfam reviewed its second hand clothing operation back in 2005 and as a result concentrated its activities in countries without a viable clothing industry; it was Frip Ethique’s request for more bras that got us thinking about the bra hunt in the first place; the bras will be released over time so as not to flood the second hand market. Concerns on imposing Western culture don’t stand up because the bras are being sold, not given away – women can choose whether or not to buy them.
Public messaging: The bra hunt presses lots of buttons in the development community because of previous appeals for ‘Swedow’ – stuff we don’t want. Most recently, the appeal for a million T shirts in the US got (rightly) hammered. There are overtones of charity rather than rights; of colonial administrators’ wives advising ‘native’ women on decent dressing. But the important question is surely whether it’s stuff people in developing countries do or don’t want – and our research (and this was a heavily researched exercise) suggests there is a real unmet demand for bras (hence Frip Ethique’s request).
Undermining feminism and development work on women’s rights: Oxfam puts gender and gender rights ‘at the heart of all we do’, and there are a lot of passionate feminists working for it. They are alarmed by the kind of sugar-coated ‘cupcake feminism’ on display recently for International Women’s Day and see this as in the same vein. Pinkness, sparkles, underwiring, ‘all girls together’ holding Tupperware parties – it all feels like a bit of an insult in the face of the glaring violations of rights and the poverty and violence faced by the women in communities where Oxfam works. And bras do, of course, have a pretty iconic role in feminist history. Feminists working for Oxfam argue that this is turning a lot of women – and men – away from donating to Oxfam – and endangering its reputation as a champion of gender equality and women’s rights.
This kind of argument is not unique to gender issues; it’s inevitable in any thinking aid agency that simultaneously has to raise money from the public while seeking to change policies and attitudes in both rich and poor countries. Think of the decades-old ‘poverty porn’ arguments over fundraising images of starving kids that perpetuate some terrible stereotypes while raising shed-loads of cash. Sometimes advocacy and fundraising are in alignment, sometimes not. If it hits its targets, the bra hunt could raise £1.2m for Oxfam’s programming and advocacy. The question is whether it comes at a cost to the wider mission.
At this point, I’m supposed to ‘come to a view’ on who is right. Are you kidding? Allow me to pass the buck to you, with this poll – you can vote for more than one alternative.
Finally, here’s a 2 minute promo video on the bra hunt and Frip Ethique
And some of you may wish to comment – it’s anonymous but be warned, I can still see your email address………. Go on, get if off your chest. Oops, sorry, just couldn’t resist.