I don’t like handicraft projects. They seem to be very popular with private donors and small NGOs, but they’re mostly a bad idea. Here’s why:
It always seems to be women who are targeted with these efforts. Do you really empower a woman by sitting her in a room to knit all day?
Not every person is actually good at making handicrafts. You need a certain level of skill to make anything someone will buy. Not all women will get to that point, and being able to badly paint a trinket isn’t a transferable life skill.
Handicraft income is extremely unreliable. You need a market – generally tourists – for your product and that market is heavily influenced by global economic conditions. If the market fails and you’re stuck with 120 embroidered eyeglass cases, they don’t have a lot of intrinsic value. If you were, say, growing broccoli as a cash crop for foreigners you could eat least it yourself or sell it domestically if all the tourists went home.
The rhetoric about self-reliance from selling your own handiwork is all well and good to read, but linking people to one of the most fluctuating parts of the global economy isn’t precisely self-sufficiency. If you want to teach people to make and sell something, make it useful. Not trinkets.
That doesn’t mean we should never support anything made by hand. There is plenty of work to be done that is genuinely helpful.
You can support better market linkages for existing artisans. This might involve helping rural artisans sell directly to the capital without an intermediary, helping artisans gain access to international markets for their goods, or teaching them how to research current international tastes so they can make their products more sale-able if they choose to. You can help artists and artisans share their techniques, through helping them train others or documenting their work.
Handicraft projects always look like low-hanging fruit, but they’re more like low-hanging branches, getting ready to whack you in the head as you go by.