Thursday, November 22, 2012

Cornhusk dolls and flawed development plans

Children of the cornhusk dolls on the march (Jody Paterson photo)
The cornhusk doll kids of La Pintada are part of life in Copan Ruinas.
La Pintada is about five kilometres away - an hour’s walk, one more poor village among many. A few years ago, a development project introduced a couple of microenterprises, women’s co-ops to produce “artesania” for the tourist market.
One group of women make cornhusk dolls. They’re cute, brightly coloured and obviously take some skill, but are a little boring.
And the marketing plan is deeply flawed. The children of La Pintada walk into town, with grubby plastic bags full of the dolls, and brandish them at gringos. They ask $1 for a doll. A few kids have laminated sheets, in English, that describe the co-op. They’re pretty persistent in thrusting a doll at you and, usually, looking solemn.
I haven’t seen the dolls in tourist stores, or being sold by any of the jewelry vendors on a street off the square. 
The women don’t set up a table in town and make dolls where people can see them doing the work, take pictures and perhaps buy more.
They do sell some dolls in La Pintada, which is a turnaround point for tourists who book horseback rides. But the marketing approach is the same, maybe slightly more alarming. A dozen or more kids, looking a little like the children of the corn, descend on visitors brandishing identical straw dolls.
It’s not far from institutionalized begging. I’ve seen tourists hand over money without taking a doll, which seems rude.
The other women’s co-op does weaving. Their work is good - we’ve got a couple of nice place mats on our table. But they only do place mats, table clothes and runners. And as far as I can tell, they only sell at the little co-op in the village of some 200 people.
The co-ops are a good idea. And the income is not to be scorned. The organization where my partner works is hosting a group from Tennessee helping to build ecostoves for families this week. (Less wood consumed, less smoke in the house - a very good thing, at about $60 a household.) About 15 of them rode up to La Pintada Saturday, and probably spent $20 on cornhusk dolls. That’s significant in a subsistence community, where many people have cash incomes of a few dollars a day.
But you have to wonder about the thinking behind the development project. It’s not enough to teach people how to make dolls, or help them buy a loom. You have to help them develop a plan to sell the goods.
The options seem obvious. The agency could have hunted out a storefront in Copan so some of the weaving could be done here, where tourists could see the work. 
It could have helped the weaving co-op come up with more products - bags, or shawls. It could do the same thing with the dolls, and figure out what sells - maybe a day of the dead collection, or Frida Kahlo cornhusk dolls, or Guadalupe, or Lady Gaga. Or creations based on the women’s lives.
Academic Lucy Ferguson looking at the gender implications of the projects in a 2007 paper
She identifies some of the problems. “The Women’s Council of CONIMCHH (Comite Nacional Indigena Maya Chortí) argue that in practice women’s groups are being held back, as they are only encouraged to produce artesanía, and not how to market or develop their products,” Ferguson writes. “There is little encouragement for Chortí women to work on their creativity or own designs, with workshops clearly directed towards particular standardised products.”
I am not slagging the enterprises. I like the cornhusk doll kids. They’ve seen me often enough to accept my claim that we have too many of the dolls already. The Internet was out in our house last week so I was in a bar with Wifi, and a little guy and I looked at pictures on my computer, some of his village, until he gave me a fist bump and went back to selling.
But a fair chunk of money went into these projects. People - development types - were well-paid to plan execute them.
It wouldn’t have cost any more to do it right.