I guess at this early life stage of this blog it might be pertinent to explain why I am throwing caution to the wind and armed with only my enthusiasm and high expectations, starting a knitting co-op type social enterprise in Cambodia.
It all started when I was in Austria, a 6 year old child of a refugee family fleeing Communist Poland for a better life in Canada. Being so young, I didn’t fully understand the situation we were in, just that we weren’t home and were never going back. When my mother and sister started knitting hats and sweaters, I knew I had to get in on the action. I demanded to be instructed in the fine art of crochet and armed with a crochet hook and a string of yarn, I made my first chain. I was so proud of my creation, I wore it as a necklace and sometimes as a headband. Was my love of all things yarnish born then? Probably not, but I do remember the fascination and awe that stitch by stitch, a new entity was slowly created by my own two hands.
Stitch by stitch. That is what appeals to me most about knitting. It is a slow and laborious process, sometimes monotonous, always meditative, that results in an end product completely unlike what one starts with: two sticks and some yarn. Now, stitch by stitch I hope that I can help women in Cambodia improve their situations through fair, flexible and rewarding employment. Throughout the ages, women have clothed their families and kept them warm in winter, stitch by stitch, and now I hope that Cambodian women will have the chance to help their families (not with warmth, that’s not needed here), stitch by stitch.
Last month, I reentered the world of knit madness when I returned home for my father’s funeral. It was a difficult time, both sad and reflective. Getting back into knitting somehow helped me stay afloat in the emotional tsunami that lands shortly after the initial shock. It was a constant, a comfort, a connection to others. My sister, a knitting wizard, introduced me to Ravelry and the obsessive monster awoke, demanding to be fed more and more yarn, more patterns. It wanted to create, to clothe, to make things!
In the endless hours spent on the Internet looking at knitty things, I stumbled across an article about a woman who set up a small business in Bangladesh making high quality toys and baby knits for export. She’d started with $500 and four years later employs almost 3000 women. I was inspired and saw no reason holding me back from attempting something similar in Cambodia. I’ve never wanted to run my own business as making money was never something I was interested in. My driving force has always been ‘helping people’ at least trying to. I didn’t always know how to apply myself effectively to do that, nor am I a completely selfless do-gooder Mother Theresa type either.
I worked in NGOs for the past few years here in Cambodia and while that experience was rewarding, I’m hooked on the idea that social enterprise has the potential to reach more people, more directly with less strings (and reports) attached. Billions of dollars of aid have poured into Cambodia over the past decade and yet still the majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day with limited access to clean water, health services, or education. Creating jobs for people, helping them earn a decent salary in order to be able to access those things and aim for more… I’m betting its an effective way to ‘help people’ help themselves.
Which is key. Aid is often too much about handouts not enough about sustainability. (I’m reading Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good). So many well intentioned NGO projects have a life span of months or a few years. This is not enough to build anything long lasting and once the project support is pulled, the cracks begin to appear. NGOs should still have a large part to play, especially in advocacy, but I am less enthusiastic then in the past about how effective they can be in a country basically overrun by NGOs. (I could say so much more here, but maybe another installment).
So there will be no Knitting Unlimited, Cambodian Human Rights and Knitting Association or Knit for Peace. Not even UNKNIT. Instead Cambodia Knits will aim to become a profitable business not through grants or donations, but by creating and producing high quality products for sale locally, electronically and through worldwide distribution. I hope along the way we can add on things like preschools at the knit centers, scholarships, or even use profits to build wells, buy chickens or goats, seeds or whatever the women feel their communities need. The ultimate goal is not to enrich some far away investors who provide cash for returns but to enrich the lives of the women we work with.