Stitch by stitch

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.

3 Comments


  1. Wow! I am so proud of you!

  2. I have never heard of any of the other knitting groups you mention. (Maybe I live a sheltered life?) However, I am a proud member of Tricoteuses Sans Frontières or Knitters Without Borders.
    This group "was born as a response to the tsunami disaster on December 26th 2004, but exists to fundraise for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders." (http://www.yarnharlot.ca/blog/tsffaq.html)

    The Knitters Without Borders group is not about actual knitting per se; the money one would normally have spent on knitting (yarn, needles, patterns, etc.) is instead donated to Doctors Without Borders for them to use.

    Hopefully you think that Doctors Without Borders offers something different than the NGOs you referred to. (Otherwise this is a defence of the type of Western "aid" that you are against. And I wholeheartedly agree with you on that point.)

    Janey
    janeyknitting[at]yahoo[dot]ca

  3. Hi Janey,

    Thanks for the comment. I think Knitters Without Borders is a great idea (I'd read about it before) and MSF does really important work in the field of relief and getting medical aid to people in time of emergencies. I've donated to them before and would donate again.

    The aid that I'm not too keen on is that which is given to a country year after year by Western donors for the purpose of furthering their own political agendas (and government aid is indeed given to developing countries not out of any altruistic ideals) and not monitored carefully. Every year in Cambodia, donors demand government action on corruption, saying there will be no more aid if the problem is not addressed at the highest levels, and every year they say the same thing and nothing changes. Vast, vast amounts of funding disappears or never reaches intended beneficiaries, but donors happily tick the box that says: project success because the money was spent. (the World Bank and UN agencies are especially guilty of this)

    Also, some NGOs are started not for the purpose of working towards any particular social goal or change but for job creation for the people running it. The overall goal or vision of the organization claims to be empowerment of the people they are working with, but actually very little of the needs of the communities are taken in to account in project planning and implementation. Communities that want help with farming get a well while the community that needs a well gets gender training.

    I'm currently working on my MSc thesis on issues of accountability and governance in NGOs and its proving to be a sensitive but important issue. I'm not ruling out all aid and I think it very important that we all take some responsibility and action to alleviating the ridiculous disparity on our planet. Whether that is donating to an organization you are confident in, fund raising or starting a social enterprise, there are so many ways to be effective.

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