In corporate circles, she was always on the fringes of the artisan sector. Maybe she heard her true calling when she was in China to help masons salvage antique stone from the gravel industry. Or maybe it came to her in Argentina, where she worked with craftsmen who carved furniture for the high-end market in New York. Whenever it hit her, Monika Steinberger decided she wanted to join the nonprofit world and dedicate her business savvy to artisans. She wanted to help them preserve their cultural heritage and make good incomes through the fairest possible trade.
In the mid 2000s, Steinberger got lucky. Aid to Artisans (ATA), now part of Creative Learning, needed someone multilingual who could fly to Afghanistan, Egypt, and Haiti, where it had upcoming projects. It was in New England; she was in nearby New York. She knew people the world over who worked with their hands and creative professionals in the United States and Europe, who specialized in marketing, branding, advertising, and photography. A native of Austria, she spoke German, English, French, and Spanish. Most important, she was willing to travel in dicey times.
Into the Field
For eight years now, Steinberger has collaborated with craftspeople in the remotest and poorest regions of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia, including the Middle East. She enjoys her daily interactions—often via cellphone—the most. She can hear about, if not see, the impact of ATA projects on people’s lives and livelihoods. She can measure changes in family health, education, and overall well-being by collecting stories, sometimes statistics. “It’s been an extraordinary experience. I would almost do it for nothing,” she volunteered.
Haiti’s desperate poverty and environmental devastation really got under Steinberger’s skin. ATA fulfilled the livelihoods component of a three-year project supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and the UK Big Lottery Fund. She and her Haitian colleagues held a workshop in Cap Haitien for women and men to help them design and produce bamboo bangles (see picture, above) for the local tourist market. The artisans spent one dollar on raw bamboo for each bangle they fashioned and sold the finished bracelets for five dollars each to passengers on Royal Caribbean Cruise ships docked at Labadie. The bangles were later a hit at winter and summer wholesale shows at the Javits Center in New York. Global Girlfriend, an online retailer of women-made gifts, ordered 500 with 2,500 to follow, for a total of $13,000—a fortune for the Haitian artisans. The project showed the immediate impact craft can have on an economy and environment. For every bamboo stem they harvested, the artisans had to plant two shoots. The grass grows rapidly, stabilizes eroded soil, and lends itself to craft.
Behind the Scenes
As in all ATA ventures, the first step in the Haitian project was to assess the local, expat, tourist, and international markets for demand. Funders, whether public or private, usually approach ATA with a craft medium or region of the developing world in mind. ATA then consults its vast network of craftspeople. “We never start from nothing,” Steinberger said. “We are there to bring information from the market to them.” ATA assists artisans in developing or upgrading their crafts and links them to buyers. Through workshops and in-country management, ATA imparts business acumen to craftspeople, always mindful not only of the markets, but also of the environment and relationships. Artisans, who are usually women, are part of communities. They have to support their families, even more than save the cultural patrimony of their countries. Matters of money and spirit have to jive.
But they do not always readily synch. In Chiapas, Mexico, Mayan women weavers did not trust each other with trade secrets, nor could they band together to buy raw materials at wholesale prices. If they could get a formal business license from the government—a cumbersome process even for ATA— they could expand. The interpersonal and practical realms collided until ATA/Mexico began organizing the weavers as a uniquely Mexican association. Most ATA projects continue as registered businesses or nongovernmental organizations with local staff. Some, like CREATA in Columbia, grow to partner with ATA.
Steinberger calls that success, but the project she’s working on is always closest to her heart. Right now, she’s busy in Yemen, where ATA is part of a five-year U.S. Agency for International Development agricultural project implemented by the Land O’Lakes Foundation. She just returned from evaluating Yemen’s craft market. The country’s cultural heritage—gingerbread architecture, silver jewelry, and painted windows—entranced her. She fixed on an active hand-weaving tradition that merits expansion: men weave skirts on simple ground looms for the local market. If the community agrees, Steinberger would like to engage a small group of women to produce similar cloth for the international market year round.
“Identification of the artisans is a crucial part of our work. We have to be careful not to do harm. We are empowering people by giving them access to income they didn’t have before. That changes a family and community,” Steinberger said. At harvest time, she will help men and women export artisanal honey, coffee, spices, fragrances, and herbal lotions by connecting them to buyers. She knows the products will sell.
Arts in Development, Then and Now
ATA’s approach to arts in development was once unique. Well-meaning donors still sometimes send consultants to countries without exploring the markets or sounding out local craftspeople. They might train women to produce pillowcases on sewing machines they donate to a community center with sporadic electricity. In two weeks, the foreign experts are gone. Pictures of smiling faces enliven thick reports. But there’s no follow-up. The women have wasted time they could have used making money and are left with a skill and machines they cannot use. No locals or foreigners need pillowcases. Traditional crafts lie fallow. Three months later, there’s no trace of the intervention. Nothing is sustainable—except the women’s newfound cynicism.
Such projects have not helped arts in development, which, as a field, endures skepticism from practitioners who favor huge agricultural or infrastructure interventions with statistically measurable results. “Scaling up” is the buzzword of the moment, according to Steinberger. The international development community wants to fund projects that have the greatest impact on the largest number of people, even if they take decades to show results. Funders prefer to underwrite livelihood projects that help hundreds of women in the garment industry produce thousands of inexpensive shirts for Western consumers. Although craft is often a country’s second biggest employer after agriculture and has a more immediate, sustainable effect on a population, it’s hard to scale up without sacrificing quality, incomes, health, environment, and the intangible cultural heritage it embodies.
Sometimes Steinberger sees intercultural conflict while saving cultures. Artisans everywhere tend to be poor and very jealous of their turf. Aymara in Northern Chile told her they lost much of their international market in native alpaca products when Americans started raising the animals in the States. The Americans, in turn, had to lower their prices to compete with cheaper imports. “You have to measure your market impact and tailor your intervention accordingly,” she cautioned.
State of the Artisans
Partly as a result of the worldwide recession and partly because of lessons learned by practitioners of international development, ATA now competes for places in massive undertakings in tourism, environment, agriculture, health, and women’s empowerment. It cannot find funding for crafts-only projects as it did for over thirty years. Nevertheless, in the past two years, Steinberger has seen renewed emphasis on cultural preservation among funders. In March, ATA will start collaborating with the Smithsonian, its once-frequent partner, to protect pottery and nomadic crafts in Tibet. Steinberger is excited about using cultural mapping during the assessment.
When asked if she thought craft sales fed Americans’ insatiable consumerism, Steinberger pointed out that buyers everywhere help safeguard cultural traditions. Many big-box companies are now following the ATA approach, at least in part. Although large corporations have recognized the demand for crafts in Europe and the States, they want artisans to create them at high volume and low cost. The crafts and craftspeople do not prosper. Consumers need to pay more to preserve quality and support the artisans. Still, Steinberger commends the multinationals, some of them ATA partners, for establishing fair-trade sidelines.
“The key is to educate the consumer,” observed Steinberger. “Telling the story is really our reason for being. It’s an economic reality that something that’s handmade will be more expensive than something that’s mass produced. If you want to sell it, you have to explain that it’s an original work of craft that has been touched by the hands of a real live artisan in a particular place. It’s a losing proposition to take out the story. You take out the soul, meaning, and value. So it’s our daily work to make sure that the cultural content is known because in the end, that’s what makes craft sustainable. That’s what attracted me and still attracts me to the mission of ATA—making culture a building block of the economy.”
Like the Chinese builders who inspired her years ago, ATA’s Monika Steinberger helps protect old traditions. Like the Argentine craftsmen she once advised, she helps create new custom.