By Fran Weaver, December 2011
Instead of buying conventional gifts for friends whose homes are already crammed with stuff, generous but practical Finns are increasingly sending useful or even life-saving gifts to people in need, through charitable schemes.
One such scheme is FinnChurchAid’s Alternative Gifts. “Last year donations totalled 1.4 million euros, with over half coming around Christmastime,” explains coordinator Else Hukkanen.
Popular gifts include goats (30 euros), school uniforms (8 euros), donations to a Women’s Bank supporting women’s livelihoods (20 euros), potentially life-saving medical packages (20 euros) and fruit-tree seedlings (18 euros). Donors receive cards or e-cards to send on to their friends informing them that a donation has been made on their behalf to provide a practical gift to someone who will truly benefit from such seasonal generosity.
FinnChurchAid distributes gifts among families in impoverished communities in countries such as Haiti, Cambodia and Somalia. “Of course we don’t ship gifts all the way from Finland, since purchasing them locally saves on transport costs and benefits local economies,” adds Hukkanen.
World Vision Finland runs the similar Ethical Gifts scheme. “Gifts go to communities in Kenya, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Peru, Columbia and India,” says communications officer Anna Pollari.
“Our gift catalogue selection is based on current needs in the villages and cities where we work. Local communities and our staff together assess what kinds of gifts are needed to create lasting, positive changes in the lives of children and families. Gifts ranging from cows (400 euros) to children’s library books (20 euros) are purchased locally, and the community decides where they are needed most.”
Pollari believes such presents triple the joy of giving, bringing pleasure to the person who pays for the gift, the person on whose behalf it is sent, and the child who receives the gift in a developing country. “Even small gifts can profoundly change someone’s life,” she says. “One young man called James from one of Nairobi’s slums, who received an ethical gift of vocational training worth 150 euros some time ago, owns a mobile phone and computer repair shop today. He’s now returning the favour by training other local youngsters.”
The Global Dry Toilet Association of Finland is asking donors to contribute 50 euros on behalf of a friend towards the cost of building compost toilets and providing hygiene education to alleviate sanitation problems in poor communities. “So far we’ve completed 160 toilet blocks for schools and villages in Zambia and Swaziland where people previously used open pits that can spread diarrhea and cholera,” explains project coordinator Sari Huuhtanen.
“The toilets are made with local materials and labour, but since dry compost toilets are widely used in Finland, we can contribute practical ideas on toilet design and the use of the resulting organic fertiliser, as well as funding obtained from private donors and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs,” she says.
“Christmas is when people most think of giving charitably, so we get most of our one-off donations then, to add to regular support from our ‘toilet godparent’ donors,” says Huuhtanen. Gift recipients receive initial e-cards explaining how the sum donated on their behalf will be spent, followed by progress updates later.
The organisers of these charitable schemes all emphasise that such gifts are much more gratifying than another knick-knack that will probably only gather dust in a cluttered cupboard.
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