BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Paulina Navichoc lives in San Pedro, a remote village high in the mountains surrounding Lake Atitlan in western Guatemala. This Christmas her family has food, clothes and medicine they might otherwise have gone without if it weren't for WorldCrafts, a non-profit ministry of Woman's Missionary Union (WMU).
Paulina and her mother, a pastor's wife who became a widow last year, work together to make hand-beaded Christmas ornaments that WorldCrafts sells for $19.99.
Andrea Mullins, director of WMU's product-development center, said people often ask why WorldCrafts products are more expensive than other similar products on the market.
The answer, Mullins said, is because the ministry's aim is not to make a profit, but to improve the lives of women like Paulina who live in extreme poverty in nations all over the world.
"One of the interesting facts about WorldCrafts is that we are a fair-trade organization," Mullins recently told a group of Baptist state convention executive directors and editors visiting the Birmingham, Ala., headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention-related auxiliary organization.
That means WorldCrafts buys products only from businesses that abide by Fair Trade Federation guidelines, which include paying fair wages and practicing environmental sustainability.
"We in the United States are a free-trade society," Mullins said. "We've seen what free trade can do — both positive and negative — over the last few months. Fair trade gives people who are very poor a place at the table."
Beyond helping the working woman's immediate family, Mullins said, WorldCrafts partnerships help communities by bringing new jobs and income into local economies.
"We're not after them to get the cheapest price that they can give us," Mullins said. "We work with them so they are getting a fair price and also help them to invest back into the community."
The program also establishes credibility for Baptist missionaries. All artisans involved with WorldCrafts are also in contact with mission personnel. Often, helping local businesses is a core part of the missionary's ministry.
"Many of our missionaries work in high-security places, and they couldn't go in and work with the people they work with if they didn't have some sort of a business platform to go into that country," Mullins said. "We do that."
If a missionary leaves, however, the business continues. "Our objective is, in the long term, to bring sustainable transformation to people who are living in poverty," Mullins said.
Started in 1996 with one artisan group —Thai Country Trim in Thailand — Mullins said WorldCrafts now works in 38 countries with 66 artisan groups ranging in size from a few people to hundreds of workers.
WorldCrafts imports more than 300 different items of indigenous artistry from Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Items offered at the WMU online store range alphabetically from backpacks, baskets, Bible covers and bookmarks to stationery and tablecloths. Prices start at 79 cents for a key ring to a Mount Ararat Rug that sells for $199.99.
Mullins acknowledged that some of the items would cost less if they were mass produced in a factory, but those profits might go to the owners of a sweatshop instead of people who need the income to live a better life.
Compared to items of similar quality, however, Mullins said WorldCrafts' prices are often quite comparable to those charged by for-profit businesses. That is especially true when the value of an item is gauged by the amount of work it took to produce.
Making a single hand-beaded Ki'che Christmas Ball takes a Mayan woman in Guatemala a full day, but the sale of that ornament will feed the artisan's family for a week in an area so poor that only about two children in five reach preschool age due to malnutrition.
Another new product, the $29.99 King's Garden Bracelet, is made by women in Afghanistan — many of them widows due to that country's decades of war. Featuring more than 1,000 beads applied by hand, the product would have no access to market if not for contact with WMU.
WorldCrafts products are not sold in stores. They can be purchased online at http://www.worldcraftsvillage.com/ or ordered from a catalogue. One popular way to purchase the items is at WorldCrafts parties. They can be planned as a small home gathering, an existing group or a large event such as at a church.
One added benefit of the parties, Mullins said, is they provide an opportunity to educate women about undiscovered talents of other women from around the world.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)