Activist urges responsible, sensitive globalization

Ruth DeGolia ’04, co-founder of the nonprofit trade organization Mercado Global, said Yale students should engage in nonprofit work to help countries negatively affected by globalization in a way that is sustainable in the long term, at an Ezra Stiles College Master’s Tea on Wednesday afternoon.

DeGolia, who was recently featured in Newsweek as one of the “15 people who make America great,” introduced students to her self-founded fair trade organization, which gives the world’s most rural and economically-disadvantaged cooperatives access to the U.S. market, while guaranteeing both fair wages and investments in local communities’ long-term development. Focusing mainly on Mercado Global’s birthplace, Guatemala, DeGolia explained how globalization affects some regions of the world negatively.

Indigenous characteristics such as the lack of education, organization and an understanding of U.S. market demands made it hard for Guatemala to benefit from globalization over the last decade, she said.

“When we were first confronted with these problems, we knew that donating thousands or even millions of dollars wouldn’t really make a difference,” DeGolia said. “We had to dig deeper. … Figuring out a way to generate income and build nonprofit networks while allowing the population to remain in their rural communities was our main goal.”

Beyond founding sponsorship and scholarship programs for residents of economically disadvantaged regions in Guatemala, DeGolia said, her organization shied away from giving financial support to groups as charity alone.

“I’ve experienced often enough, that people from wealthier regions of the world come to Guatemala and feel the need to donate money right away, believing that this will actually help them,” she said. “[But] people have to be empowered and left in control rather than being just recipients.”

In November 2004, Mercado Global launched its first catalog, which included everything from cosmetics bags to iPod carriers handmade by Guatemalans, DeGolia said. All in all, products from 14 community cooperatives in Guatemala were brought to consumers and stores across the United States, and within a year, Mercado Global’s sales on behalf of its partner cooperatives have provided fair wages to 178 cooperative members across Guatemala, she said.

Students at the tea said DeGolia’s call to action was inspiring.

“She didn’t just talk about that we have to change, but also offered us some ways about how we can actually do so,” Avinash Gandhi ’10 said. “I am definitely considering joining the Yale chapter of Mercado Global.”

Hannah Lupien ’10, who has been actively involved in the Yale chapter of Mercado Global, said DeGolia’s discussion reminded her of how urgently action is needed in specific world regions.

“I am generally very interested in Latin America, and to hear about the actual conditions in Guatemala made a need for reflected action in other regions of the world even more important,” Lupien said.

But Sandy Placido ’08, who is involved in Mercado Global’s pendant for the Dominican Republic, Yspania, voiced some concerns with an across-the-board endorsement of globalized production of goods.

“Even though I learned a lot about the complexities of globalization, I don’t really see the need for the Guatemalans to produce iPod holders, when Mercado’s main goal was to stay true to that countries’ traditions,” she said.

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