Prosperity Candle Is Foreign Aid in Action


SEATTLE — Extreme global poverty exists in the abstract for most people in the United States, as few will ever see its direct impact. Perhaps even harder to grasp is what foreign aid can do for those in poverty. Few Americans will interact with poverty beyond U.S. borders, and fewer still will see foreign aid spending in action. However, many will buy imported goods that only exist because of foreign aid spending. There are many companies and organizations that put these funds into action in real time.

Prosperity Candle and Prosperity Catalyst, sister organizations located in western Massachusetts, provide women with the training and materials to make candles, quilts and other accessories to bring in income for their families. The Borgen Project talked with Ted Barber and his wife Patsy at Prosperity Candle to learn more about their work creating and running these organizations.

Prosperity Candle Creates Opportunities for Women

These sister organizations are the brainchild of Ted Barber and Amber Chand, who met as aid workers in Rwanda. They were frustrated by the models employed by aid organizations. Although money went to aid and training, without further support few recipients could use their skills to advance their employment. Ted and Amber wanted to create a new model that would work with aid recipients every step of the way, from training to logistics and marketing.

To this end, they chose candles as the primary product. Candles can be made easily and need to be replaced periodically, creating an opportunity for return customers. As women are disproportionately affected by poverty and provide the highest return on aid investment, Ted and Amber chose to focus on investing in them. Women often pour their profits into strengthening their families and communities—investing in women is investing in a community.

The Prosperity Candle team originally wanted to start in Rwanda, where they had previously worked. But after they partnered with Women for Women International, they found that Iraq would be the best fit. With millions of women widowed after six years of war, there was a huge need to provide sustainable income and few organizations to meet those needs.

However, at a time when mortar fire was still striking the Green Zone in Baghdad weekly, Iraq was a dangerous place. The team could not travel there, and many women could not leave their homes. The women were taught how to craft candles over Skype and had to make candles in their homes. However, these women persevered and despite the dangerous conditions, they were making candles to sell at local markets or even to export, bringing in money to put food on the table and send their kids to school. The team had proven the concept.

Haiti and Iraq Well-Suited to Prosperity Candle Projects

In 2012, two years after the deadly earthquake in Haiti, they responded to the call of the Haitian Prime Minister, who said that Haiti needed economic opportunity in addition to foreign aid. Having proven its concept under much more dangerous conditions in Iraq, Prosperity answered the call and expanded the scale of its operations. Amber became the head of Prosperity Catalyst, which led operations in Haiti.

A safer work environment allowed the establishment of a co-operative, with the candle makers working in conjunction with beekeepers and vessel artisans. Hundreds of women have found safe work with Prosperity Catalyst, which now sells both locally and abroad.

The Borgen Project talked to Zedan, current head of Iraq operations for Prosperity Catalyst, to see how the program was advancing. Born in Iraq, he immigrated to the U.S. in 2009. Having worked on the Iraqi side of nonprofits, he was frustrated with the short-term waste of U.S. aid without long-term investment. Seeking to turn his experience on the ground into progress, Zedan found his place with Prosperity Catalyst. Prosperity turned U.S. grants of about $4 million into 270 active jobs for women, expanded operations to the Kurdish states of Erbil and Dehuk and provided job training and business skills to 1,300 additional women.

U.S.-Based Operations Support Refugee Women

These grants have provided a future not just for hundreds of women in Iraq, but for hundreds of families. With Prosperity Catalyst in charge of overseas operations, Prosperity Candle now operates as a small business helping refugee women in western Massachusetts. Originally they planned to provide women with the resources to start their own companies, but after listening to the refugee community, they found that most women had their hands full dealing with their families and the move to a new country. What they needed was not more responsibilities, but a place to work that was free from sexual and racial harassment, paid well and provided flexible schedules.

Prosperity Candle set up a shop to meet these needs. Located in Easthampton, MA, it serves as a manufacturing and shipping center for its online business. It still imports vessels and accessories from women working overseas with Prosperity Catalyst. Everything is Fair Trade and B-Corp certified for social and environmental sustainability. This is where Ted and Patsy now spend most of their days.

These wonderful projects would never have been possible without foreign aid funding, both from private and public sources. The new model Ted and Amber pioneered has given hundreds of women safe, consistent work, and provided safety to their families and communities as well.

– Nathanael Welford-Small
Photo: Flickr


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