Accounting for Craft in Development

Entrepreneurship, Business Devt., Markets, Marketing, Trade, Organisations, Institutions, Movements, Reports, Evaluation, Monitoring

Accounting for Craft in Development: Artisan Enterprise and Partners in Trade

Jongeward, Carolyn

Craft production, once the backbone of local cultures in rural areas was also an important component of trade relations across vast distances. There have been links between craft production and trade for millennia. India, for example, exported large quantities of finely woven and embroidered textiles as early as the 1st century A.D. on overland and maritime routes that linked India with China, Mesopotamia and Rome (Calico Museum of Textiles, 1998).

At present the world’s artisans are among the vast numbers of rural poor agriculturalists who have been tragically left behind in the pursuit of global economic development. Simultaneously, in recent years there has been a surge of activity that links rural artisans with new marketplaces through the work of NGOs, commercial enterprises and international partner organizations, with aims to create sustainable livelihoods and preserve cultural skills, knowledge and identity. As a result, craft production is increasingly relevant to discussions of sustainable human development, women’s empowerment, culture and development, and trade justice.

In this paper I examine the following questions: What is the significance of craft to development? What kinds of initiatives and interventions can improve artisan livelihoods? What is the evidence of impact of initiatives and interventions in the craft sector? This paper is based on my current research into issues of sustainable artisan livelihoods, in particular among weavers and embroiderers in parts of Asia. I will address three key themes from this research, which are (1) Organizing and building capacities of artisans, (2) Cultural identity and product marketability, (3) Commercial sector linkages and trade networks. The topics will be illustrated with examples from India’s artisans and several key partner organizations. In India, “there are literally millions of people possessing traditional skills and knowledge of traditional techniques, more or less making a living producing handcrafted goods” (Liebl & Roy, 2000).


Given the enormous range of artisan skills and products, it is not easy to define craft. A working definition refers to products made by hand, or with relatively simple tools and minimal input from machinery; a substantial level of skill or expertise; a significant element of tradition, and a history of survival on a significant scale (Liebl & Roy, 2000). Associated with craft skills is a wealth of artisanal knowledge, aesthetic sensibility and cultural meanings that are embodied in objects of value, beauty and functionality. For centuries, craft activity has been integral to culturally diverse self-sustaining ways of living and earning a livelihood.

The word craft is a relatively recent designation for skills and processes traditionally used to make things by hand for secular or ceremonial reasons, for families and communities, for employment or exchange in local markets. An enormous variety of objects made from a wide range of raw materials, such as, wood, metal, clay, textile fibres, have been produced at home or in small workshops or factories. In India, handweaving is the largest craft in terms of employment; hand printed and embroidered textiles were traditional crafts produced extensively in rural areas; and historically, textiles and hand knotted carpets have been bought and sold on extensive regional and interregional trade routes.

Impacts of modernization and globalization

Globally, as countries have embraced modernization and the craft sector has been neglected, villagers migrated to find work in urban areas and rural ways of life became devalued. Product substitution brought a flood of cheap commercial products to displace traditional items in local markets. For example: Plastic instead of hand made baskets or bowls, synthetic rather than natural fibre clothing. The continuity of craftwork as a viable means of livelihood is further affected by environmental degradation and forced displacement of people due to political conflict, war and natural disasters.

The greater the reach of the global economy the greater the challenges for craft production and trade. Poor and indebted villagers cannot access or afford quality materials for their craft; they no longer buy handmade craft items in local markets and poor quality products often cannot be sold in wider markets; better quality work is usually vested in traditional objects for personal use or ceremonial purposes but these are often sold cheaply during particularly hard times to dealers or tourists; middlemen/traders, international designers and buyers/importers frequently exploit cheap labour, utilizing skills but disregarding cultural relevance of products or continuity of employment. People move away from traditional craft production when they see no future for themselves or their children in continuing their labour intensive and poorly paid craftwork. All of the above conditions undermine the sustainability of artisan communities and livelihoods.

What is the significance of craft to development?

Craft activity rarely appears in development discourse or development agendas. In relation to industrialization and modernization, craft is an anomaly, an inefficient mode of production without large-scale revenues. Craftspeople are powerless and far removed from participation in and decision-making on matters that affect them. Craft is linked to discussions of culture, which are difficult within the context of development (Arthurs, 1998).

Craft does fit with approaches to equitable sustainable human development. Craft is aligned with a development focus on gender equity, local participation, traditional/indigenous knowledge, appropriate technology, preservation of cultural heritage and diversity, development of micro, small and medium enterprises. Particularly significant is craftwork as a means of sustainable livelihood, recognizing the importance of freedoms attainable through artisans’ acquisition of knowledge and exercise of options and decision-making.

Craft is an important focal point for development because it embodies and interconnects economic, cultural and human values. Craft is a commodity that has market value and provides means of livelihood. Craft contains and conveys cultural identity. And craft is a potential source of self-reliance, dignity, and freedoms.

Economic indicators and challenges

It may be easier to account for economic rather than cultural indicators related to craft production. However, for the most part data have not been collected systematically on kinds of products, sales and revenues, part and full time employment and women’s work in craft. Estimates for India alone indicate that more than 20 million artisans possess traditional skills that are a means of earning a livelihood. Other estimates say there are 9-10 million full and part time craft workers in India. After agriculture, crafts are the second largest source of employment in many Indian states. Craft accounts for about 20% of the manufacturing work force and contributes 8% of GDP in manufacturing. The market for crafts expanded in the 1990s to the tune of 6% per year for exports, 2% for the domestic market. In 1998-9, the size of the craft market was $5.6 billion and 29% of this was export. (Liebl & Roy, 2000).

This profiles the overall vitality of the Indian craft industry in terms of employment and revenue. Further details show that rural household craft production, in particular women’s craftwork and handloom weaving have been declining. This is due in part to changing consumer preferences in the domestic market, largely influenced by urban and Western lifestyles. And as small craft industries built up in urban areas many craftspeople went to work for merchants in these centers of production. Although craft productivity increased in the 1990s, the average wage remained the same – a very low wage for artisans, more money for merchant middlemen.

The craft sector is dispersed and disorganized and artisans have very little means of bargaining for higher wages or better conditions for their work. Craft communities are at a severe disadvantage because they lack information about and access to viable and new markets. They lack access to financial organizations, working capital and micro-credit programs (Giorgio & Smith, 2000). Many artisans know they need to create value addition through skills and technology upgrading and design inputs, but they do not know how to find assistance.

These are some of the problems confronted by artisans. In India, national and state governments have a history of policies and initiatives to support craft production, in particular hand weaving, as a means of employment in rural areas. Numerous NGOs have turned to craft as a strategy for poverty alleviation and they have had impact on improving conditions for artisans. One example: The Rural Non Farm Development Agency (RUDA), established in 1995 by the Government of Rajasthan has a mandate to create alternative avenues of employment and generate incomes. RUDA was not intended to be a crafts development agency, but they specialized in the crafts sector after learning from experience that crafts are one of the most effective non-farm areas of economic development. RUDA works with artisans by providing assistance in the form of training, technology upgrading, product development and design, credit and marketing. (Liebl & Roy, 2000).

A powerful example of the centrality of craft to development is found in Gujarat after the severe earthquake in January 2001 leveled many towns and villages in and around the district of Kutch. Prior to the earthquake, a number of NGOs, including Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Kala Raksha and Shrujan had been working with women who do embroidery. Approximately 15,000 artisans living in the affected region were rendered homeless. SEWA identified that craft could help rebuild the livelihoods of these families if they received an immediate supply of raw materials and market linkages; SEWA implemented a “craft as livelihood security programme” within two weeks of the earthquake (SEWA, 2001).


Discussions of craft and development invariably link the importance of economic survival of artisans with the importance of preservation or revival of cultural heritages. The continuity of traditional artisan knowledge and skills is integral to the continuity of cultural diversity. From the point of view of artisans, craft is a way of life linked to their identity.

A story that reveals the importance of craft concerns a number of women who got together and approached the director of Kala Raksha three days after the earthquake in Gujarat. They wanted thread, needles and cloth because there was nothing else they could hold onto. They said the men are going mad; if the women go mad the children will suffer. We have to stop that. We want cloth. Two weeks after the earthquake these women had an exhibition and sale of their embroidery in Ahmedabad. This process enabled the community to reassert their identity and make some sense of the tragedy and find some hope. (Chatterjee, 2001). As a result, development NGOs that previously did not consider craft as central to their work began seeking out people who knew about embroidery and began talking about merchandising. According to Chatterjee, honorary president of the Indian Craft Council:

Something is happening in Gujarat. People who were always impatient in discussions about craft and culture now find it makes sense….Craft was the most durable thing. Not only identity, but hope. It had to do with rebuilding what they were most concerned about – their identity. Through craft you were healing a community in a holistic way. One commercial activity gives a lesson to other parts of the country. (2001).

Shrujan, is one of the first NGOs to take up the challenge of providing sustainable income to women artisans living in the arid drought prone regions of Kutch and Banaskantha in Gujarat. Since 1969 they have provided employment for women in their homes, helped them add value to their traditional embroidery by introducing ways to make commercially viable products, and promoted the art of Kutch embroidery in the international market. Shrujan has also established a Design-Center-On-Wheels, a mobile museum and embroidery resource center readily transported to remote desert villages. The Design Center is a response to the problem that many excellent old pieces of Kutch embroidery have been sold to collectors, museums and tourists and artisans no longer have access to examples of their own heritage. The link that ensured the continuity of tradition has been broken. The purpose of the Design Centre is to educate women about their own embroidery heritage and to inspire a new generation of embroiderers to value, preserve and rejuvenate the art of Kutchi embroidery. (Singh, 2002).


An “effective freedom view of development” is concerned with enhancing peoples’ choices and enabling them to pursue “whatever they have reason to value” (Sen, 1999). The expansion of human capability, the central tenet of this perspective, is fundamental to a creative cultural process which leaves options, priorities, and values to be set by the individual or group – with decisions made according to what people have reason to value and what lives they have reason to seek.

This perspective is highly relevant in the context of artisans who have knowledge and skills that have meaning and significance in their lives and communities. A belief that their knowledge is no longer of value has come with poverty and a breakdown of tradition. However, artisans regain respect for their skills, dignity, self-reliance, and improved social status when the practice of their craft is supported and they earn an income. They experience new freedoms. For an example of weavers in Rajasthan, see “Weaving New Freedoms in Rajasthan” (Jongeward, 1999).

What kinds of initiatives and interventions can strengthen artisan livelihoods?

When craft is seen to be significant to economic and cultural survival, and also seen as a means of employment for women, it is evident that interventions are needed to help artisans bridge the gap from traditional designs for local markets to new products aligned with market demand in distant regions. Controversial issues are involved, however, and processes directed toward enabling sustainable livelihoods take much time. Key issues include: processes of organizing and participation among artisans; need for information access, innovation and training for artisans; cultural issues of product development, marketing and trade; partnerships between development and commerce; networking and advocacy. Below I focus my comments on three of these topics.

1. Organizing and capacity building

Generally, craft production is part of the informal economy. Artisans often work at home in scattered communities and remote regions. Many of the poor who have craft skills are isolated, lack income and social security, and have little hope for improvement of their condition. In response to their poverty and vulnerability many NGOs take on the task of bringing people together to discuss issues that concern them and find solutions.

A goal of HomeNet, an international network of homebased workers, is to improve conditions by organizing and empowering home based workers to participate in decision making on issues that affect their lives. A significant group of home-based workers are women craft producers and HomeNet has launched a mapping programme, an action research project, to generate a picture of the vast numbers and variety of producers and products and also examine the value chains they are part of. The purpose is to determine what kinds of interventions are needed and who can best provide them. The process involves developing local organizations and building capacity and leadership of women.

Organizing artisan groups is a difficult and long-term task. Questions include, how to help people work together and become organized in such a way that they stay together instead of breaking up due to conflict or lack of shared goals. Many NGOs experienced in organizing groups are also able to help set up functioning cooperatives. Dastkar, for example, is an NGO based in Delhi that has helped to organize 85 producer groups throughout India (Liebl & Roy, 2000). They also provide product design assistance.

2. Cultural identity and product marketability

Historically, two major streams of craft production include: crafts made for traditional and rural life, often identified as “ethnic,” and crafts made for urban patrons and interregional trade. This distinction is breaking down and these two streams have combined in new ways. Ethnic crafts once made for personal and village use have become commodities, transformed into commercial products adapted for distant markets, particularly in United States and Europe. Market-led product designs based on traditional skills, materials, designs, or products are increasingly found in international trade.

Craft advocates have different perspectives on strategies for craft development. For some, craft represents a tradition of indigenous creativity that must be preserved as a value in itself and an essential element of culture. Others see that craft represents a skill base that can be used for economic development and that needs to be modified and adapted to provide secure economic return for the artisans (Liebl & Roy, 2001). Product development consultants respond within a range of options depending on the situation. The term market-led product development can mean anything from a minor adaptation of design motif or colour on a new kind of product, or the use of skills to make entirely non-traditional craft. While the aim of product development is to increase the marketability of artisan products, some interventions also influence the recovery of skills and designs that have been lost.

One organization with a track record in assisting artisan groups around the world is Aid to Artisans (ATA) a Connecticut based non-profit organization founded in 1976. ATA offers product design and development, market readiness training and market links to artisan groups around the world so that artisans can obtain a fair wage for their labour. ATA projects and programmes are sponsored by funds from foundations, US government agencies and corporations. ATA sends product development consultants abroad to give technical and design assistance through hands-on workshops. They offer in-country training on how to organize and run a craft business, covering topics such as, quality control, costing and pricing, shipping, strategies for tourism promotion, organizational development for small and micro-enterprise development. Twice a year representatives of artisan groups from many countries participate in the ATA Market Readiness training programme held during the New York International Gift Fair. Here the participants gain practical information on market trends, booth display, packaging and requirements of exporting. ATA also facilitates connections for ‘market ready’ artisan groups with a trade network of socially conscious businesses that market products from ATA projects. (Littrel & Dickson, 1999).

3. Commercial links and partners in trade
Regional and international networks and partnerships are making significant differences to craft production and trade. Many of the players are concerned with fair trade and social justice. Advocacy for the improving of livelihoods of producer groups is central to the fair trade movement and networks in the United Kingdom, Europe and United States. In addition, an increasing number of commercial enterprises are guided by ethical principles that favour the producer groups. Socially responsible businesses and their customers are changing craft trade.

As the numbers of initiatives and interventions in the craft sector increase there is more demand for greater market access. And more artisans want to be involved and benefit from the initiatives. Often the size and sustainability of craft organizations is limited by their ability to sell their craftwork. An organization cannot simply pay artisan’s wages and amass a stock of unsold products. So more groups request knowledge about business, market trends, merchandising and exporting. And they benefit from partnerships with socially responsible institutions and enterprises in North America and Europe.

A recent initiative at SEWA in Ahmedabad exemplifies an emerging partnership between commercial and not-for profit sectors, and an increasing emphasis on commercial linkages to attain the goals of improving livelihoods among rural poor women. Between 1997 and 2002, SEWA generated approximately $100,000 (US) in annual handcraft revenues, primarily through domestic sales. Recently SEWA received support from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the private sector lending arm of the World Bank – to develop a more export-oriented business through the SEWA Trade Facilitation Center. With international financial and managerial assistance SEWA expects to triple the number of self-employed women they work with, help the women develop textile products that reach a critical international standard of quality and develop international sales channels. From the standpoint of the World Bank Group’s Small and Medium enterprise department few grassroots NGOs successfully transform their projects from a non-profit to a commercial basis to make them more sustainable, but this approach is needed to help vast numbers of people raise their living standards. (World Bank, 2002).

In India, Craftsbridge is a new company that provides product design and business development services to 12 different NGOs to help them solve problems of accessing markets and exporting to Europe and United States. The aims of Craftsbridge are to raise the standards of craft products to the highest level and provide marketing assistance as a means to improve the quality of life for artisans. Although Craftsbridge has a social agenda, it is a for-profit business, and the CEO believes a business orientation is necessary to establish a marketing oriented consortium, otherwise nothing will change for the artisans. Development initiatives and interventions that tend to be short lived are not able to solve problems associated with sustainability of craft production and trade. In breaking new ground, Craftsbridge also questions whether the NGOs they work with will be able to become entrepreneurial. On the other hand, ICICI, the largest financial institution in India, has chosen Craftsbridge as a partner for its social initiatives in the crafts sector. (Jain, 2002).

There are many examples of emerging partnerships that support the viability of craft production and trade and thereby improve artisan livelihoods. Example 1. In Hanoi, in November 2001, UNESCO held a 3-week creativity workshop for weavers and embroiderers in Asia. Example 2. EZIBA a US based multi-million dollar business in crafts practices its mission to support artisans through “giving back” to producer groups and through partnerships with organizations such as, Aid to Artisans and the Craft Center in Washington D.C.

What is the evidence of impact of initiatives and interventions?

As craft becomes redefined in terms of economic development, there is a need for further research to understand the issues and the potential of the craft sector. In Delhi, a study of interventions in the Indian craft sector is being undertaken by the Oxfam/Dastkar craft study. And a recent report, sponsored by the World Bank, entitled “Handmade in India: Preliminary Analysis of Crafts Producers and Crafts Production in India” is a major contribution to understanding initiatives and interventions in the crafts sector. However, the authors caution that because there is no centralized source of information on the many government, NGO and private initiatives in progress, more research is needed to identify important areas for future work, analyze effectiveness of NGO strategies, locate appropriate partner organizations and avoid overlapping of efforts. (Liebl & Roy, 2001).

In addition, a significant challenge is to be able to demonstrate within economic development circles that crafts can be a substantive business worth investing in (Ageson, 2002). Aid to Artisans tracks a number of economic indicators that show an increase in numbers of craft products sold and numbers of artisans involved in part time and full time employment. In 2000-01 ATA affected the lives of nearly 30,000 artisans and leveraged approximately $35 million in retail sales (ATA 2002). On a project-by-project basis ATA also determines their impact in terms of the number of new product lines (5-10 related products) that an artisan group has been able to develop and the number of product lines that have achieved international market acceptance. Establishing international marketing relations for artisan groups is a key goal for ATA and so they track of the numbers of wholesale buyers, especially the number of importers who are repeat international buyers. The most convincing evidence in the long term that ATA looks for is the impact of capacity building. This means the ability of artisans in their businesses to find new buyers and their ability to respond to product development and pricing suggestions in a constructive problem solving way. (Cockram, 2001).

A large but valuable project would be to map the linkages among the players involved in craft production and trade. This paper has pointed to a few of the international linkages that are making an impact on the craft sector in India. For example: ATA has provided product development advice to SEWA. RUDA is one of 9 organizations in India that ATA recommended for disbursal of small grants (US $ 500 to 5000) to poor rural artisans and NGOs working in this sector. The CEO of Craftsbridge participated in Aid to Artisans’ Market Readiness Training in January 2002 to learn about gaining access to the US market and to establish contacts with potential partners in trade. ATA offered a Market Readiness Training programme in Delhi in February 2002 to established artisan groups that have a foothold in the local market but have yet to figure out how to get into the export market. Among the groups attending was Kala Raksha (Gottschling, 2002).

Ultimately the question of impact is reflected in the lives of artisans who describe changes that have taken place as a result of coming together with others to create organizations, make craft products and sell them at a decent wage. Most often accounted is: “we have work now” or “we can send our children to school.” In India, cultural and social implications of community-based artisan enterprises include keeping heritage alive and overcoming caste barriers.

Concluding thoughts Craft is increasingly being recognized as a means of economic development that is linked to local cultural identity and values. Numerous local, regional and international organizations are networking and providing expertise, advise, and training as needed. Given the scope of artisan activity, the potential of the craft sector to positively impact rural communities, especially women, and the need for initiatives and interventions of different kinds, it is time for craft to be taken into account and be supported in development circles. And it is being taken seriously more often.

For example: In its early years ATA was often told they didn’t fit with funding guidelines when they sought support for their artisan programmes. Now ATA’s work is well aligned with the priorities of major foundations, such as, the Ford Foundation’s Asset Building and Community Development sector, which is aimed at helping low income people develop marketable job skills and retain reliable employment. ATA also fits into and has been funded by Rockefeller Foundation programs established to preserve traditional art forms, cultural heritage and folk life. The American Express Foundation is another ATA sponsor with program goals to protect and support art and culture and to encourage or develop economic self-reliance. (Giorgio & Smith, 2001).

Improving conditions of artisans through improving the situations of craft production and trade is the focal point of a small but growing and energetic movement that is taking place around the world. In a climate of economic and cultural globalization, it is vital to recognize the centrality of craft to sustainable human development. When the significance of craft to development is substantially taken into account opportunities for sustainable livelihoods will not be missed because alternatives can be found for women and men, communities, economies and cultures to prosper.

End Notes

  1. A UNESCO website on Culture, Trade and Globalisation articulates this concern:The issue of “culture and trade” has acquired prime strategic significance. Cultural goods and services convey and construct cultural values, produce and reproduce cultural identity and contribute to social cohesion; at the same time they constitute a key free factor of production in the new knowledge economy. This makes negotiations in the cultural field extremely controversial and difficult. As several experts point out, no other industry has generated so much debate on the political, economic and institutional limits of the regional and global integration processes or their legitimacy. When culture is put on the table, it often prompts complex discussions on the relationship between the economic and non-economic value of things, that is, the value attributed to those things that do not have a price assigned (such as identity, beauty or the meaning of life). http:/

Aageson, T. Recorded interview. Feb 19, 2002.
Arthurs, A. (1998). Culture and Development: A Definitional Approach. In report of the Howard Gilman Foundation meeting on Cultural Industries and Development in Africa. Yulee Florida, June 1998. Aid to Artisans. (2002). ATA Report.
Calico Museum of Textiles Gallery Notes. (1988). Textile Trade of India with the Outside World 15th-19th Century. Ahmedabad, India.
Chatterjee, A. From a recording of the ATA Board of Directors Meeting. November 2001. Hartford CT.
Cockram, M. Recorded interview. November 12, 2001
Giorgio, B. and Smith, C. (Eds.) (2000). “American Express and ATA: Partners in India.” Aid to Artisans News, Fall/Winter 2000). CT
Giorgio, B. and Smith, C. (Eds.) (2001). “Prestigous Foundations Support ATA in Helping Artisans for Two Decades.” Aid To Artisans News, Fall 2001. CT.
Gottschling, B. Recorded interview. April 16, 2002.
Jain, S. Recorded conversation. January 2002
Jongeward, C. (1999). “Weaving New Freedoms in Rajasthan: A Role for Craft in Community
Development.” Convergence 21 (4), (33-46).
Liebl, M. and Roy T. (2000). Handmade in India: Preliminary Analysis of Crafts Producers and Crafts Production in India: Issues, Initiatives, Interventions. A report prepared for the Policy Sciences Center, Inc. CT and World Bank, Washington D.C.
Littrell, M. & Dickson, M. (1999). Social Responsibility in the Global Marketplace: Fair Trade of
Cultural Products. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
SEWA (2001). Craft as Livelihood Security Programme.
Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. NY: Random House
Singh, J. (2002). Seminar: Artisan as Entrepreneur Series, World Bank, Washington D.C.
World Bank. (2002) “IFC Supports Women Artisans in Asia.” In Development News: the World Bank’s Daily Webzine. -http:/

Paper prepared for CASID 18th Annual Conference Beyond Boundaries: Diversity in Development , May 30 to June 1, 2002 This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada

Your views


Access 70,000+ practitioners in 2100+ crafts across India.


10,000+ listings on arts, crafts, design, heritage, culture etc.


Rich and often unfamiliar vocabulary of crafts and textiles.

SHOP at India inCH

Needs to be written.