Amid consumer frenzy, Czechs urged to give someone a “real gift” for Christmas

Photo: archive of People in Need

The NGO People in Need is active in more than 30 countries the world over, giving immediate aid in humanitarian crises, helping communities threatened by malnutrition, helping the poor to find a livelihood, fighting violence against women and helping give children an education. One of its successful fundraising projects is Give a Real Gift which motivates thousands of people to think of those less fortunate not only during the Christmas season. I spoke with Jan Svitalek of People in Need and began by asking him to explain the NGO’s Real Gift project.

Photo: archive of People in Need
“You might call it a cliché for the fundraising campaign that runs throughout the year, but its highlight is definitely during the Christmas season.

How does it work exactly? From what I know you give your friends and loved ones a special gift that will help someone else far-away, right? What kind of gifts?

“What they will get is a certificate, a certificate that, on their behalf, we will give a gift to somebody in need here or abroad. The gift might be an animal, seedlings or beehives but also something in the field of education, mother-and-child healthcare, nutrition etc. Most gifts go abroad but some don’t travel far because they are used in our Czech program.”

So just to be a bit more specific, I looked at your web page and the choice includes 20 hens, a sheep, a goat, a donkey with a cart. What are some of the other bizarre things that people can buy?

“Yes, they may seem bizarre to us here in Prague, but those are very practical things that help people struck by some conflict or humanitarian crisis, or people living in poor conditions. So what do we offer ….a happy cow, or happy goat, a brood of hens, beehives – for them all this is a great help in their livelihoods.”

What are the hits this Christmas season? I think fish have been added to the list this year…

“Yes, the highlight of this season is fish. I actually contributed to that, because I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo to help chart a two-year program in support of malnourished communities. These communities have been searching for ways how to address the problem of malnutrition themselves, such as hunting, and they came up with the idea of fish ponds. And fish ponds are very suitable for our project, especially at this time of year when we are buying lots of fish. The traditional Christmas dinner is carp – and when we buy that, why not but living fish for the Congolese? Another novelty, which I am not involved in, is hygiene pads for young girls in Nepal or Afghanistan, because the lack of these products is something that prevents them from going to school regularly. So a gift like that can help a lot.”

Photo: archive of People in Need
We should probably emphasize here that you are not just giving a gift but helping someone to learn a craft or get a livelihood…

“For sure, yes. This campaign is a fancy way of selling our programs, but we should not loose sigh of the fact that they are programs, not one-off gifts. These are long-running programs and we spend a lot of time with those communities planning them. So we know what the need is and where help is needed most. The “real gifts” are only a small art of the long-running programs, be it in the field of agriculture, environment, health care, education etc. “

So your colleagues in different parts of the world will tell you what is needed?

“Yes, we cooperate closely with partners in the field. For instance my last visit was to Ethiopia where we have a large mission that is working hard to provide water sanitation and access to clean water, covering huge regions and districts there where they not only drill wells but work with the local community to explain the importance of hygiene, sanitation, latrines – by the way you can buy a latrine as a gift as well – so yes, we cooperate closely and jointly create those programs and then identify suitable “real gifts” to back them, such as the fish ponds in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Do donors get any kind of feedback? Or at least permanent donors who decide to stay in the program and support a child’s education for instance?

“Not in our case I am afraid. It is not like adopting a child long-distance and getting letters from that child. But they can be certain that 100 percent of the money donated will reach our beneficiaries all around the world. If people are more interested in contributing on a regular basis they will get more feedback on how the money was used, but as regards the real gift project those are just certificates and the money will be used as stated, but there is no feedback there.”

Photo: archive of People in Need
This program has been underway for seven years now, hasn’t it? How have Czechs responded to this appeal and what kind of gifts do they like buying most?

“Well, the first gift introduced seven years ago was the “happy goat”, that’s very popular and is still part of the program, so happy goats and chickens are the highlights, I would say.

How many countries are you helping in this way?

“Now there are 21 countries, that’s including humanitarian missions, where we are helping or have helped in the past. As far as the real gift program is concerned that changes every year, depending on requests and possibilities. Ethiopia is one of the biggest consumers of real gifts, especially when it comes to agriculture.”

On a small scale you have also introduced real gifts in the Czech Republic. How do you help here?

“People in Need places emphasis on social protection and social integration, working with vulnerable communities and a big part of our work also concerns education. So one of the certificates is actually giving a child who is struggling at school extra tuition.”

Do you yourself give these presents and what kind of response do you get?

“Yes, many of my friends got sheep and said “look, we found you under the Christmas tree”. So I am happy to be part of the campaign. I give some myself and I definitely encourage others to do so as well. The choice is considerable –you can buy a fish certificate for just 100 crowns or a big gift like a donkey and cart or a cow which can cost as much as 7,500 crowns.”

In what way is this better than just giving money to charity?

Photo: archive of People in Need
“The real gifts? Well, people often want to know exactly how their money is being used, they say a lot of the money in these projects is wasted and running costs are high and so on. When you go for the real gift campaign you can be sure that 100 percent of anything you contribute will go directly to purchase whatever it is that you are financing. We do our best to make our programs efficient but if you want to spend money straightaway and be sure that nothing is wasted then this is a good way to do it.”

In comparison with the other things that we get, which of course are nice, this somehow reflects the true spirit of Christmas…

“Yes, Christmas is a time when people think more about others, not just their immediate family and friends but also people in need around them and in the world. We could say it is part of the Christian tradition that we help neighbours and fellow citizens in need and we can also take the viewpoint that our neighbours are not just the people in our immediate vicinity, but all around the world. I think that is a tradition worth preserving.”

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