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Last Updated: Monday, 13 December, 2004, 11:21 GMT
A goat's not just for Christmas
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Magazine

Buying Christmas presents can be an annual headache, not helped by the words "Surprise me" or "I don't know, I've got everything I need" from your nearest and dearest. One answer is to get them a goat and shop with a conscience.

This year we'll be splashing out more than 8bn on Christmas presents - many of which will be buried at the back of the wardrobe or abandoned in charity shops a few months later.

But the pressure to buy for the sake of buying is driving more people to charity gift websites selling unusual presents to benefit the needy.

The Good Gifts catalogue is a website which acts as the middle man to link buyers to charities, and has trebled in size since its launch in October 2003. Its 90 gifts from 30 charities range from 10 to 2,500. Part with 15 and you've got a goat.

Goat
Don't bleat about the bush when it comes to gift buying
Trust director Hilary Blume, who set up the site after being lumbered with unwanted wedding anniversary gifts, says: "The animals are supplied to a goat bank in Rwanda and other war-torn areas of Africa.

"The goats help build communities. Herding goats brings together groups who might have been in conflict, or at least increases chances of co-operation. Their milk also helps feed children."

Other gifts include buying a bit of South American rainforest or a cow for impoverished Indian families or a bicycle to help midwives carry out their work in Ethiopia.

Log on to the Alternative Gift Catalogue operated by World Vision and you can find equally unusual presents, such as a sheep for a family in Senegal (12).

It forecasts 2.5m will be spent on gifts from its catalogue this year - a 10-fold increase in sales since it was set up in 2000 - half of which will be on Christmas gifts.

Spokeswoman Andrea Stephens says: "I think more and more of us are realising that there are many people in the world who won't be having the kind of Christmas we'll have and want to make a difference to someone's life overseas."

Getting creative

This eye for the off-beat gift means causes offering a quirky present stand out in a crowded market of 180,000 charities in England and Wales.

"This is the world's most competitive market for charities and they have to be ever more creative and professional," says the Charity Commission's Antony Robbins, who is buying his mum a goat for Christmas.
I think a lot of people have got fed up with materialism at Christmas and this is a nice idea for people
Russell Dickson
Vetaid

As well as going for the unusual, customers appear to be turning to goodwill presents in greater numbers because of the cause.

"I think a lot of people have got fed up with materialism at Christmas and this is a nice idea for people", says Russell Dickson, chief executive of Vetaid. "We have provided about 10 or 20 camels a year to Somalia over the past 15 years but this year we are hoping to do even better."

Celebrity endorsement

The Alternative Gift catalogue is boosting its profile by embracing celebrity shoppers such as Atomic Kitten's Jenny Frost.

Simon Young
Simon Young is not a fan
Another, Denise Robertson, the agony aunt on ITV1's This Morning, says anyone in her family who isn't in serious need is getting a goat or chickens.

She became a charity gift convert after visiting Uganda to see how the Alternative Gift goat scheme changed people's lives.

"The goat is a life support machine - when you give something like this it's a present for life," she says.

Honourable sentiments indeed, but Christmas is as much a time for indulgence as it is for benevolence. So would shoppers battling the high streets be prepared to go down the charity gift route instead?

Cop out

"I always get stuck for what to buy and not a lot of thought goes into a box of chocolates," says Ollie Vernon, 25. "This is a good idea because it's helping the less well off."

Alexie Jell, 23, is fully in favour. "In the past I bought an "adopt a gorilla" present for my mum and she loved it. She has the photo of the gorilla sitting on her piano. I think it's a lovely idea and shows innovation."

Denise Robertson
Charity gift fan - Denise Robertson
But not everyone agrees. Simon Young, 33, is not about to give up his High Street haul just yet. "I don't think I would do it. I would consider it a cop out. It lets people off the hook for being creative about a gift. I wouldn't be very impressed if I got a present like this."

In the face of this ethical conundrum, Denise Robertson employs some of her time-honoured advisory skills.

"If you're giving a present to impress someone, like a man in ardent pursuit of a woman, you're more likely to give them Chanel no 5," she says. "But if it's someone you love very much, give her a goat.

"If they don't appreciate it, they're probably not worth giving a gift to anyway."


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