Fashion victims for Uganda

Observations on charities

After the success of last year's wristbands, charities and non-governmental organisations are competing to produce this year's must-have ethical fashion accessory. So far, the smart money is on dog tags - the military-style tags used to identify dead and wounded soldiers. Having already been adopted by two British NGOs - the death-row campaigners Reprieve and the Samaritans - dog tags are now being put to creative use by a US-based campaigning body.

The Name Campaign was launched last December to raise awareness of the thousands of children kidnapped by a northern Ugandan rebel militia, the Lord's Resistance Army; it is now promoting a line of dog tags bearing the names and ages of abducted children. A standard tag, complete with chain and silencer, costs $10; gold and platinum versions are available for $100.

The profile of the tags soared this month when they were featured on the trendsetting website Daily Candy. Since then, orders for the $10 tags have flooded in, while celebrities such as Steven Spielberg have been seen sporting the gold version.

Yet despite its popularity, the project raises awkward questions. Are the tags a fitting way to commemorate the so-called "invisible children" or are they a particularly tasteless bit of bling? Is using the names of abducted children on jewellery exploitative?

The campaign has attracted criticism from other NGOs. "Dog tags are associated with death," said Judith Melby, Africa specialist at Christian Aid. "Gold-plated dog tags are in particularly bad taste considering what children in northern Uganda go through."

It is also feared that an obsession with brand awareness is turning charities into fashion victims. "It is important to find creative ways to raise awareness, but too often important messages go unheard in the clamour for flashy corporate titbits," said John Coventry from War on Want.

Yet Cori Stern, founder of the Name Campaign, stands by the tags, arguing that they bring home the human cost of a widely ignored conflict. "Our dog tag represents a story, a kid stolen in the middle of the night, and not just a nameless African child," she said. "If a dog tag was issued only in the event of death then maybe it wouldn't be appropriate, but dog tags represent remembrance and identification. That's what we're doing: we're giving these kids an identity."

The Name Campaign can also claim to have raised the profile of other projects supporting the children of northern Uganda. On 29 April, more than 20,000 young people in the US will take part in the Night Commute, sleeping rough to publicise the plight of Ugandan children forced to leave home each evening to travel to protected villages.

The tags have the blessing of the affected communities. The children's names and ages are taken from records provided by the Rachele Rehabilitation Centre, a haven for children who have escaped from the LRA. The centre receives all the profits from the sales of the tags.

Whether they are in good taste is a question that will continue to preoccupy the NGO world. But with the first batch of 4,000 tags close to selling out, Stern is busy gathering more names.