Wednesday, February 27, 2008


The other evening I turned the TV news on to see a rather smug and affluent looking young man dismissing Fairtrade Fortnight as a "marketing ploy" and suggesting that it did little good in the world, and some harm. This was a spokesperson from the Adam Smith Institute, seeking ways to defend inequality by moaning, extraordinarily, that Fair Trade as a growing market is, er, unfair to unfair traders. This is logic, but not as many know it. It is true, without a doubt, that since Fair Trade has become big business all kinds of problems have arisen in the process of something that has been an overall good. Some landowners have cashed in at the expense of tenant farmers (as ASI points out), there have been accusations of supermarket suppliers using sweated Eastern European labour to shift goods which have been ethically sourced earlier in the chain, and so on. It is also true that some big companies (Tate & Lyle is the latest and largest example) have been persuaded to get on board as much by pressure and profits as any free ranging altruism.

But these are arguments for further campaigning and change, not a rationale for giving up on the whole enterprise and allowing a 'free' market system controlled by the haves and frequently deployed at the expense of the have-nots to dictate global economic terms. In fact we should take heart, despite the problems. This year Fairtrade Fortnight is putting on display the huge leap forward (see my comments for Ekklesia) that small-scale individuals, churches, NGOs, community organisations and others have made over the past couple of decades. Back in 1984, when I first got involved, this was a fringe activity for the few. No-one really thought it stood a prayer, apart from a relative handful of activists and some determined entrepreneurs. Now most people have heard of 'fair trade', many are buying the goods, it is mainstream not marginal, and not a few people are getting involved in the broader issues it signals.

Cynicism is easy, but hope takes a bit of effort. It's worth it, though.


Anonymous said...

I think you misunderstood the report. The point made in it is against the effectiveness of Fair Trade to bring about development. This is a valid point. Surely what is needed is industrialization, not subsistence farming. The problem is that Fair Trade is not the solution to world poverty.

Simon Barrow said...

Hi anonymous (it's great if people are willing to declare who they are, btw!): no-one that I know of connected with the Fair Trade movement thinks that subsistence farming - or export cropping, which is what you meant, I imagine - is the answer to world poverty. Which is why my post specified that FT is part of a range of economic changes required. Where I'd agree with ASI is that freeing up ownership (especially title and land) in the Global South, along the lines that Manuel De Soto suggests, is important too. But again, being over-determined by laissez faire ideology, he ignores the importance of debt, trade and other issues. Likewise, it depends what kind of industrial development, in what balance of relationship between human and ecological need, and owned / shaped / developed by whom. The dominance of corporate interests and markets that are only 'free' for the wealthy lies at the heart of the problem, and feeds the corruption that many use as the main scapegoat for avoiding these wider systemic concerns. So, no, I don't think I've got the report wrong overall. There are issues it raises which are important and which I'd agree with, however - again, as my blog indicated. But the lessons to be drawn are different to the ones the ASI draws from them.

Doug said...

In some contexts providing cashflow through fairtrade to supplement subsistence farming is highly desirable response for the short to medium term.

Timor Leste is a good example of where this approach could be very helpful in providing cash to assist in local development, supplementing health, nutrition, eduction and relieving the pressure to move to Dili.

It is a question of avoiding simple all purpose solutions.

Simon Barrow said...

Good point, Doug. And the problem for many is non-subsistence, let's not forget.

Doug said...


To your point on subsistence versus non-subsistence - a salutary reminder.

One other point on the Fairtrade issue is the non-economic point that the campaign has helped personalise the reality of the trade system.

It is not an abstract market - but real people whose faces we can see and whose stories we hear.

Simon Barrow said...

We must stop agreeing like this, Doug ;) On the face-to-face market matter ... this, of course, was at the root of Adam Smith's thought. A point which the ideological right miss when they hijack him as a champion of anonymous markets abstracted from morals.