Derek Newberry

Fairtrade Fires Back – Is A Flawed System Better Than None At All?

coffeeYou may have read a blog I posted recently discussing some of the problems with the Fairtrade system; this drew directly on a Financial Times article detailing the ways coffee growers in Peru pass their products off as Fairtrade while circumventing the rules. Soon after, the Fairtrade Foundation wrote back with a defense of the system and principles by which farmers are certified and monitored.

The press release answers the FT reporter’s charges that these Peruvian farmers make below the legal minimum wage, arguing that they in fact earn more than what uncertified growers in the region pay their employees despite selling only a fraction of their full crop.In challenging this and other allegations made in the original piece, the underlying theme seems to be an acknowledgement that the system is not perfect, but that it is far better than the alternative. In her final paragraph, the director of FT Foundation says: ?Tackling complex development issues requires a sophisticated response, and Fairtrade systems are constantly being strengthened to deliver this. We have yet to see the conventional, uncertified market offer a better alternative.?

This perspective by the Fairtrade Foundation is part of a larger and longer debate on how we analyze various green and socially responsible initiatives, especially in the field of anthropology, where criticism of development efforts is commonplace.

The question is always one of how to spend our limited intellectual capital and professional energies- is it helpful to use our academic or journalistic podiums to assault initiatives like the Fairtrade movement or a grassroots IDB project rather than focus on governments and organizations that do nothing to improve social welfare?

On one side, proponents of the Foundation might say that flawed initiatives are better than none, while critics would argue that corporations and ministries that affiliate themselves with these projects use the good PR to whitewash their own sketchy records on social issues.

It is a complex issue, but I fall on the side of the Fairtrade Foundation; any poverty-alleviation project is going to run into economic and cultural variables that make execution and evaluation difficult, but it does appear that we have progressed far beyond a time when North-South development meant pure colonialism. I know there are strong counter-arguments to this point out there- I would be interested in hearing them.

(Thanks to Green LA Girl for providing the link for this!)