The other day the fine town of Keighley was celebrating achieving "fair trade" status. In truth not everyone in Keighley was celebrating this new shiny mark of goodness. Indeed most of the population of Keighley neither know nor care about it's "fair trade" status. However, for those Keighley folk (what do you call someone from Keighley - Keighleyite, Byworthian) who care here's what it means:
A Fairtrade Town is a town, city, village, island, borough, county, zone, district or region that has made a commitment to supporting Fairtrade and using products with the FAIRTRADE Mark.
The good people who run the "fair trade" campaign provide a handy action plan for getting to be a "fair trade town" which elaborates further:
Fairtrade is about bringing the farmer and the shopper closer together. It’s about putting people at the heart of trade. Becoming a Fairtrade Town sends a powerful message about how your community wants trade to work and will directly benefit some of the world’s poorest farmers and workers through increasing awareness and sales of Fairtrade in your area.
Brilliant stuff - by searching out that little logo, by persuading the greasy spoon cafe to serve the approved sort of coffee we are making the world a little better and those poor farmers a little less poor. Crack open the bubbly, hoist some bunting and let's have a party. Let's celebrate our municipal goodness!
But hang on. What exactly are we doing here? Is this the best way to make the lives of poor people elsewhere in the world a little better? Or is it just a marketing scam dreamt up to assuage our guilty Western consciences?
It's a bit of both really - the fans of fair trade argue that is it a better model (with its co-ops and supposed transparency) when compared to traditional free trade models (with their nasty bad businesses and entrepreneurs) but there's no evidence that this is the case (pdf):
The benefits claimed by Fair Trade can also be obtained from the normal business relationships that exist between primary product producers and buyers. Attempts by proponents of Fair Trade to denigrate free trade and normal market practices are not helpful and distort realities.
More worryingly, especially in Latin America, "fair trade" does little or nothing to support the very poorest (because those very poorest are landless and dependent on plantation agriculture). Indeed, it could be argued that "fair trade", by preferring the products from (relatively better off) smallholders, acts to increase the risks of destitution for those landless workers.
However, the scale of "fair trade" is such that such impact is marginal - there isn't enough of it to have sufficient of a negative effect on the established trading models. So my biggest concern is that, far from helping smallholder farmers, "fair trade" acts to trap them in essentially uneconomic conditions - they remain poor compared to us guilt-ridden Westerners but are stuck in a condition that merely sustains that relative poverty.
To support me here's a reference from the Guardian:
...economist Paul Collier argues that Fairtrade effectively ensures that people "get charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty". Fairtrade reduces the incentive to diversify crop production and encourages the utilisation of resources on marginal land that could be better employed for other produce. The organisation also appears wedded to an image of a notional anti-modernist rural idyll. Farm units must remain small and family run, while modern farming techniques (mechanisation, economies of scale, pesticides, genetic modification etc) are sidelined or even actively discouraged.
The success of the "fair trade" model hinges on the success of the Fairtrade Foundation's marketing campaigns - so long as the marketing message ("Fairtrade is Ethical and if you adopt it you are good people") succeeds the model succeeds. But back on the farm we have locked peasants into the peasant agriculture we ought to be helping them escape.
This is all part of a core development message (although to call it's outcome 'development' is to turn the meaning of the word on its head) proposed by organisations such as Oxfam - that we should subsidise subsistence farming as a protection against supply problems (drought, flood etc.) in order to allow for development.
I don't know about you but this does rather smack of keeping peasants in their place, scratting away trying to feed their families and dying at 45. Indeed the entire bien pensant development world is riddled with people promoting some sort of Maoist peasant idyll rather than looking at what happened elsewhere. In the elsewhere with the cars, TVs, computers and so forth that those peasants would like too. In that elsewhere we didn't (at least until recently) subsidise the subsistence farm but rather we encouraged mergers, enclosures and the development of commercial agriculture.
And "fair trade" is part of this corrupted idea of development, of an idea that guilty rich folk should simply hand over extra cash so that people farming ever more marginal land don't starve to death. An idea of development that proposes the use of Western wealth to keep peasants as peasants and then guilt-trips us into coughing up charity to do just that.