One of the things about studying development in poor places is that you quickly realise that it isn't as straightforward as the aid charities would like to have you think. We are given a picture of poor farmers scraping a meagre living - either through subsistence alone or commodity crops such as cocoa, coffee and bananas. However, as I recall from studying both Latin America and South East Asia, the reality on the ground is much more complicated. Indeed, the very poorest people in these places, the ones who were going to get done in first when the drought and famine arrives, are what we'd call 'landlass labourers'.
So part of me is pleased to have my ancient geography lectures confirmed by a comprehensive study - this time in Africa:
...wage employment in areas producing agricultural export commodities is widespread. FTEPR survey results from the short questionnaire addressed to a very large proportion (in some cases 100 per cent of the sub-site populations) show that a large percentage of people had experience of working for wages specifically on farms and processing stations producing the commodities that were the focus of the research.
The people who own the farms on which these labourers toil are not the poorest. Yet the focus of development efforts is directed at these owners and, in particular, through Fairtrade at the small and medium sized commodity growers. These findings come from the Fair Trade, Employment and Poverty Reduction (FTEPR) unit at London's School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) and they remind us that, as we should know, the most vulnerable in any society are those without wealth. And in Africa wealth means land.
What FTEPR go on to describe is perhaps more worrying still for policy-making and suggests that the western narrative on development and poverty in Africa is mistaken:
This research was unable to find any evidence that Fairtrade has made a positive difference to the wages and working conditions of those employed in the production of the commodities produced for Fairtrade certified export in the areas where the research has been conducted. This is the case for ‘smallholder’ crops like coffee – where Fairtrade standards have been based on the erroneous assumption that the vast majority of production is based on family labour – and for ‘hired labour organization’ commodities like the cut flowers produced in factory-style greenhouse conditions in Ethiopia. In some cases, indeed, the data suggest that those employed in areas where there are Fairtrade producer organisations are significantly worse paid, and treated, than those employed for wages in the production of the same commodities in areas without any Fairtrade certified institutions (including in areas characterised by smallholder production).
This challenge to Fairtrade is serious. We are not talking here of some right-wing think tank but a highly respected institution presenting findings that suggest Fairtrade, far from being a way to address poverty, could merely be enriching the relatively wealthy smallholder at the expense of increasing poverty among the landless peasants employed to harvest that smallholding. And the research also challenges the presumption that the Fairtrade governance model is beneficial - concluding that Fairtrade organisations (and the retailers that exploit the branding) overclaim the beneficial impact of the model, that the co-operative model is unequal in that it favours the larger producers within the co-operative, and that policy-makers need to shift their focus away from producers and towards those who are employed by those producers.
As someone who has been critical of Fairtrade for some while, I guess I ought to be happy that a major piece of research confirms its weakness. However, such an enormous amount of good will has been invested in Fairtrade products by a lot of good people - it will be very hard for them to come to terms with the fact that, while the model has benefited some people, it may be creating a bigger divide between the family farmer and the landless worker. It will be interesting to see the response of the Fairtrade organisations to the work - they've faced criticisms before but never from such a comprehensive review or in such a critical form.