The world’s ethical shoppers are still reeling this week after a report revealed that Fairtrade programmes are of little benefit to those working on farms in the developing world.
The government-funded study published by SOAS, a part of the University of London, was conducted over a four-year period in Uganda and Ethiopia. It showed that labourers on farms that are part of Fairtrade programmes are usually paid less and are subject to worse working conditions than their peers on large commercial farms, and even other small farms that are not part of Fairtrade programmes. Professor Christopher Cramer, the study’s main author, said: ‘Fairtrade has not been an effective mechanism for improving the lives of wage workers, the poorest rural people.’
The study also found that the ‘social premium’ incorporated into the price of Fairtrade products, which is meant to be used to improve infrastructure in poor communities, is often misspent. In one instance, researchers found that modern toilets built with this premium were in fact for the use of senior farm managers only. The report also documented examples of health clinics and schools set up with social-premium funds that charged fees that were too high for the labourers they were intended to benefit.
Of course, nobody needed the clever people at SOAS to tell us all this. From its very inception, the concept of Fairtrade was rooted in maintaining low ‘sustainable’ horizons for the poor by those who consider people in Africa and other parts of the Third World to be intrinsically different to the rest of us. The movement did not originate with the poor farmers of the developing world, but with Western NGOs and their army of gap-year do-gooders intent on imposing their reactionary ‘small is beautiful’ values on an Africa desperate for change.
According to the Fairtrade worldview, the poor farmers of the world are in fact quite happy with their lot and only desire a stable, if low, price for their produce. Once this is in place, they will be free to enjoy their simple idyllic existence. The fact that Western countries left extreme poverty behind through rapid industrialisation and urbanisation does not apply to Africa, they say. Instead, it is of paramount importance that Fairtrade ‘promotes and protects the cultural identity and traditional skills of small producers’. They should receive enough money never to be in danger of starvation, but not enough to afford a foreign holiday or to send a child to university or, indeed, do any of the things we in the West enjoy, lest it undermine their cultural identity.