Sorry, but Fairtrade is a political issue

BBC newsreader George Alagiah is shocked that his bosses think Fairtrade is ‘somehow controversial’. It is.

Patrick Hayes

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With the recent announcement that Cadbury’s will soon start purchasing Fairtrade cocoa beans, thus gracing all Dairy Milk chocolate with the Fairtrade logo and giving rise to a predicted 25 per cent increase in total Fairtrade revenue in the UK, you might have thought that it would have been celebration time at the Fairtrade Foundation (1).

Not so. The latest edition of the foundation’s newsletter contains some bad news: the BBC newsreader George Alagiah has resigned as patron of the foundation after seven years.

In an open letter to supporters of the foundation, which promotes ‘fair trade’ between Western companies and farmers in the Third World and licenses the ‘Fairtrade’ mark to companies that meet its criteria, Alagiah says the decision was not his own; rather it was made by ‘senior colleagues’ at the BBC who were concerned that ‘Fairtrade represents a potential conflict of interest which could undermine my impartiality’ (2). The BBC responded quickly to this story, revealed yesterday evening, stating that ‘this is not a judgement on fair trade… [but] George is a news journalist and this is a charity which takes a position on food and trade and promotes those views to the public’ (3).

The decision was made, it is believed, in part because Alagiah has a forthcoming BBC series entitled The Future of Food and his wife is also head of fundraising at the Fairtrade Foundation (4).

Criticisms of the BBC’s decision have centred on the selective enforcement of its impartiality rules. For example, David Attenborough’s recent decision to become a patron of the deeply misanthropic Optimum Population Trust did not cause a stink at BBC HQ. Writing in the Guardian, Hugo Muir says of other BBC moonlighters: ‘So Jeremy Clarkson can take the Murdoch shilling for penning articles in The Sunday Times. John Humphrys can write commentaries for YouGov. But Alagiah can’t be a figurehead for a movement connecting British shoppers with farmers in the developing world. Oh dear. Auntie is all confused again.’ (5)

Muir’s response typifies the reaction to the news about Alagiah. Why should someone doing such ‘good works’ and helping to ‘improve the lives of farmers and workers in developing countries’ be prevented from putting his full weight behind a cause?

It is widely assumed that supporting Fairtrade, unlike, for example, writing for The Sunday Times, is an unalloyed good. Alagiah himself is baffled that the BBC seems to view Fairtrade as ‘somehow controversial’ (6). Leaving aside the question of whether Alagiah can remain impartial in his job as a newsreader while representing the Fairtrade Foundation in his spare time, the fact is that Fairtrade is a political issue; it is, or at least it ought to be, controversial. Presenting it as a simply good and saintly thing, like giving apple pie to children, is highly disingenuous. Alagiah took on what is in effect a very political position, with repercussions for the debate on development, the Third World, global equality and progress.

According to a recent report, Britons spend more on Fairtrade products than other Europeans: £6.50 per capita in 2007, compared with £2.50 and £1.20 in France and Germany respectively (9). The Fairtrade Foundation received a total income of £7.2million in 2008, the majority of it from licence fees for products (7). Alongside Cadbury’s turning Dairy Milk ‘Fairtrade’, Starbucks has pledged to make many of its drinks Fairtrade in the UK and Ireland by the end of 2009; Mars, meanwhile, is hoping to get the stamp of approval from the Rainforest Alliance (8).

It is not just big corporations that support Fairtrade. A UK government White Paper published last month announced plans to quadruple funding ‘to promote fair and ethical trade’ (9). According to a TNS CAPI Omnibus survey, seven out of 10 people in the UK recognise the Fairtrade logo. There are now over 300 Fairtrade towns, villages and councils across the UK where Fairtrade products must be readily available. There are 493 Fairtrade ‘producer groups’ in the UK, and more than 4,500 products that are Fairtrade-licensed.

But what ‘support’ do communities in the developing world receive as a result of all this Fairtrade business in Britain and elsewhere in the West? The idea is that Fairtrade-stamped products only use ingredients that are created and traded fairly in the developing world. Yet in 2005, the youth education charity WORLDwrite produced a film called The Bitter Aftertaste, which highlighted the severe limitations of the Fairtrade movement. The Fairtrade movement has no policy on mechanisation in farming, for example, and its restrictions on the use of pesticides in any product from the Third World that it licenses means that many Africans are locked into back-breaking cheap labour as they cull weeds by hand rather than being able to destroy them with chemicals.

In The Bitter Aftertaste, Alex Singleton of the Adam Smith Institute highlighted the tendency of those involved in the Fairtrade movement to believe that ‘there’s something romantic and attractive about agriculture’. Actually, Singleton argued, the Fairtrade movement squanders labour, locking workers in developing countries into labour-intensive methods of farming: ‘In Guatemala you have 500 people producing the same amount that in Brazil five people are able to produce.’ (10) It is this unproductive labour, the use of primitive forms of technology and no fertilisers, which makes the end product, ‘natural’ and ‘fair’, desirable to some Western consumers.

As well as encouraging certain forms of farming, the Fairtrade industry in the West keeps parts of the developing world in a non-diversifying, non-developing straitjacket. The Economist has pointed out that if there is a price guarantee on Fairtrade goods, then there is little incentive to diversify or move on amongst poor Third World communities. Indeed, the salary increases for Third World farmers if they adopt Fairtrade methods – which are very small salary increases, but nonetheless desirable for already very poor farming communities – encourage farming communities always to focus on producing the same thing, with the same methods, rather than to venture into other forms of agriculture or grow other crops (11). The Fairtrade Foundation says it ensures the ‘sustainability’ of small, local industries in the developing world – yes, but largely by taking away any incentive to grow and do farming differently.

Furthermore, as The Economist observes, ‘[Fairtrade] certification is available only to co-operatives of small producers, who are deemed to be most likely to give workers a fair deal when deciding how to spend the Fairtrade premium’. Small, for the Fairtrade Foundation, is beautiful. Indeed, rather than looking for ways to increase large-scale production of crops in order to mitigate future food shortages, like those we saw last year, the future, according to the Fairtrade Foundation report The Global Food Crisis and Fairtrade: Small Farmers, Big Solutions?, is small. As Harriet Lamb, CEO of the Fairtrade Foundation, said: ‘We’re calling on all major players to put smallholders at the heart of their agricultural policies.’ (12) This militates against any collectivisation of labour power or shift towards large-scale production – the kind of developments that occurred in Western nations more than a hundred years ago and upon which modern societies are largely built.

The breakdown of the Fairtrade Foundation’s expenditure is telling. In 2008, it spent £2,128,000 on ‘public education and awareness’, more than it gave to producer and product support (13). This sums up what Fairtrade is really all about: educating the public and making us feel better rather than significantly changing conditions in the developing world. As one Fairtrade slogan puts it: ‘Good Coffee, Good Feeling.’ Fairtrade is really about flattering Western consumers, making us feel like we are making a difference; as one newspaper put it when Cadbury’s announced it was going Fairtrade: ‘Good news: eating bars of Dairy Milk is no longer greedy – it’s snacking with a social conscience.’ (14)

George Alagiah has argued: ‘Fairtrade offers both consumers here and people in Africa, Asia and South America something. It crosses that bridge, that divide… in a completely new and positive and imaginative way. [Offering] simple things that make a difference in people’s lives. It’s about hope, dignity, aspiration and ambition.’ (15) But whose hopes and aspirations is he talking about? Not most Africans’. In The Bitter Aftertaste, African interviewees said they wanted the same living standards and working conditions that we have in the West.

The Fairtrade Foundation celebrates small companies and backward forms of production, rather than supporting rapid modernisation and new forms of industry. It’s up to the BBC and Alagiah to sort out their differences on impartiality, but it won’t do to present Fairtrade as some unquestionable, non-political Good Thing on which everyone is naturally impartial. I’m not, and you shouldn’t be either.

Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the IoI Current Affairs Forum and volunteer co-ordinator for the education charity WORLDwrite, producers of the debate ‘Shopping: are we all ethical now?’ at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival.

Previously on spiked

Daniel Ben-Ami attacked the elitist criticisms of Indian child labour. He also questioned whether fair trade coffee would really end global injustice, and asked if the workers of the world were really disunited? Elsewhere he looked towards an age of abundance. Nathalie Rothschild said ‘fair trade fortnight’ would do more to alleviate Western guilt than Third World poverty, and critcised a charity’s patronising Christmas gifts. Neil Davenport reviewed Paul Mason’s Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global. Or read more at spiked issues Economy or Africa.

(1) Socially aware chocoholics rejoice as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk goes Fairtrade, Guardian, 22 July 2009

(2) BBC forces George Alagiah to quit role as Fairtrade charity patron, The Times (London), 4 August 2009

(3) Why did BBC order newsreader George Alagiah to ditch his charity work?, Daily Mail, 5 August 2009

(4) BBC forces George Alagiah to quit role as Fairtrade charity patron, The Times (London), 4 August 2009

(5) Diary, Guardian, 23 July 2009

(6) Newsreader ‘unhappy’ as BBC tells him to quit charity, London Evening Standard, 4 August 2009

(7) Fairtrade Foundation Annual Review 2008/09

(8) Socially aware chocoholics rejoice as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk goes Fairtrade, Guardian, 22 July 2009

(9) UK overseas aid budget to boost Fairtrade, Fairtrade Foundation, 7 July 2009

(10) The Bitter Aftertaste

(11) Food politics, The Economist, 7 December 2006

(12) Global food crisis will deepen without action to support small farmers, warns Fairtrade Foundation, Fairtrade Foundation

(13) Fairtrade Foundation Annual Review 2008/09

(14) Socially aware chocoholics rejoice as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk goes Fairtrade, Guardian, 22 July 2009

(15) A message from George Alagiah, Fairtrade Foundation

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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