27 March 2007

Is Fair Trade Fair?

The New Scientist Environment Blog today asks "How fair is fair-trade coffee?"

One older farmer, Jacob Rumisha Mgase, slowly got to his feet. He thanked us for coming, but said: “We’d like to know how much our coffee costs in the shops in England.” John said it worked out at $12 for a pound of coffee. I think Jacob already knew that.

“So you buy our coffee for $1.46, and sell it for $12. Is that fair trade?” Good question.

The truth is that, because of the collapse in world coffee prices this decade, even farmers paid fair-trade prices are getting less than they did for a pound of coffee back in the mid-1990s. Is that fair trade?
Picking up the theme, here's something I wrote a while ago about trade justice campaigners:

If your conscience is nagging at you about poor farmers on the other side of the world, you might be better off going to your nearest Starbucks and ordering a cup of Fair Trade coffee - a little-known option that the world-famous coffee company introduced to appease the campaigners that were targeting it.

Now, some might claim Starbucks' response shows the power that people exercise when they protest en masse. Yet what did they really achieve? How many people even know that they can buy a cup of Fair Trade whenever they want? And how many actually exercise their right to do so? Whenever I have tried, I have found half the Bearistas have not even heard of the policy and even after the manager has confirmed that I can ensure some poor farmer is going to get a couple pence more for my fix of caffeine, they invariably have to hunt high and low to find the precious Fair Trade beans.

In February 2001, Bush and Blair claimed it was their goal to open markets both regionally and globally. However, leaders in the developed world seem incapable of resolving key transatlantic disputes (GM food, steel tariffs, hormone-treated beef, for instance), let alone making sacrificial policy decisions that will benefit the world's poor at the cost of all-important votes. The UK and US found $70 billion to "liberate" Iraq (not counting what it has cost to "win the peace" since then), whereas just $25 billion would halve African poverty. Instead, income among Africa's poorest has decreased 25% in the last two decades. Moreover, Europe and America spend seven times more subsidising their own farming than they provide in development aid - a policy that directly undermines Third World producers. Indeed, while we impose tariffs on imports from poor countries, some exceeding 100%, the British government is pressing them to reduce their tariffs, quotas and subsidies - measures they desperately need to limit the impact of cheap imports. Thus we preach liberalisation and free trade but practise protectionism and managed trade. Worse still, such hypocrisy has resulted in poverty reduction strategies across the developing world that encapsulate contradictory laissez-faire and interventionist policies - strategies that are therefore doomed to fail.

Cup of Coffee BeansSo, if you must lobby your MP, don't let them simply agree the world is unjust. Find out precisely what they intend on doing to make it a fairer place. Remember Michael Ancram's Zimbabwe visit to meet with opponents of Mugabe's regime? What exactly is your MP doing to promote freedom and opportunity for all across the world, not just in Britain? Buying the right coffee is no longer sufficient.