31 July, 2015

Doing Good and Doing Better

Shopping for Fairtrade
by Barbara Crowther, Director of Communications, Fairtrade Foundation

Ahead of the release of a new book arguing that trickle down economics are the 'only' way to solve poverty, Barbara Crowther tackles some common Fairtrade misconceptions.

What does more good:

A)     Giving money to a disaster relief charity?

B)      Buying Fairtrade goods?

C)      Working in a City Bank?

This was the question posed in the Sunday Times Culture magazine this week, and according to William MacAskill, the author of forthcoming book Doing Good Better, the shocking answer is, apparently C - to get the best-paid job you can and then give a little bit of your amassed wealth to a small but effective charity. And there was me thinking that trickle-down economics had died alongside the King of Rock and Roll…

I haven’t yet read the whole book, but I certainly welcome the debate. Anyone who triggers dinner table conversations about good and better ways to tackle poverty, and how to live an ethical lifestyle, is OK by me. Clearly I’m not going to agree with everything MacAskill has to say, and what has so far been reported on his views on Fairtrade don’t appear to be well grounded when it comes to the facts.

But when MacAskill argues that boycotting sweatshops in Bangladesh is misguided, I’m inclined to agree – Fairtrade has always been about trying to improve conditions in exploited labour situations, rather than walking away from them. A kneejerk abandonment of such places is likely to result in the workers, especially women and young people, being pushed further underground into even more dangerous and demeaning work.

But that does not mean accepting the conditions in the sweatshops either. City bankers and money markets that value fashion companies only for their short term financial profits, rather than balancing this with long term sustainability and risk in supply chains, learned a big lesson on 24 April 2013 when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed.

MacAskill argues, with great conviction (but apparently little concrete evidence), that instead of Fairtrade, it is better to buy cheap non-Fairtrade goods from the same countries, and give money to charity. I have yet to meet a farmer who thinks this is the way to do business. Farmers and workers, like all of us, want to earn a decent income for their hard work, not work for a pittance and then have to rely on charity handouts. If the conventional coffee, tea, cocoa industries had been working for farmers and workers, no-one would have needed to invent Fairtrade. In fact it was small-scale coffee farmers in Mexico, fed up with being excluded from markets and exploited by middlemen, who lobbied NGOs in Europe to set up the whole concept of a Fairtrade label.

Evidence now shows that cooperative after cooperative have been able to move up the value chain, from simply harvesting and collecting raw commodities to washing, grading, even now roasting and packing their own coffee and tea for local markets. This is built on the back of Fairtrade sales and premium earnings. And, just for the record, in the Fairtrade system 100 percent of the Fairtrade premium paid by companies must go to the farmers’ or workers’ democratically elected body, and this is audited. As for whether you or I choose to pay a little bit more for Fairtrade products – we don’t have to. There is now a wide range of options available. It is up to us to decide what best value is, based on our own choice of brand, quality and personal taste.

MacAskill also takes on the ‘local versus imported’ product debate, arguing that hothousing fruit and veg in Britain all year round can carry a heavier carbon and environmental footprint than importing goods from other countries. He’s right – depending on the method of agricultural production. A heavy pesticide, fertiliser reliant farming method will certainly outweigh more sustainable agricultural methods wherever crops are grown.

A comprehensive Swiss study showed that organic Fairtrade Paraguayan cane sugar wins hands down on environmental footprint over European sugar beet. This study does not even take into account  the additional benefits from Fairtrade – and that the farmers have invested Fairtrade premiums (and won further financing) to enable them to establish Latin America’s first and only cane farmer-owned sugar refinery, reducing the transport and processing costs for the farmers’ coop by six percent into the bargain.

I am sure there will be much to admire in this book’s efforts to provoke the debate on altruism, but I am wary of any argument that seeks to make “the best” the enemy of the good. The best is nearly always a subjective judgement. MacAskill makes a valiant stab at pointing people towards unlikely solutions to poverty and unfashionable causes – such as deworming programmes to help children stay enrolled in school. That is all fine. But its biggest flaw is in dismissing perfectly good actions in order to push people towards a prescribed list of worthwhile charities and organisations of the author’s own choice.

The Effective Altruism website that he advocates using as your guide even goes so far as to recommend allocating 67 percent of donations to one specific malaria charity, for example. The causes and organisations all look worthy, but don’t offer any more of a silver bullet solution to poverty than the ones that he eschews. A newly dewormed little girl may still not stay in school if there aren’t separate toilet facilities for girls and boys, or if sexual or physical abuse hasn’t been tackled in the school setting.

And even if all the education facilities are there and in place, if the price of her parents’ crop has suddenly plummeted, and family income dropped, it is much more likely that girls will be withdrawn early from education than boys. Poverty is inevitably complex, and whilst single interventions can be effective in themselves, there are usually further underlying causes needing to be tackled.

It is right that the charity sector should be under scrutiny for delivering value for money, effectiveness and impact, and this book seeks to raise precisely those questions. Whilst MacAskill may argue for a ‘head-only’ approach to altruism, I doubt his approach will ever entirely win over the heart. People will always donate to the causes that most resonate with them, often triggered by personal experience. And why not? No matter how effective that malaria charity may be, if the issues that have touched me personally are the Nepal earthquake, or a friend with breast cancer, or osprey conservation in mid-Wales, that is where my money – and my volunteering time – will continue to go.

I will certainly read MacAskill’s book with interest, and I will definitely keep drinking my Fairtrade coffee too.





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