News analysis: Fair trade groups hit back at critics

Nathalie Thomas

The movement claims it has been misrepresented by a film that challenges its worth.

When The Bitter Aftertaste, a film challenging the achievements of fair trade by the education charity Worldwrite, made the news at London's Raindance Film Festival (Third Sector, 12 October), it left more than a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of Oxfam and the Fairtrade Foundation.

Worldwrite said it hoped the 17-minute film, produced by a group of students from Northern Ireland, would confront the idea that fair trade is a universal remedy for poverty in the developing world.

"But we've never argued that we were the answer to poverty," says Barbara Crowther, head of communications at the Fairtrade Foundation. Crowther, who agreed to appear in the film, feels maligned by the final product.

She denies that the fair-trade movement ever professed to be able to end poverty.

"We believe poverty is incredibly complex and deeply embedded in all sorts of issues," she explains. "We think fair trade is one way that consumers can play their part. It's not the only thing. We need a range of different strategies."

Alternatives

One critic, the Labour peer Lord Meghnad Desai, told the makers of The Bitter Aftertaste he considers the foundation's strategies "short-term" and "palliative". But the foundation points out that it is pursuing a number of alternative channels to combat poverty. These include pushing for trade justice and supporting the Make Poverty History campaign.

But criticism of the fair-trade movement comes much harder and faster than Lord Desai's, who admits: "I don't think it should be stopped."

Another participant in the film, Alex Singleton, president of the Globalization Institute, a trade and international development think tank, accuses fair trade of helping some farmers at the expense of others.

"There are some winners from fair trade," he says. "But the people who aren't on the scheme are made worse off as a result of the scheme existing."

Singleton says fair-trade schemes encourage some farmers, such as those in slightly more affluent countries like Mexico, to remain in the market when they would be better off applying themselves in other areas. The result, he argues, is that prices for growers in less affluent countries such as Ethiopia are affected. "It doesn't look at the market place as a whole," he adds.

However, arguments put forward by Dr Alex Nicholls, a lecturer at Oxford University's Said Business School, suggest Singleton might be jumping the gun.

"Fairtrade products account for at most 1 per cent of the trade in their particular markets," he points out in his paper Thriving in a Hostile Environment. "Thus, Fairtrade cannot be 'price-setting', because 99 per cent of world trade still operates under free-market principles."

But although the economic impact of the fair-trade movement remains marginal at present, Nicholls admits assessments of it may have to be revised in the future.

"As Fairtrade market share continues to grow, the price floor will eventually have some effect on the world market price and thus create distortion," he adds. "As Fairtrade gains market share, it will be necessary for the Fairtrade system to change."

Change is another thing The Bitter Aftertaste suggests the Fairtrade Foundation is unwilling to embrace. Worldwrite says it "doesn't even have a mechanisation policy".

"You wouldn't expect it to," argues Rosemary Byrde, fair trade and market access adviser at Oxfam GB, who believes this view demonstrates a misunderstanding of the system. "It's a certification programme."

Fairtrade's Crowther is also the first to agree that the foundation doesn't have a policy on mechanisation. She says: "What Fairtrade does is allow farmers to invest in adopting the technologies they feel are most appropriate to their own development."

Singleton's suggestion in the film that the foundation has a "romantic view of traditional agriculture" is not based on the reality of coffee growing around the world, says Crowther. Although the foundation is "unequivocally not against technology", she reminds us that some of the best coffee in the world is grown on steep terrain where large machines can't always go.

Reactions from the sector illustrate that the issues raised in The Bitter Aftertaste are clearly divisive. And as many of the academic papers on the subject demonstrate, they are perhaps far too complex to be dealt with in a 17-minute film.

But as sales of Fairtrade products increase by 40 per cent year on year and the movement gains in prominence across the world, the foundation may have to accept that the emergence of such criticism won't be just a storm in a coffee cup.

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