Urgency and Necessity

By Francisco VanderHoff Boersma; Journal of Business Ethics, Volume 86, Supplement 1 (2009)

As I re-read the paper The Urgency and Necessity of a Different type of Market: The Perspective of Producers Organized Within the Fair Trade Market  I was reminded how much I liked it the first time.

My initial reading of Francisco VanderHoff Boersma’s paper was in the very early days of my PhD research. I was attempting not to drown in a sea of literature, and this paper offered a different perspective. It talked about Fairtrade from the perspective of the producers – it was written from a small farmer himself!

I find the simplicity and the meaning conveyed enlightening. While some papers drown Fairtrade in the depths of academic literature, Boersma seems to go back to Fairtrade’s core philosophy. I see it as a Fairtrade paper removed from academic ambitions yet one of the most comprehensive I have read and it is from the perspective of someone who embodies the purpose of Fairtrade.

Boersma states: “I have been fortunate to share in the experience of these communities. I have lived with and subsisted like them for 25 years, working myself as a small farmer. In working with these communities, my academic credentials [Boersma holds a doctorate in political science and rural sociology] have not been of paramount importance. Rather, in the academy of the fields and with the coffee growers as teachers, I have learned a great deal, more than in the different universities where I happened to have studies and taught (p.52).”

Boersma give a very well formulated account of where Fairtrade comes from. Unlike others, he focuses on what the origins of Fairtrade means: “it shows us that when the poor are able to organise themselves and experience that the co-operative road is a viable  option, then a new social, political and cultural order begins to emerge” (p.52). Boersma re-positions the Fairtrade market as a product of the poor as opposed to a certification scheme or a movement developed by the western world. He goes back to its core, its very origins, and makes us remember that Fairtrade is about disadvantaged farmers. It is about their empowerment; not the role of the west in regulating a new market, not a marketing scheme, but development.

Boersma talks about poverty as a symptom, arguing against the traditional view of it as a problem. He states: “it is the irrational accumulation of wealth that is the problem, since it distorts social relationships and creates political conflicts on an enormous scale” (p.54). Very rightly so, and as my interviews in Vietnam and India demonstrate, Boersma points out the problems involved with “paternalistic attitudes involved in traditional development programs” (p.54) which Fairtrade is making a point of avoiding by promoting at its core the empowerment of smallholder farmers.

One wonders if, through the certification system, these ideals in Fairtrade have been lost?

As I conducted my interviews, some of the farmers repeated their need to access more information. They needed the Fairtrade International (FLO) to give them more direction. It is interesting to note that this information exists, but it is for the farmers to find it.

It may be that the paternalistic approaches of the past are so ingrained in these farmers’ ways of dealing with the West that they wait for these organisations to come to them with the information. It’s hardly a surprising expectation when the organisation responsible for promoting Fairtrade and creating knowledge is located in developed countries, and the power resides on one side only.

This hybrid market in India promises to be an exciting step forward.

Boersma states: “Many development programs and projects have sought to help the poor, while not taking the knowledge and concerns of the poor seriously and not viewing them as the best agent of the own development. The poor are thinking, hard-working people who have a collective wisdom which has almost always been denied or dismissed by the powerful, including the most benevolent among the powerful. The alternative market is not charity, relief work, or any other non-reciprocal form of aid (p.53).”

The last point Boersma makes and that I would like to review is the idea that Fairtrade is not a niche market. He advocates Fairtrade is a market of its own, stating: “the alternative market [Fairtrade] does not seek to co-exist as an option within the large traditional market. Rather, trade within the alternative market begins to correct, to create, step by step, new conditions within the dominant market” (p.54).

He argues Fairtrade creates direct economic impact, enables the development of economic and social infrastructure; and increases farmers’ sense of self-worth and confidence, in turn leading to increased capacity building in the economic and social realms but also empowerment in the political realm.

The alternative market is effective, ecologically sustainable; socially sustainable; and allows reconciliation of the two mina pillars at either end of the value chain: producers and consumers.

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