Monday, January 3, 2011

The Sound of Silence

As 2010 came to a close and the world welcomed the dawn of a new decade, I found myself pondering the purpose of my journey. I was reflecting on the intention of my journey as it is stated on the blog, which is, “to present the voices of Fair Trade producers, artisans, weavers, farmers, and craftswomen and men.” More specifically, I was questioning what to do with my latest findings.

I asked myself, What do I do when I go to listen to the voices of Fair Trade, but the voices are absent? By absent, it is not that they are missing as in people do not want to share their views on what Fair Trade means to them. Nor was there a lost in translation moment when confused glances are exchanged amongst colleagues and interviewees alike. Quite the opposite occurred, all the craftswomen and men whom I met were happy to share their stories and experiences. As a matter of fact, half of the group volunteered to share their life stories. The absence I ponder is much deeper and not readily apparent on the surface. 

In the process of my inquiry I found myself asking, what happens when, for no fault of their own, the very people who you go to listen to, don’t have an answer because they don’t know what you are asking?

Upon initiating this Journey for Fair Trade I had an email correspondence with Rodney North, the “Answer Man” of Equal Exchange. For over two decades this organization has been empowering farmers and producers through fairly traded coffee, tea, bananas and chocolate. He wrote of their experience in relation to my travels; “for what it’s worth – in our 24 yrs in the Fair Trade movement we’ve found that, by & large, individual farmers who are members of co-ops that export Fair Trade coffee or tea or sugar often have very little awareness of Fair Trade, and that this actually makes sense upon closer inspection. Conversely the professional staff of those same co-ops (the managers & other paid staff who process, market, export the coffee etc or do quality control and have regular contact with foreign buyers) often know much more about Fair Trade (as well about the other certification schemes their co-op uses – Rainforest Alliance, Utz, Ethical Tea Partnership, etc).

This lack of awareness by the co-op members will be lowest when their co-op only sells a small portion of its production to Fair Trade buyers and will be higher – usually – if the co-op sells a lot to Fair Trade buyers. Other variables will be how long the co-op has been selling to the Fair Trade market, how much of a price difference those Fair Trade sales make, and how much direct contact the co-op members have w/ Fair Trade buyers. Eg at a very remote/unvisited co-op the farmers/workers will generally have that much less awareness of Fair Trade.

To help increase the level of awareness of Fair Trade amongst coffee farmers in Guatemala we’ve given two grants to a non-profit, Cultural Survival, in recent years to produce radio programs on Fair Trade (& other topics) to be broadcast in multiple languages across a network of micro-radio stations in that country. To our knowledge this is a rare effort.

PS – check out the new book ‘Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital’ by John Restakis – there is a section that looks at the Fair Trade experience of SOFA, a Sri Lankan tea farmer co-op
Rodney's understanding of the on-the-ground reality is similar to my own experiences. In my 2005 Journey for Fair Trade, I interviewed a Burmese woman who was residing in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. When I naively asked, “What do you know about Fair Trade and sustainable development?” She frankly stated, “I don’t know much about Fair Trade, when I sell for 100 Baht and I get 100 Baht, this is fair.” I have learned since then to look for the indicators that reflect the established principles and the higher aims of Fair Trade rather than simply asking, “Are you empowered?” and “Have you been integrated?”  

He articulately explained the sliding scale of awareness of Fair Trade amongst Fair Trade producer groups. One vitally important point he presents is that managers & other paid staff who process, market, export the coffee etc or do quality control and have regular contact with foreign buyers often know much more about Fair Trade.” That is to say, they have a functional degree of knowledge of Fair Trade principles. 

Actually, he identified the very people who act as the lynchpin between the principles as they are viewed in the West and the local social, political, and cultural context of the producers, artisans, weavers, farmers, and craftswomen and men. The leadership of an organization is instrumental to the implementation of Fair Trade principles. Without them and their understanding, there will be a “disconnect” between what is agreed upon as a Fair Trade Organization (FTO) and what the reality is in a particular context. Stated directly, more weight is on the shoulders of these men and women than anywhere else in the Fair Trade movement.  

How do you check that they are passing on their knowledge, or utilizing the principles? This is exactly what I am doing in my journey – meeting with the producers to find out how those principles are viewed and applied locally. If a manager is not transparent or institutionalizes a discriminatory practice, the producers will be the ones to know firsthand. Most importantly, what I am searching for is the interpretation of Fair Trade principles and how they are applied in a local context. I can find these answers reflected in the lives of the people, their experiences in the organization, and within the community for whom they are working. 

Going deeper from this point is where it gets interesting… I found that the origin of a group can have a long-lasting influence in their incorporation and adherence to established principles. Two possible origins exist for producer group FTOs. Please note that the term FTO typically applies to all Fair Trade Organizations regardless of their location or function – a producer group in the South, or retailer in the North. For this posting, I use the term FTO only in reference to producer groups in the South.

Either an FTO arose from a grassroots movement with little to no external assistance; or an FTO was initiated or heavily dependent on an external effort, such as an NGO, a religious organization, or development agency. As a practitioner I have conducted the needs assessment of a community, and as a project designer I have been directly involved in the utilization of Fair Trade as a viable means to address those needs. 

I have found grassroots organizations which have researched and saw an alignment in their stated intentions with the principles established in Fair Trade are likely to be strong adherents and local advocates. A case in point is Binh Le, founder of Reaching Out in Hoi An, Vietnam who utilizes the principles closely and throughout his supply chain.

Organizations supported or established from the outside and managed by well-intentioned Westerners have an obligation to pass on the values and principles they espouse to the producers. Most importantly, they need to lead by example, to connect their actions with their principles. There is a need to empower people through capacity building at every opportunity. Encourage ownership! Take steps that lead to increased participation of producers. The little steps make all the difference. For example, involve producers in decision making processes and product design; find creative ways to conduct market research involving the producers; and foster a community spirit that is recognized in the local context. These are just a few ways to empower producers and facilitate ownership of the principles. 

Following my latest inquiry, I see the biggest obstacle an FTO setup and managed by outsiders will face can be the Western or Westernized managers themselves. For foreigners living abroad and in leadership positions it is all too easy to make the quick and ready decisions without producer participation; to design the products for replication in the workshop or on the loom; and to institute policies without passing on the values attached to the practices. After all, that is how it is done in the corporate world, and often times within the NGO sector despite their emphasis on participatory approaches. If they are not careful, they may end up neglecting the ultimate purpose of empowerment without intending to do so.

In my latest inquiry, it was not a grassroots setup, but one that was established by well-intentioned Westerners aiming to alleviate poverty through an income generating opportunity for a disadvantaged community. Before examining the organization, it is important to note the history and present social context in which it operates and the commendable motive behind establishing the organization.

The echoes of war, national enslavement to a twisted ideology, and systematic famine and murder on a genocidal scale while the world turned a blind eye for over three years has left another legacy on the people of Cambodia. This was followed by the duplicity of an international community which allotted Pol Pot a seat at the UN as the nation desperately tried to heal. The impact of all this exists deep in the personal narratives and life stories of Cambodian men and women which are inextricably interwoven with the collective experience of the nation. Betrayal, distrust, and inhumanity are very present in living memory. Such a legacy is a heavy burden for any narrative to carry. 
The Killing Fields were found throughout Cambodia

A traveler to Phnom Penh will immediately note the dire poverty and numerous beggars on the street with missing limbs and other deformities, reminders of war and disease that plague the nation. Pain, discrimination, inequality, and lack of opportunity are the hallmarks of the nation still today, thirty-two years after liberation. This despite the inflow of billions upon billions of dollars in foreign aid. A case could be presented here on the utter failure of developmental aid as it stands, but I will leave such an exercise for overpaid armchair analysts residing far from streets screaming of an obvious failure. 

Considering the context, it is quite apparent that simply having a job is a great opportunity in and of itself. But I have to ask myself, is this where it ends? Is Fair Trade just about providing an income generating opportunity in the midst of nationwide desperation? What about the lofty goals of promoting Fair Trade as a means to empower the disempowered and integrate the disenfranchised through trade designed to alleviate poverty, promote accountability, encourage gender equality, and protect the environment?

In a previous posting, I declared:

As I conducted the interviews I noticed a repeated theme which I was reluctant to admit at first, but then it became painfully clear. To generalize the more glaring of my findings, there was a complete lack of awareness of Fair Trade principles at all levels of the organization from producers to management and little-to-no empowerment of the producers. As Rodney North had pointed out, not knowing Fair Trade principles in detail is not an uncommon finding amongst producers, but for the new management and for those dealing directly with suppliers to be completely unaware, this was unacceptable. The implications became self-evident as I inquired further into the specifics.

Without going into the findings themselves here and now, it will suffice to say that there were areas in need of improvement in order to meet the Fair Trade standards. At the same time I had a responsibility to do something about the knowledge I had acquired. I also recognized that what I publish could be damaging to an FTO. I pondered what to do…

I sought counsel from a leading advocate of Fair Trade, Jeff Goldman of the Fair Trade Resource Network. He wrote, “As a multi-partisan educator in the FT movement, I think it is essential that we advocates learn from disappointments as well… I observe that Fair Trade often suffers from rose-colored glasses that don’t help producers when glossing over deeper needs and shortcomings of FT. The truth will set us all free…” To this he suggested I find “a constructive, nonpolitical way to share such experiences.” 

Jeff was absolutely correct in advocating for a positive learning opportunity. Furthermore, I owed it to the men and women who so readily shared their stories with me. To make matters worse, the organization is struggling financially as a result of the economic recession that has led to a decline in orders from the West. 

With that said, I couldn’t publish my findings directly, but I wanted to help present their case.

Fortunately, the major trade partner of this small producer group is a leading organization in the Fair Trade Movement in the US and is known to work closely with their producers! As a matter of fact, I saw evidence of this in my inquiry! The story surrounding the wood dryer the group had been supplied with was to ensure their products wouldn't arrive warped and contorted. It was good to see firsthand this type of practical assistance. This was a sign that the Western FTO had a vested interest in their trade partner and it gave me hope!

Standing outside the non-profit organization, interview notes in hand, I felt an obligation to make the findings known to the Western FTO so they can take measures to assist their partner. Simply stated, there was a need to conduct capacity building within the FTO in order to adjust existing practices. I made a detailed report of my findings in which I mentioned, “Principle eight, in relation to capacity building states, ‘Organizations which buy Fair Trade products through Fair Trade intermediaries in the South assist these organizations to develop their capacity to support the marginalized producer groups that they work with.’”

To mobilize those relevant trade partners, I met directly with the Chair of the Board of Directors and the young business adviser. They were both receptive to my sharing and the conversations that ensued left me uncertain that change was on the agenda. More importantly, they were concerned with the immediate survival of the group. In the meeting I emphasized my concerns were from a Fair Trade perspective and acknowledged the challenging financial situation the FTO was in and the limitations on funds. They were also concerned about the issues and the implications of the existing situation if it were left unchanged. However, their hands were tied due to the limited funds of their own with which to assist and the prospects of the FTO were in question as the financial situation was a primary concern.

In my report I acknowledged that the issues I found were primarily in-house issues, not meant for publishing at a time when survival was at stake. That is why I have removed the name of the FTO I speak of until this point. I have also neglected to name the trade partner and supporting organizations working with the FTO. At the same time and as Jeff stated, the truth will set us free.

With that in mind, I concluded my introduction to the report:

“As for publication of my findings on a blog or in other media... I will withhold my findings and will return… in an agreed upon time-frame to follow-up on (the) implementation of Fair Trade principles. I view this as an in-house matter that I came across in my research, and in-house it will remain so long as it is addressed. 

Thank you for your time and consideration of these matters. I believe now, in a time of global economic rebuilding, it is vitally important to uphold our commonly held principles.”

Although my post may close in the following paragraphs, 
     this inquiry does not end here.

Now I speak directly to the major Fair Trade partner in the West which has supported the organization all these years through trade: Despite good intentions, consecutive foreign and national managers of the past have neglected to empower these producers and the current management. This can be remedied. In my report I repeatedly point out, “There is no empowerment here.” If the organization were to close shop tomorrow you should know that those disadvantaged people which have been your trading partners, they will return to their villages the next day and life returns to the way it was before they came. Their lives will return to the same disadvantaged state suffering in dire poverty. As it stands, the producers may as well hang a sign on the door on the last day as it closes, “We were never here” because that is the impact Fair Trade has had beyond simply providing an income generating opportunity for a period of time. As an FTO in the West and major trading partner, I hope you can provide funds to build the capacity of your trade partner, but also know that your actions are on center stage -  as an independent researcher, I will return to this local producer group to review what has changed.

Considering an important aim of Fair Trade is the focus on long-term trade relations with small producer groups, I look forward to returning to find that you have followed your obligations under Principle 8: Organizations working directly with small producers develop specific activities to help these producers improve their management skills, production capabilities and access to markets – local / regional / international / Fair Trade and mainstream as appropriate. Organizations which buy Fair Trade products through Fair Trade intermediaries in the South assist these organizations to develop their capacity to support the marginalized producer groups that they work with.

Thank you for joining me in this journey. Feel free to follow this blog and to add your comments, ideas or suggestions as we go.


Mitch Teberg, MA


  1. Thank you! I have recently started to follow the fair trade scene (6 month ago for earnest), and have started a blogg gathering information about it as well ( - its in swedish though). I have done this because I want to know if it is really good, or just rose-colored glasses people put up.
    I own a coffeeshop, and I have changed everything that I could to fairtrade, but still, i have always felt there is no real sincerity in the fair trade movement - it has always felt like a feel good thing people did because it was "right", or people did because it was business. I wanted to try and see what it really was.

    So I am really glad just to find your blog, and to read deep, well thought-thru comments - and that you are not afraid to lift up problems, just because they dont fit the pricture.

    I strongly beleive we can make this world better, but I know from experience the world (and our society) is extremly complex, and that good ideas not always stay good once they get into contact with reality. It needs alot of listening, reflections and problemsolving. Something I feel you are doing on your journey.

    Thanks you!

  2. Probably the most in-depth analysis of Fair Trade I have come across, and VERY thought provoking. Has certainly made me look at our own Fair Trade practices as a producer. Important how Mitch always get back to the core Principles.

    Thanks for this