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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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