Is Fairtrade fair?

Since recent church services have sounded more like the shopping channels, I surmised that Fairtrade Fortnight was in the offing. It arose from the coffee crisis of the 1990s which was not a free market failure but a government over-plantation based on subsidies and the misguided encouragement of the aid agencies. The obvious question arising from what is effectively market rigging is: Is fairtrade fair? It is certainly a noble idea but the question is whether the money does actually go to the most impoverished farmers. With its reliance notoriously inefficient farming co-operatives, the higher prices come at the expense of the great majority of farmers, who are left even worse off. The hand-outs prevent people from developing beyond basic agriculture and to become a successful economy, a country needs to industrialise. Fairtrade often looks more concerned with satisfying Western consumer guilt. It is becoming a major brand and the rapid growth of “Fairtrade” towns means that other ethical brands, often with better models, are being squeezed out. Café Britt is a good non-Fairtrade alternative where the Costa Rican coffee bean farmers have climbed the economic ladder by doing all the roasting and processing as well as growing the beans. Or there is Ugandan group Good African Coffee, for anyone who would rather buy from a genuinely developing country rather than the pretty developed Mexico. The ‘ethical’ sector should be expanded beyond Fairtrade and come up with genuine ways to benefit developing countries, while avoiding reliance on hand-outs.

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