Fair Trade Ruthless Criticism

At last, also in the “coffee sector”:

Fair Trade:
Halving Poverty through Good Manners for Retail Chains

[Translated from GegenStandpunkt 4-04, December 2004]

Somehow it seems to belong to the good tone in the development aid ministries of the big rich nations to push “conferences,” “initiatives” and “projects” which should fight against poverty in the “3rd world,” finally “sustainably.” Hunger – at least halve! Drinking water and electricity – double! And the “extreme poverty” in the “3rd world” in general – also halve by 2015! The German government is seriously in gear to fight world poverty, and so a few departments from the Federal Ministry of Economic Collaboration (BMZ) lean particularly on the so-called “international coffee sector.” What they present to us in results they could indeed justifiably say about every raw material sector they politically oversee and supervise all over the world, but maybe they thought to themselves, well, one must begin somewhere:

“The worst forms of child labor; slavery and hard labor; human trafficking; prohibition on membership in and representation by trade unions; forcible expulsion without adequate compensation; failure to supply adequate lodgings and supply drinkable water; clearing rain forests or destruction of other natural resources in protected zones; use of pesticides which are banned according to the Stockholm convention; immoral measures in business relations according to international agreements and national laws and practices” (from the Common Code for the Coffee Community initiated by the BMZ)

The development aid experts in Berlin cannot be so truly shocked about the incriminated conditions when they actually talk about the necessity for “fair trade” in the “coffee sector” like they just came from an alternative workshop. Because this lurid genre picture of this free market sphere cannot be that strange to them. Ultimately it has been their ministry which in association with the other industrial nations for 30 or 40 years has aided many states in Africa and Central America with the “development perspective” which was intended for them in the capitalistic world market: a career as a “raw material country.” And if our experts in the BMZ now act as if they had just discovered the “serious crisis” in the producer countries and the ongoing “dramatic drop in price” of coffee with its well-known ruinous consequences for state, land and people, one must be even more surprised: after all, it was their fine Federal Ministry that concluded and implemented four Lomé agreements, [1] all of which were predicated on the destructive consequences that result from the fact that a whole block of countries are restricted to the export of raw materials, and all of which seek to continue this work of destruction in the interest of maintaining a cheap supply of raw materials for the global market economy.

Have they have forgotten all this? Maybe it is just that the modern, certainly rather environmentally conscious and concerned about women’s rights and child rights department managers in Berlin try to paint the arranged misery so clearly because they want the development policy that existed up until now to be reputed a magnificent failure in a however undoubtedly good purpose – fighting poverty in the “3rd world” through “development cooperation”:

“Poverty can be fought not only by development cooperation, this much is clear.” (BMZ, September 10, 2004)

Clearly, state loans, raw material agreements, interest obligations, all this has been solely a program for fighting poverty, which – unfortunately – went to the dogs. How then should it have gone well that the mightiest and richest states should fight the poverty of the poor and helpless? Its time to look the truth ruthlessly in the face: poverty and devastation have increased “in a frightening magnitude” – of course, the experts in assistance mean, despite and not because of our development aid policy.

Our Berlin Assistant Secretaries in the BMZ have hit on a topnotch version for the fact that Germany no longer wants to administrate this old, state-financed “development cooperation” and has long filed it away, and as experts in the fight against poverty have a new and much cleverer “assistance concept” in store in no time. Here is the new, guaranteed “quality-certified” and “lasting” initiative for fighting poverty:

“Therefore we enter new strategic alliances with business and society with the purpose of strengthening corporate social responsibility” (ibid.).

Trained by the German government, the globally operating coffee retailers should sign a “code of conduct,” the “Common Code for the Coffee Community,” in which they and their suppliers conclude employment contracts and wage agreements, pay overtime, adhere to safe and healthy working conditions and – certified as pure by ISO 9001 – produce with environmentally-friendly cultivation methods.

What a revolutionary idea for fighting poverty! We simply make the fox guard the chicken coop and appoint the big retail companies Aldi and Tchibo [2] – which, by the way, don’t even pay their German employees overtime or grant collective bargaining – which control the present, so unsightly “coffee sector,” to represent the world poverty fight on the coffee fields. And why not? Who else should be entrusted with the fight against poverty and need than the profiteers who have been on location for decades and know so much about the conditions in the market that they have created? The retail companies must simply know how it goes, “fair conduct,” eventually they command and control whole regions with their plantations and supervisory staff themselves so that their raw coffee always arrives on time to their roasteries. In this respect they not only have a “quite close look” at it.

They know the “problem of poverty,” but also what fairness calls for with its spoils. Certainly Tchibo and Co. give a drinking well here, a “sustainable” plantation there, and show that already the first step is taken in environmentally- and socially-acceptable coffee growing. With the ecological-humane test seal on their Gala and Coronation blends they can then make in all fairness a moral impression on their venerated customers and do a little something against the dramatic drop in prices that troubles humanity so.

[1] A convention established in 1975 for economic cooperation between the European Economic Community and developing countries of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific (ACP). It was renewed in 1979, 1985, 1989, and 2000.

[2] Two European retail companies: Aldi is a discount supermarket chain and Tchibo is a chain of coffee shops.