One Step Forward … Two Steps Back …

November 23, 2014

I’ve been reading a book on Fair Trade. Although there are many issues I could offer regarding the Fair Trade model, the ultimate concern for many of us, including the author of the book, is that “Fair Trade” is not achieving its goals. Fair Trade started as a movement to address the injustices that began under colonial mercantile systems primarily by providing a living wage to producers. Its purpose was, and is, noble, and there are really good folks engaged in the fair trade movement, some of whom are experiencing success. fairtradeHowever, categories of Fair Trade products such as cotton, coffee, and cocoa, have been less successful. We pay extremely high premiums intending to do the right thing, and yet little has changed for the local producers. In some cases, producers have even abandoned their Fair Trade contracts to seek better prices on the open market. As I ponder the issues pertaining to Fair Trade, and my own involvement in the movement (I, too, sell Fair Trade products such as coffee and chocolate in church-based fundraising events, and often make a point of purchasing products labeled as Fair Trade when I shop), I have to ask myself why so many of our well-intentioned efforts, such as this one, seem to go awry.

When Muhammad Yunus received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in micro-finance, many of us shifted into gear and started developing and/or supporting micro-lending enterprises. Today, research such as that by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo published in Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, explains that micro-finance has had little impact or failed miserably in many places. In fact, in some cases the poor have been badly abused by lending systems, and many are now nothing more than indentured servants as they are unable to repay the loans they were encouraged to take. Their research, for example, showed that in India when poor people need money, many have returned to working with local loan sharks. The interest rates in micro-loan programs have been exceedingly high, ranging from 30% – 70%, investors such as hedge funds have entered the market simply to make a profit off of the poor, loan programs are often based on the assumption that everyone wants to be an entrepreneur (and has the necessary training to do so), and much like in the one-third world, individuals have been cajoled into taking loans greater than they can ever repay.

We like to talk about self-help and often note that many believe a hand-up is better than a handout, as the former is more likely to address the underlying issues of poverty whereas the later simply creates dependency. So, for example, at one point agencies provided high-yield seed, access to small farm loans, and access to needed farming equipment … particularly in Africa. But the US and Europe have continued to provide large farm subsidies for their farmers, artificially lowering the market price on commodities like cotton and corn, and ultimately undercutting the ability of poor African farmers to make a profit selling their produce in the market.

cocoa slaveryMany of us have seen and heard the research on child slavery in the cocoa industry. We’re aware that approximately 70% of all cocoa comes from slave plantations. Children are sold by their poor families believing the promises that they will have access to a good paying job and possibly be able to provide needed support for the family someday. Others are kidnapped and/or sold into slavery by slave traders. Many of us talk about the issues and encourage our friends and family to buy slave-free chocolate. And yet our actions have had little impact on the likes of the Hershey Company, one of the largest chocolate distributors in the world, and which knowingly continues to buy roughly half of its cocoa from slave plantations.

Now that I’ve noted a number of ways in which those of us living in the one-third world of wealthier nations seem to have lost our way and/or failed at our attempts to make the world more equitable, I’d like to keep things balanced and make it clear that we’re not the only ones who fail. I’ve known missionaries who gave years of their lives to build up hospitals to bring quality medical care to the poor … only to learn after their departures that hospital funds were diverted to other programs and local medical staffs pillaged hospital supplies. I know people who have created and staffed mobile clinics in extremely poor regions, providing basic medical services and donating large quantities of medications to meet the needs of those with chronic illnesses … only to return and discover that people weren’t taking their medicine, because the local nurse who was placed in charge of distribution was selling the medications to embellish her income. I’m well aware of church-based grants for orphanages, AIDS programs, and the like, that have purchased automobiles for diocesan staff, repaired and replaced diocesan facilities, and provided the funding to build someone’s home instead of the funds being used as donated. I know of foundations created to channel needed resources into poor communities across the globe for schools, clinics, and low income housing, only to discover that few, if any, of their donated dollars actually made it to the projects they were funding, but rather found its way into community leaders’ pockets.

Again, I’m not implying that all of our efforts are fruitless or that everyone is a cheat. Nor am I suggesting that becoming involved is a waste of time. Not every program is a failure or has some element of corruption. My friend, Bob Lange, for example, has been very successful in Tanzania teaching people how to build energy-efficient cook stoves. Locals have created a cottage industry selling supplies for constructing the cook stoves, people using his design see a dramatic reduction in respiratory ailments, and ultimately, he is saving the forest (from becoming cooking fuel) and reducing their carbon footprint. And that’s just one program. We all know there are many others, some of which are of the types critiqued above … micro-lending that has brought women out of poverty like the program Trinity Church runs in Cali; Fair Trade practices that have been successful among coffee growers in Nicaragua and El Salvador, or among indigenous artisans; logoand organizations like Ten Thousand Villages that have opened markets for artisans in poor communities around the globe.

The fact remains, however, that a good many of our best efforts go awry. Why? What can we do better? How can we educate ourselves and those with whom we engage to be more successful? Is this “awry affect” an inevitable outcome of capitalism? … I don’t think so. Do we keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome? … Isn’t that the definition of insanity? Do we throw up our hands and cry “uncle,” as if nothing we try will ever work? … Isn’t that just an acceptance of the status quo?

It’s both an honor and an awesome responsibility to serve in mission. If we’re honest with ourselves, we appreciate that we need to be asking ourselves these kinds of questions when we step out in mission … be it short, medium or long-term mission engagement. Will our work and projects go awry? Will we make a bad situation worse? What can we do effectively and what’s outside of our scope? Will our work enable us to take a step forward together with our new friends and colleagues, or will we take a step backward, increasing dependency and dysfunction?

For me, this is where my faith comes in. I’d like to think what I’m doing is beneficial and will have a lasting effect, and that I’m not creating problems or causing damage that in itself will have a long-term effect. Regardless of what I’m doing, I do it with intentionality (and, yeah, I’m aware that the road to hell is paved with good intentions), an on-going openness to God and the Holy Spirit, an on-going willingness to collaborate, and the hope that there is a possibility I can make some kind of difference for the better … no matter how small or large. And I also do it with the trust in God’s grace and the hope that I’ll be forgiven if and when my efforts go awry.

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