Tag Archives: Poverty

Fair trade: All it’s cracked up to be?

Did you know October was Fair Trade Month in the U.S.? You might have easily missed it if you’re not working within a fair trade-related field. In any case, how much social impact fair trade creates has been in question since the movement took root. So, let’s try to figure out if you should feel bad for missing the Fair Trade Month hype.

As I mentioned in my previous post, fair trade is “an organised social movement whose stated goal is to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions and to promote sustainability.” Imagine my surprise when a quick Google search revealed that some fair trade farmers receive a lower wage than their counterparts working for private farms! We’re not even talking about bridging the poverty gap (I gotta use the development lingo here, don’t I?) or sending one’s kids to school. One farmer whose story I found (appropriately named Prosper) works for the fair trade-certified Kuapa-Kokoo cooperative in Ghana, and every month he earns $10 less than his peers. So, I asked myself, what is the point?

The “point” can be found in the fair trade premiums paid by fair trade-certified companies to be spent on local projects voted on and chosen by a local community. These projects can take the form of re-investment into businesses or socio-economic undertakings, such as building wells or schools. Don’t we all just LOVE local initiatives, especially those “democratically decided” by the community in question? It must be a development fairy tale!

Unfortunately, it is not. First, the fair trade model itself is partly to blame: Fairtrade International charges a fee for its certification, which strains the already tight budgets of the farms, leaving less cash flow to spend on wages (and lowering their competitive advantage). Point goes to private farms. Second, the prices Fair Trade International offers to farmers are only marginally higher than minimum (not even median!) market wages. Essentially, what the FairTrade Labelling Organization (FLO) does is set up price floors (minimums) to protect farmers from negative price fluctuations. Generally, FLO pays 44 cents/kilogram above market minimum prices and 11 cents/kilogram in premiums. These statistics are for coffee prices only. From them, it is fairly easy to extrapolate the magnitude (or lack thereof) of the fair trade price difference. The point is that guaranteed fair trade prices are, more often than not, lower than market prices, and when they are actually higher, it is NOT enough to create impact. (You can find the full updated list of Fairtrade product prices here.)

What about the premiums and community projects? The Fair Trade, Employment and Poverty Reduction Project at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has a rather unequivocal answer: they don’t make a difference. The four-year research project funded by the U.K.’s Department for International Development had a primary goal of finding out whether the presence of fair trade employment opportunities had any effect on the wellbeing of people living in poverty in rural areas. The resulting comparative and longitudinal assessment of the benefits and disadvantages created by fair trade and non-fair trade schemes concluded: “This research was unable to find any evidence that Fairtrade has made a positive difference to the wages and working conditions of those employed in the production of the commodities produced for Fairtrade certified export in the areas where the research has been conducted.”

In other words, wage-employees working with fair trade-certified organisations are not paid any more than workers working with non-fairtrade certified companies, and their working conditions are no better (and sometimes worse and sometimes involve child labour!).

Yet another troubling finding stated that, in some cases, the structure of fair trade cooperatives was aggravating rural inequality.

These latest (April 2014) findings seem to confirm something that has long been known but has only been whispered about in academic circles. Perhaps this is why Fairtrade International so publicly displayed its disappointment with the research in its statement. While Fairtrade International has a right to challenge the research findings, the company’s status quo should have been challenged long ago. Fair trade is a great idea, and at least some consumers are buying it (no pun intended!). But, it seems ludicrous to me to continue buying fair trade products now that I know the farmers working with fair trade companies are no better off than those working with regular companies! Essentially, what this means is that fair trade’s social impact is zero. That’s disheartening, and calls not only for more research, but for systemic changes within the Fair Trade Movement.

Featured image is coffee farmers in El Salvador. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Jaden and Willow Smith’s Guide to Global Development

In recent years, there have been tremors around the edges of celebrity activism and involvement in global development. Most recently, it was Bob Geldof getting BandAid back together. Angelina Jolie is a constant, but we can only fault her for her acting. Hermione Granger Emma Watson brought the house down at the U.N early this year and created gender equality. Madonna. Bono. Clooney. Affleck. Persons who have become synonymous with celebrity activism and advocacy. But, we are missing two.

Now, this is a story all about how / two kids got the ‘net flipped-turned upside down.

And, I’d like to take a minute / just sit right there.

I’ll tell you how these two princelings found new flair (in global development).

Jaden and Willow Smith attempted, perhaps inadvertently, to break the Internet, in what is perhaps the most wonderfully bizarre interview ever given by two children.  Willow, after whipping her hair repeatedly, became a youth ambassador for Project Zambi, which provides assistance to Zambian children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Jaden, the new karate kid, is also an ambassador. With their powers combined, they have created a unique framework for addressing global development. Digging through their interview reveals there are three pillars to this framework: education, economics and health.

The Jaden and Willow Smith Guide to Global Development

Education: The distribution of teaching and learning materials to schoolchildren to increase achievement and learning needs to end. Jaden and Willow (henceforth referred to as J-Low) advocate for a self-directed and independent approach to reading, learning and literacy. “There’re no novels that I like to read, so I write my own novels, and then I read them again, and it’s the best thing”, says Willow. Rather than distribute costly teaching and learning materials, students should be encouraged to write their own books and then read their own books. It is a sustainable and student-centred solution that will lower costly school resourcing and help create a never-ending cycle of reading and writing.

In addition to reading and writing their own books, J-Low advocate for a school-free approach to learning. Jaden explains, “You never learn anything in school. Think about how many car accidents happen every day. Driver’s ed? What’s up? I still haven’t been to driver’s ed because if everybody I know has been in an accident, I can’t see how driver’s ed is really helping them out.” His philosophy is backed by evidence, which shows that, while more students are attending school, they’re not achieving learning outcomes or completing full cycles of basic education and are instead dropping out. Indeed, teacher attendance, time on-task and other measures of effectiveness are low, forcing us to ask: is school even necessary?

Willow went to school for one year, and then, like many girls in developing countries, dropped out. “It was the best experience but the worst experience. The best experience because I was, like, ‘Oh, now I know why kids are so depressed.’ But it was the worst experience because I was depressed”, she recalls. J-Low back a lifelong learning approach to education, arguing that learning never ends and that the school they go every morning is life. They join other education advocates in ensuring lifelong learning is captured in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Economics: J-Low argue for a return to the economic shock therapies of the 1980s to reinvigorate not only national economies, but the global economic system. The IMF and World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) provided loans that came with conditions on public spending, and were aimed at shocking free-market policies and programs into being. “The only way to change something is to shock it. If you want your muscles to grow, you have to shock them. If you want society to change, you have to shock them”, says Jaden, advocating for greater austerity measures, particularly reductions in education budgets as this aligns with their education approach. Willow sees this as more than a pragmatic policy measure. Indeed, there is an art to it, and SAPs can be considered a form of art. “That’s what art is, shocking people. Sometimes shocking yourself”.

Health: As global health challenges continue to mount with Ebola, malaria, polio and non-communicable diseases going uneradicated, it is perhaps time to harness a new approach to global health and well-being. Prana energy. Jaden explains – “When babies are born, their soft spots bump: It has, like, a heartbeat in it. That’s because energy is coming through their body, up and down. It’s prana energy because they still breathe through their stomach. They remember. Babies remember.”

J-Low advocate for the mainstreaming of prana energy into global health policies, programs and interventions. Maternal and newborn health programs need early screening and detection of prana energy, with community sensitisation and public awareness-raising campaigns to educate the public on how to harness prana energy. Although there are no current impact evaluations, it is recommended that randomised control trials seek to understand and measure the efficacy of prana interventions. #PranaForAll

In the end, global development is not about education, economics or health. It’s not even about livelihoods, employment or having enough money to support yourself and your family. For J-Low, it is about the sustainable artistic journey and the footprint you leave. “That’s another thing: What’s your job, what’s your career? Nah, I am. I’m going to imprint myself on everything in this world.”

Featured image is Jaden and Willow Smith. Photo from Pretty Much Amazing.

Poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started

This post originally appeared on Beacon Reader and is reprinted here with permission.

Susadey, srei sa-art.”

It’s the cheerful greeting I receive in Cambodia. Hello, pretty sister.

Srei means sister, and is the polite way of referring to a woman, so it’s a word I hear often. The idea of family is woven into the Cambodian language. Cambodians refer to each other as brother or sister, or to older Cambodians as aunt or uncle.

But when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975, they abolished all the traditional forms of address. No more sister, brother, aunt, uncle. Just one word: comrade.

The language change was part of a broader Khmer Rouge policy to weaken the family and ensure loyalty to Khmer Rouge above all else. Family relationships were frowned upon. In some cases, husbands were separated from wives, and children from parents.

Today, the Khmer Rouge are gone, and the traditional forms of address are back.

But this does not mean all is well for families in Cambodia.

How poverty breaks up Cambodian families

Decades later, poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started. It presents families with difficult choices that often lead to them being pulled apart.

Cambodia is a very poor country. In 2013, the annual per capita income in Cambodia was just over US$1,000. One in five Cambodians are below the poverty line, living on less than US$1.25 per day, and they face hard choices when it comes to supporting their families.

In some cases, these choices lead to the doors of orphanages. The majority of children living in Cambodian orphanages are not orphans, but have been brought to the orphanage by families hoping to ease their financial burden or give their child the opportunity for a better education.

Children blow bubbles at an orphanage in Cambodia. Photo by: Neon Tommy.
Children blow bubbles at an orphanage in Cambodia. Photo by: Neon Tommy.

Though in the last decade, Cambodia has been stable and the economy has improved, the number of children in orphanages nearly doubled between 2005 and 2010. Of the 12,000 Cambodian children living in orphanages, over 70% are estimated to have at least one living parent.

Some orphanages exploit poverty by actively recruiting children from poor families. Overseas donors who fund orphanages and well-meaning tourists who visit orphanages provide financial incentives for this disturbing practice. This is one reason “voluntourism,” or volunteering while travelling, has been heavily criticized in recent years.

Similarly, poverty is one cause of human trafficking in Cambodia, whether for forced labour or sexual exploitation. Children from poor families are much more likely to be trafficked into forced labour. Many end up in Thailand or Vietnam, where they are forced to beg. Often, these children were sold to traffickers by their parents.

Other parents do what they can to keep their children in Cambodia, and leave the country themselves. An estimated 200,000 Cambodians work illegally in Thailand, drawn north by the hope of finding better jobs than are available at home.

Many of these workers leave behind children in Cambodia. Sometimes grandparents or older siblings are left in charge, and sometimes children are brought to orphanages or to other charities.

How fewer families will face these situations

Of course, not all Cambodians live in poverty. Many families live together without ever considering placing their children in an orphanage, or working illegally in Thailand.

In the past decade, the economy in Cambodia has steadily grown, and this is the best hope for families to be able to be together. As household incomes rise, fewer families will have to choose between being together or apart.

But while the economy is improving, and while Cambodians say sister or uncle rather than comrade, it is nonetheless disheartening how poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started by making it hard for families in Cambodia to be together.

 

The importance of Live Below The Poverty Line

As Live Below the Line week comes to an end, and our participants hungrily stuff their faces with their week’s biggest craving, we felt it was a good time to share some of our reasons for the campaign and why we, at Oaktree, believe it to be so important.

We wanted to take the opportunity to respond to Stu O’Brien’s recent post. He is absolutely right that eating on $2 a day for 5 days in no way accurately teaches you what it is like to live in extreme poverty, nor is it meant to. We wanted to take this opportunity to explain a little more about the campaign and what we hope to achieve with it.

We’re proud of Live Below the Line

This week, thousands of Australians decided to drastically limit their diet, not because they thought it would be fun, but because they wanted to do something for somebody else. We feel that is extremely special. All Oaktree volunteers and many of Live Below the Line participants are people under the age of 26.

That means this entire campaign and the development work it allows us to support is motivated entirely by youth passion. The participants have the chance to learn about poverty, get their friends and family involved in something they’re passionate about and show leadership. Already this year we have raised over $1.2 million for education initiatives in the Asia Pacific. It is a powerful campaign, and one we all believe in passionately.

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Live Below the Line is not supposed to replicate poverty

Poverty is a complex, painful and multifaceted experience – it’s not something that can simply be copied. What this campaign offers its participants is only a short experience of being deprived of choice. Eating on $2 a day, they have to think about what they eat, where they buy it, and cannot make spontaneous purchases when they’re feeling a bit peckish.

As for me, I’m a real sweet tooth. If I’m having a bad day or am low on energy I often head to a café and buy a muffin with chocolate chips. When doing Live Below the Line that muffin would cost me two days worth of food. This is obviously not comparable to needing to choose between medicine and food for a week.

However, many people in Australia never have to make daily decisions and sacrifices that could involve them going hungry or being in anyway deprived. Encouraging people to experience this on a small scale can help them imagine what it would be like to make these choices on a larger one. The aim is not to make people suffer, but to reflect on what it is like for the millions of people in the world who have few choices in their life, and to empathize with them in a way that leads to constructive change.

We only ask our participants eat on $2 a day. Medicine, transport, school fees, electricity, and water are not included. There is a simple reason for this- it would be dangerous to ask her participants to deprive themselves of these needs, just as it dangerous for those people living in poverty. We don’t want to endanger anybody’s health – there are enough people struggling unnecessarily in the world.

We don’t believe poverty can be replicated

Even if we did ask our participants to live completely on $2 for all there expenses for the duration of the campaign, this would still not be an adequate experience of what it is like to live in poverty. As participants, we choose to engage in the campaign – they can drop out any time and have a date when we know it will end. People living in extreme poverty do not have this luxury.

There is no challenge we can create that can replicate that experience. All we can hope to do is give people a small glimpse into what it’s like to live without an abundance of resources, and encourage them to reflect on what it would be like to lack even more.

We also understand that poverty is more than just low income. Extreme poverty is not only about living on $2 a day, it is about having less access to public resources, safety and security, human and social capital and the networks we all take for granted. Living on $2 a day, even if doing so for every aspect of your life, will never give you that full experience.

Live Below the Line is making a real difference for people living in poverty

At the end of the day, Live Below the Line is about giving young people a way to support their peers in the Asia Pacific to get an education. At Oaktree, we believe that young people care about poverty, but are often unsure how they can make a difference. Oaktree is about young people volunteering their time because they want to do something about extreme poverty.

Every volunteer is pivotal to the campaign’s success, every single person is valued. This campaign allows people to make a direct difference – and realize that, as depressing as the world can be, sometimes we can make a change.

In 2013, Oaktree supported seven education projects in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste. We work with local partners and rely on their knowledge and expertise to effectively implement the projects. We believe we support high-level development projects and we are constantly striving to learn and improve our work.

There are thousands of students in the Asia Pacific who are receiving a high quality education because of the funds Oaktree sends. Live Below the Line is what makes this possible.

This is why we believe in the campaign and why we will continue to watch it grow with pride.

 

Sara Gingold is a Cambodia Partnership Manager at Oaktree. 

Cultural constructions of ‘appropriate’ housing

Steven Roche is a social worker volunteering with Little Children of the Philippines through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development Program, an Australian Government, AusAID initiative.

Societies define disadvantage in a number of ways. One way is through identifying and defining housing status, facilities and amenities, or the lack of. When these criteria are placed next to housing conditions in a developing country such as the Philippines, a country such as Australia predictably begins to look privileged.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) counts people in ‘tertiary’ homelessness as “those living in a boarding house on a medium to long-term basis, and whose accommodation is below the minimum community standard of a small self-contained flat.” According to the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, one is considered to be in the category of ‘tertiary’ homelessness if lacking particular facilities or amenities: “people who live in rooming houses, boarding houses on a medium or long-term where they do not have their own bathroom and kitchen facilities and tenure is not secured by a lease.”

The ABS’s experts on homelessness have also said that elements required for adequate housing in Australia include: “…a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space. Homelessness is therefore a lack of one or more of the elements that represent a ‘home’.”

These are formless concepts to people living in and around Dumaguete City in the Philippines. I recently collected data from nearly 500 disadvantaged families in Dumaguete City and surrounding Barangays (a term that translates roughly as ‘village,’ however signifies a defined area with formal governance structures) as part of my volunteer role with Little Children of the Philippines through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) Program. The data that emerged offers an idea of how the concept of ‘appropriate’ housing might be constructed differently in the Philippines, and can provide specific insights into the privileged housing conditions experienced in the developed world.

The set of eyes above belong to a ‘squatter’ in Dumaguete City in the Philippines, a young victim of Typhoon Sendong, which hit in December, 2011 and destroyed their houses after the nearby river swelled in a remarkable deluge.
The set of eyes above belong to a ‘squatter’ in Dumaguete City in the Philippines, a young victim of Typhoon Sendong, which hit in December, 2011 and destroyed their houses after the nearby river swelled in a remarkable deluge.

Economic status

The data indicated that these households were truly poor with meagre incomes that prohibit families achieving a well balanced diet, making house repairs, affording health care or affording school supplies.

To add perspective, these household incomes can be converted into US dollars. The rate at the time of collection was 1 US dollar to 40.6 pesos. In the Barangay of Taclobo, household incomes average at $51 per month and in Calindagan monthly incomes averaged at $81. Low incomes combined with poor security of tenure leaves families vulnerable.

Of the households researched, many were without formal leasing arrangements and few owned the land they live on. The Barangay of Canday-ong, for example, is considered to be a ‘squatters’ community, as residents had built their homes without permission years ago. Similar arrangements are dotted throughout other Barangays. Other Barangays offer cheap land rental in which a family may then construct a house. These are typically ‘handshake’ agreements without formal legal arrangements. Rental prices start at several hundred pesos, approximately $5 US per month.

Housing amenities and facilities are far removed from the definitions explored above.

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Housing is constructed of cheap, yet durable, local and recyclable products. Houses made predominantly of bamboo are traditionally called ‘nipa huts’, which are made mostly from light materials such as wood, bamboo, thatched palm leaves and tin. A nipa hut is a common, sturdy and sought after affordable housing solution on the island of Negros. A small nipa hut can be constructed for approximately 17,000 pesos, a little more than $400 US. Many nipa huts have dirt flooring in entrances and storage areas while elevated areas have bamboo flooring.

In urban areas, houses take on different constructions. Heavier materials are used and security is more of a priority. Houses are constructed of wood, ply-wood, bamboo, concrete blocks and other materials such as tarpaulin (plastic), tin and used polythene rice sacks. Kitchens are typically undercover unplumbed sinks attached to the structure and open fire cooking areas are outside. Facilities are generally shared, such as CR’s (toilets), electricity connections (between houses) and showers are taken at communal deep wells with pumps.

Amenities that are thought of as essential in Australian communities are not readily available or affordable in some Barangays. For example, electricity from outside clustered urban communities requires more infrastructure and finances to connect to households, such as in Timbao and Ticala. In other communities, such as Daro and Candau-ay, barriers to electricity are almost entirely financial. Access to electricity is demonstrated in the following table:

Screen shot 2013-07-26 at 10.57.55 AM

Water, an essential amenity, is most often sourced from shared deep wells, and is reluctantly consumed. Households have no internal plumbing or sewage system. Instead, they use underground holes, tanks or other measures for disposing of waste. Most households have water trails or gutters which channel waste water away from the home into other areas, evaporating or disappearing into distant gutters, particularly in the more urban Barangays.

This data clearly outlines that the prerequisites for ‘appropriate’ living conditions in Australia, such as security of tenure and basic amenities, are remarkably unrelated to life for many in the Philippines. Disadvantaged housing circumstances in Australia are beyond comparison to the living conditions described above. These housing conditions provoke an array of poor health and social dysfunction. They also leave families vulnerable to natural disasters and the stress of uncertain tenancy arrangements.

For these eyes, an electrical connection and a lease would be a miracle, let alone any of the other perks that an experience of Australian disadvantage or ‘tertiary homelessness’ might offer. Defining disadvantage is institutionally and culturally constructed. The example of the ABS definition is defined by cultural expectations created by a history of economic success. The gaping difference between inappropriate housing conditions between these two countries, more than anything, further highlights the astounding privilege that developed nations enjoy, when set against the conditions of a developing country.

The key to reducing poverty is… fewer armchair experts

Certain sectors seem to attract more armchair experts than others. We all think we know what is needed to fix the Australian Cricket Team’s woes. Sack the selectors and cut down the playing schedule to eliminate burnout. Bring back Warney.

We all think we know what is needed to produce better classrooms for our children. We need to reduce class numbers, get the teachers back to teaching basics, study more of the classics in their original form, not after they have been put through a blender by Baz Luhrman.

Development is no different. I recently took a flight from Singapore to Cambodia, and had a lovely, chatty couple in their 50s sit next to me. They were instantly interested in hearing about my work in disability in Cambodia. After asking the usual questions about what I do, they  told me that they were active donors in Cambodia.

They had a local guy who found good, sustainable projects for them to fund. Of course, good and sustainable are entirely subjective.

“We believe that the key to getting people out of poverty is giving the chance to start their own business,” he said to me earnestly. “You need to let them tap into their inner entrepreneur. We don’t believe in providing welfare, because it makes people lazy. We think that starting small businesses are key for poor people.”

I feel like MLK Jr may disagree.

As such, the couple only gave to projects that supported this ideal. For instance, they bought a tuk-tuk for a driver, so that he could earn a living for himself and his family. They provided funds for a soy bean drink machine, imported from Singapore of course, so that another family could sell drinks in their village.

For the next 20 minutes, I listened without interrupting as they explained their views on what constitutes good development, and how the projects they had funded were creating a sustainable future in Cambodia. At the end of this spiel, they turned to face me front on and ask, “So, in your work in Cambodia, what do you see as the major challenges you face?”

I paused for a moment, and replied: “One of the biggest problems we face is donors from outside Cambodia, who have no experience in development, let alone in Cambodia, dictating what they think constitutes good development, rather than listening to what people in Cambodia actually want. It forces the NGO to change their activities to suit the needs of the donors, and ignore the needs of people.”

(I’ll be the first to admit that this is a somewhat pompous response, but really, I had bitten my tongue for 20 whole minutes!)

In a recent interview, Founder and CEO of Global Poverty Project, Hugh Evans, was asked by MSNBC journalists about what Americans could do that would “translate into action” for people living in extreme poverty. For example, the suit-clad men in MSNBC’s studio wondered, should WE teach THEM “better techniques in terms of harvesting rice and grain”? I think Hugh handled this absurd question very well, though his visceral reaction was pretty obvious.

What food did they serve Hugh in the MSNBC green room?

We have great conversations about development online and offline. Although we need to consciously make effort to escape the bubble of developmentcentrism, we are always exploring how to get development right.

Many of us are working in development, consumed by it, and are constantly reflecting on it. Even these people are constantly searching and debating about how to get development right, without a clear answer. If this is the case, what makes those in the general public so sure that they know the answers?

How many times have you heard the phrase “I think the key to getting people out of poverty is X”? You can replace X with education, small business, focusing on women and girls, used yoga mats.

You would be very hard pressed to find anyone saying something similar about other sectors.

Thank you, Wikipedia.

Yet, similar opinions in relation to poverty abound.

It is pretty common knowledge in the development sector that overheads are in no way a good measure of an organisation’s effectiveness. Yet, as many of as aware from numerous conversations, people in the general public don’t seem to realise this. How many times have you heard the opinion “I give to so and so charity because they use volunteers and most of the money goes to the people who need it?”

Why is there such a gap between conversations within our development bubble, and those outside?

I’m going to put forward one possible reason, though I am very interested to hear what others think in the comments section below.

One reason could be marketing. There is often a huge gap between how NGOs market themselves and how the programs themselves work. As long as NGOs continue to propagate the myth that overheads matter, in a bid to get more donations, the public is going to believe them. This could be why, in terms of overheads, the conversation is lagging far behind.

We’ve spoken before on WhyDev about the race-to-the-bottom tactics that NGOs can use to get funding, and how this can ultimately affect the scope of work that program staff are able to do. This is another example of how negative fundraising tactics can hurt development – by stifling knowledge of good development in the public.

What do you think? Why do many people opine baselessly about the key to ending poverty? Why do conversations around development lag so far behind in the public sphere?

Postscript: A few people have asked, here and elsewhere, how the couple responded to my response. The couple had a glazed look over their eyes, then the food service came, then the man started snoring. End of story.

How do you change the way Australians think about poverty, let alone extreme poverty?

That’s the number one question we have to consider every day while working on the Live Below the Line campaign, Australia’s fastest growing anti-poverty movement.

The campaign began four years ago, when two Melbourne housemates wanted to find a way to engage their friends with an issue in which they felt so passionate. They challenged one another to see who could survive the longest on a diet of $1.25 – the World Bank’s definition of the extreme poverty line. Less than a year later, their idea had translated into half a million dollars worth of donations.

Live Below the Line has greatly evolved since their private contest, but the elements that made the campaign an overnight success still remain. Much like others campaigns that invite people to make temporary lifestyle changes – like World Vision’s 40 Hour Famine or CARE Australia’s Walk In Her ShoesLive Below the Line intends to change the perspectives of participants and donors alike.

The first thing Live Below the Line does is start conversations. When you’re eating the same boring meal for five days straight in a middle-class setting, it’s all you really feel like talking about. It’s all that your friends want to talk about as well. Whether they’re enquiring after your physical health, your mental state, or your coffee cravings, people are genuinely curious when you tell them you’re living off a $2 budget. They want to know what on earth you’re doing and why.

Not all conversations will necessarily be “on message”; I cringe whenever I hear people mention weight-loss and Live Below the Line in the same sentence. But as a people-powered movement, you have to take the good with the bad, and trust that the top-down messages you are providing are steering participants towards conversations about extreme poverty and development.

The second noteworthy aspect of the challenge is that it is difficult, and subsequently thought-provoking. I found this last year when I lived below the line for the first time. At the time, I was merely a curious participant, with no prior involvement in the campaign. I’d visited overseas aid projects before, and thought I was pretty in touch with the issues surrounding poverty. But I was also a hungry young man with an enviable metabolism, who wouldn’t have thought twice about the food on his plate.

The first 24 hours aren’t too hard. You have to skip a few meals you’d usually eat, but you revel in the novelty. By day three, the novelty begins to wear off and you wish you’d included a bit more flavour in your weekend shopping. By day five, you’re accusing your housemates of stealing your half-eaten carrot, only to later realise the ridiculousness of your complaint.

Just as I couldn’t sugercoat my meals, I don’t want to sugercoat my reflections to make Live Below the Line sound like a Road to Damascus experience. With that said, taking Live Below the Line made me seriously consider – for possibly the first time ever – my excessive consumption habits and how they compared with those less fortunate.

It’s funny how it works like that. Years ago, while travelling around sub-Saharan Africa I would regularly come in contact with people living in extreme poverty. I naturally felt sorry for them, yet felt disconnected from their plight. As evident as their hardships were, it was far easier for me to feel pity than any sincere form of understanding.

I’m not going to pretend that what I experienced while living below the line last year can compare to the struggles endured by people who rely on food for survival (as opposed to food for entertainment or self-reward). Indeed, people living in extreme poverty must spend their daily budget on things like housing, healthcare, transport, water, and education – not just food. Nevertheless, taking the challenge helped change my perspective, insomuch as when I now read about people surviving on a solitary meal a day, I feel empathetic as much as I feel sympathetic. I feel nauseous as much I feel angry about their unjust circumstances.

Like many other fundraising events, the public purpose of Live Below the Line is to raise millions upon millions of dollars to support overseas aid projects. Indeed, since the campaign’s inception in 2010, Australian donors have contributed over $3.5 million to the campaign’s sponsored educational projects in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and South Africa. The success stories are endless, and none are more touching than the story of Channa, a bright Cambodian teenager who was last year given the opportunity to return to school with support from the campaign.

While these are powerful and uplifting achievements, those of us behind the campaign are aware that the impact Live Below the Line has on thousands of Australians can be just as critical. One anecdote after another, we hear that the experience of eating on less than $2 a day – even for just five days – is transformative and eye-opening. Life-changing for some, even.

Not everyone participant will go onto commit their lives to the aid sector, and not every supporter will mature into a long-term monthly donor. But, in the context of Australia – where few seem interested in engaging with a complicated yet deeply important issue – Live Below the Line can be a worthwhile first step.

 

This year, Live Below the Line (6-10 May) aims to raise $2.5 million to support development work in Papua New Guinea and Cambodia. To sign up or donate to Live Below the Line, visit www.livebelowtheline.com.au

 

Sachs on sustainable development and the ‘SDGs’

Whilst excitement for many is getting to see their favourite Hollywood star in the flesh, you know you’re a development junkie when your equivalent is sitting in a lecture theatre listening to one of the world’s most renowned economists speak on sustainable development.

Though he probably needs no introduction to WhyDev readers, Jeffrey Sachs is special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, as well as Professor of Sustainable Development and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Most well known for his role in the Millennium Project, he’s now a key player in the post-2015 development agenda, and was in London to promote sustainable development and the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs).

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Sachs emphasised that globalisation has lead to rapid economic growth in developing countries, which has no doubt contributed to successfully meeting three of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and for raised living standards in many parts of the world.

However, this development presents a paradox, as simultaneously, it is also responsible for us fast approaching (if not already exceeding) our planetary boundaries. This collision has the potential to undermine decades of international development efforts and create a raft of new challenges for a sector already struggling to meet it’s strategic objectives.

Sachs believes that the issue of planetary boundaries, the critical limits we must learn to live within, is the most pertinent challenge of our generation. He essentially places much of the blame for our unsustainable habits on the failures of free market economics, which once excluded primary resources from growth models, consistently demonstrates a blind and insensitive attitude towards negative externalities, and has not yet demonstrated that it can deal effectively with issues of global and intergenerational justice.

However, as Sachs pointed out, markets are not alone there: our moral systems, with our evolved psychological biases for those closest to us, and political structures which are designed around short-term gains within sovereign borders, also fail dismally in responding effectively and efficiently to these issues.

So what’s the solution? How can we ensure that our efforts are sustainable? How can we help people understand that environmental protection and development are not mutually exclusive projects? It’s clear that there’s (too) much at stake if these agendas do not converge. As Sachs pointed out “We actually don’t have a choice.”

At Rio+20 last year, governments decided that one of the key steps is to create a set of ‘Sustainable Development Goals’.

Whilst Sachs didn’t go into detail about the SDGs in this public lecture, I’m aware that he’s advocating that these goals be structured around four key pillars:

  • Ending extreme poverty
  • Social inclusion
  • Environmental agenda
  • Governance

Sach’s categories are very similar to those being put forward by a coalition of international development think tanks being led by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

But it’s not clear at this stage whether the SDGs will replace, or sit alongside and complement the MDGs in the post-2015 development agenda. It seems that there’s a number of questions we need to be asking as these goals are developed:

  • What’s missing from the MDGs and the international development policy agenda? For example, resource scarcity, energy access, ecosystem degradation and climate change were all lacunas in the original set of MDGs developed in 2000.
  • Will the goals be global in scope, or confined to developing nations, as the MDGs were?
  • To what extent should reducing inequalities be an explicit goal? This seems like a critical consideration in relation to the development-environment nexus, both in terms of the unequal distribution of the impacts of climate change between developed and developing countries, and also the opportunity for economic growth, which developed countries have already been privileged with.
  • What are the pros and cons of having just one set of integrated goals?
  • Is there scope within the goals to build in the intrinsic value of the environment, and if so, then what weight ought it be given?

I’d be interested to hear WhyDev readers’ views on these questions.

But Sachs’s messages were clear. Unfortunately there’s a ticking clock on this task, and the transformations that need to occur need to occur much quicker. “This isn’t a game… we must take climate predications morally seriously. The ultimate change agent in the world is knowledge, but time is short.”

The full recording of the public lecture can be accessed here.

 

Patience in development work is more than a virtue: it’s a necessity

We don’t do patience well in the developed world. We jump in our cars to drive for ten minutes rather than wait an extra two for the bus. We complain when queues at the supermarket are too long. We tell people that the food at a particular restaurant is fantastic, but it’s not worth the wait.

In most developing countries, however, patience really is a virtue and seems to be a fundamental difficulty for professionals working in the aid sector who were raised in developed countries.

It seems that many people in the aid sector embrace the idea of changing the world (or at least a small part of it) without recognition of the thousands of years it has taken for most communities to reach their current situations. Even when solutions to issues are apparent, such as medication for health problems, aid workers need to understand that communities may not be ready for this response and we need to move at their pace. (Of course, these issues are compounded by power structures of who will operate projects and how these will impact current hierarchical structures, but that is a different discussion.)

Take, for example, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The idea that 15 years of MDGs could solve global poverty or even put us on a clear, linear path towards global well-being was a clear fallacy despite the best intentions. Eradicating extreme poverty requires resources; institutional change at macro and micro levels; and time.

This is not to say that the establishment of the MDGs was a mistake or misplaced faith. In most cases it is vital for planning, monitoring and evaluation purposes to focus on working in time-frames of 3-15 years. However, we should also acknowledge that we likely will not make a huge impact on poverty, good governance, etc. unless we use these shorter time-frames to focus on the bigger picture decades down the line.

Even if all of the MDGs are achieved by deadline (unfortunately that is highly unlikely), there would still be work to be done. Women’s representation in parliaments worldwide would be far from equitable (MDG3); maternal and child mortality rates would still be disproportionately higher in developing countries (MDGs 4&5); and the entire international community would still be dealing with the effects of climate change for decades to come (MDG7).  Beyond these simple, obvious areas for continued work and advocacy, the MDGs were never the panacea to development because every problem in development is a wicked problem.

Development is not like rocket science, where the calculations and the resources amount, effectively, to a rocket launching and later landing. For every solution in the aid sector, more issues will be created. Ernesto Sirolli provides a simple, but clear example of this at this point in his engaging and entertaining TED talk on the need to listen. It is our role, as development professionals, to identify and mitigate these issues before they happen, where possible. And the only way to have any sense of these risks is to be patient, to research, to listen.

It is also to be remembered that many developing communities place community above outputs. We can have all the Logframes and Process Indicators we want and explain to beneficiaries how we will improve their lives, but we have to understand time operates differently in the UK, Australia or the UN offices in Addis Ababa than in the communities that we work in.

Relationships can be more important to these communities than material wealth and so time is understood differently. A meeting to secure a $100k grant can wait an hour while somebody assists their cousin to move house or help to look after their neighbour’s baby. That is a present concern and one with clear, tangible ramifications that can help somebody they care about. Perhaps there is a lesson for us all in such an outlook.

Patience in development work is more than a virtue: it’s a necessity.

Do transnational corporations have a place in Fair Trade?

Recent high-level UN discussions regarding the post-2015 development agenda recognised a ‘continued but misplaced faith in market fundamentalism’ and called for an emphasis on development-led globalisation. In other words, a push towards the integration of social objectives into the global economy. But we only need to look at today’s Fair Trade market to realise the serious challenges this entails.

Fair-Trade-CertifiedMarket success has not necessarily brought the returns to small producers originally promised by the Fair Trade platform. Despite achievements, which include certified product sales totalling €4.36 billion worldwide in 2010 (up by 27% on 2009), and global sales more than tripling in the last four years, Fair Trade standards appear to have weakened, while equity in trade relationships remains uncertain and the movement’s legitimacy contested by the highly concentrated power and influence of corporations.

In Nelson and Pound’s comprehensive literature review on the impact of Fair Trade, the focus is largely on outputs (e.g. higher price, training activities, etc.), rather than on outcomes or livelihood impacts (e.g. higher incomes, new skills, changes in material wealth, social wellbeing and empowerment). Countering the success stories promoted by Fair Trade proponents, which today include transnational corporations (TNCs) and national supermarket chains, are case studies that suggest many of the claimed advantages of fair trade remain illusive to producers, who are undercut by the economies of scale associated with TNC commodity production and practices.

Mainstreaming of the Fair Trade market, which controversially includes sourcing from larger commercial farms and plantations, has succeeded in raising consumer demand, which in turn satisfies a number of the objectives of the fair trade campaign. Namely, to increase the volume of Fair Trade sales and heighten the visibility of the movement, suggesting the enabling of producers and workers to benefit from the corresponding financial flow. But, it has also allowed TNCs to flex their market power muscle and renegotiate the rules of Fair Trade.

Weakening of certification standards continues to be a problem, despite the establishment in 2010 of a New Standards Framework. Enabling (and enabled by) ‘regulatory capture’ are low entry requirements to the Fair Trade market. Many TNCs have struck deals to enter the fair trade system while purchasing less than 1% of their total volume at Fair Trade terms. While some, like Starbucks, are increasing their commitments, they are doing so voluntarily under their own sets of rules.

The subsequent proliferation of competing, private fair trade labels gives rise to a multiplicity of interpretations regarding standards and commitments. In 2007, the Fairtrade Foundation reported that 240 different ethical labels and over 500 codes of conduct had been registered in Europe alone, revealing variations in committed quantities of fair trade certifiable ingredients and levels of loyalty to small producers.

Weakening of certification standards is also evident in Fair Trade minimum prices. Inflation and intensified power dynamics in the commodity supply chain have undermined the benefit of minimum price levels, which have risen only minimally since they were established in 1989. Supermarkets and other large retailers have been accused of adding significant mark-ups to Fair Trade products, which contrary to consumer perception go largely to the retailer.

Renegotiating the terms of Fair Trade

The profitable potential of a growing niche market has made a compelling business case for TNC engagement in fair trade. Flexible conditions of market entry and active recruitment by licensing bodies have provided further incentive.

FairtradeSince Starbucks first capitulated to activist demands for greater corporate accountability regarding global labour and pricing practices (2000), an increasing number of international corporate actors have entered the fair trade market. Most are visible in the agrifood sector and range from mass-market manufacturers to large restaurant and retail chains. FLO cites nearly 3000 licensees around the world selling Fair Trade products in over 70 countries. Among them are 28 ‘mainstream companies’ in 20 countries with whom the FLO Global Account Management team has recently engaged on social issues.

But despite the successful penetration of Fair Trade commodities into transnational distributive networks, tensions have arisen, particularly between corporations based in the Global North and small producers and their communities in the South. The global economic power (and influence) of a disproportionate number of companies with interlocking ownerships has been pervasive. Tellingly, the fair trade movement’s success is increasingly described in terms of market growth (a business metric) than it is on the experience of small producers, the original social imperative of fair trade (see this research article).

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

– Milton Friedman (1992)

Despite its claim as an alternative system of trade, the Fair Trade model remains a market-oriented solution to development. Its difference is in its moral ideology, which by definition challenges conventional means of capital accumulation. The perceived threat this poses to profit margins and conventional business practices is what participating TNCs are arguably attempting to defuse.

Academics Jaffee and Howard refer to TNC engagement in the movement as corporate ‘cooptation’ of fair trade; whereby large commercial players join the market, “taking advantage of the profits offered by these niches and the integrity they represent to consumers – while at the same time trying to neutralise the transformative power of the standards underpinning that integrity”.

Beyond appropriating the language, image and credibility of the Fair Trade movement, TNCs have used regulatory regimes to drive a wedge between Fair Trade producers and key governance bodies. Jaffee describes this as ‘regulatory capture’, whereby the regulatory function of certification and labelling organisations clashes with the economic interest in increasing demand. The financial dependence on high-volume licensees (TNCs) suggests that governance organisations lack the independence to ensure proper regulatory oversight. This leaves little room for small producers to participate in negotiation (or individual farmers to participate at all), which is evidenced by their nominal representation on certification boards.

A good example of regulatory capture is Fair Trade USA’s unilateral decision last year to withdraw from FLO and pursue its own ‘Fair Trade For All’ initiative – an expansion of Fair Trade certification to include plantations in coffee, cocoa, sugar and cotton (in addition to plantations already existing for tea, bananas, cut flowers and other products). Worker cooperative Equal Exchange accuses Fair Trade USA of lowering standards, undermining democratic governance, threatening the existence of small farmer cooperatives and thereby threatening Fair Trade itself.

Outstanding challenges

With capital accumulation along the supply chain progressively moving away from small producers, it appears that Fair Trade growth has come at the cost of the movement’s moral goals.

To rebuild its ethical foundations and reclaim its legitimacy, the movement must reconcile its position as both a participant in global trade and an agent of development.

Oxfam’s ‘Think Big, Go Small’ strategy for bridging the gap – properly integrating social objectives into the market – is to adapt business models to incorporate smallholders into supply chains. But just like the original Fair Trade platform, and despite some success, this is an aspirational approach that demands relaxation of the ‘Friedman Doctrine’.

The outstanding challenge for Fair Trade is to harness the corporate ‘conscientisation’ evident in initiatives like the Starbucks-backed ‘Fairtrade Access Fund’, the financial sector’s ‘Principles for Responsible Investment’ and, closer to home, the National Australia Bank’s partnership with the Australian African community. This would redefine the business case for social responsibility rather than providing a mechanism for its outsourcing.

But, first the movement must redress the current imbalance of power over conditions of market entry and exclusion. Definitive measures may include:

  • The introduction of regulations to offset the competitive advantages that TNCs have over ATOs
  • Specific restrictions on the scope of corporate participation
  • More stringent conditions and explicit responsibilities of certification
  • Regular and impartial reviews of FLO minimum prices
  • Transparent and democratic decision-making
  • Links with other social movements.

Paradoxically, this range of policy possibilities depends on the organisational and governance structure of those controlling market access and certification (the corporate sector).

Conclusions

As a market-oriented solution to development, Fair Trade must contend with the realities of economic globalisation, which include the presence of influential TNC networks. Driven by a dominant, neoliberal ideology, the TNC agenda gives primacy to the market and tends to overlook other organising principles of society. This exclusive focus on profitability is antithetical to the social objectives on which the fair trade movement was founded. It seems, therefore, that until a convincing business case can be made for development and poverty alleviation, social objectives are unlikely to be properly integrated into TNC management of the Fair Trade market.

The revival (and long-term survival) of the Fair Trade movement may therefore depend on renewal of the bottom-up model – capitalising on the increasing politicisation of consumer activity and facilitated by committed ‘consumer activists’, who are sensitive to issues of social justice in their daily purchasing practices.

Rather than pitting one paradigm against the other, a negotiation between old ideas and new approaches may be a more promising way to enrich Fair Trade principles. Today’s definition (and survival) of Fair Trade must be subject to that negotiation. And, only then will the capacity of corporations to facilitate the long-term development of local economies be realised.

Further Reading