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Fair Trade – an alternative made to Aid and Free Trade?

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“Trade not Aid”: this used to be the slogan of third-worldist movements in the mid-1960s, an epoch when intellectual figures in the Third World were denouncing the unequal exchange between the capitalist Center and the Periphery.

The aim was then to challenge the capitalist system at its very basis. Forty years later, in a global neoliberal context, it seems that the issue of unequal exchange has resurfaced through the Fair Trade movement, a movement which purports to help the poorest and most marginalized producers of the global South. Based on the perceived failures of aid and free trade paradigms, the Fair Trade protagonists count on the generosity and solidarity of Northern consumers in order to achieve fairer trade relationships between the North and the South.

The Fair Trade movement is not monolithic however. There are at least two conflicting visions inside the movement. First, there is “historical” or “alternative” Fair Trade. In this approach, economic intermediaries are specialised in the distribution and/or sale of ‘Fair’ products – agricultural products or handicrafts – which are purchased from producers in the South by specialised group purchasing organisations in order to be sold in dedicated shops in the North. The rationale here is to create alternative trade channels operating outside standard distribution networks and where agrifood giants are excluded. At the global level, the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) federates specialised/alternative Fair Trade organisations.

Since the 1980s, another approach, the labelling one, has progressively imposed itself. It is epitomized by the Max Havelaar/Fairtrade label. Unlike the previous approach that certifies “organisations”, the labelling approach only certifies “products”. As there is no requirement to be ‘100 per cent fair-trade specialised’ in order to obtain a licence for the sale or distribution of Fair Trade products, the sale/distribution of certified products is in theory available to all corporations, provided that they comply with specific standards and pay their annual licence fees to the label holder (namely the national labelling initiative). As a result, the classical sale and distribution channels can be more easily integrated.

In this approach, producer organisations in the South that wish to sell their products under Fair Trade conditions must first of all obtain certification, which is subject to complying with the standards

defined in this respect by the certification organisation. It is also important to point out that the label holder does not buy or sell any product. It rather trades the use of the said label. At the international level, Fairtrade International is the federating entity whose mission is to promote the Fair Trade label. Created in 1997, Fairtrade International is based in Bonn, Germany.

The evolution of the Fair Trade movement from an “alternative” approach to a “product certification” approach has sparked many debates. The Max Havelaar/Fairtrade approach has often been accused of having betrayed the original mission of the Fair Trade movement. By working with agrifood giants and standard distribution channels, evolution that has helped boost his sales to unprecedented levels (4.9 billion euros in 2011), it would provide an opportunity of “greenwashing” for these controversial actors.

I will not follow this line of argumentation here. Rather, I will try to defend the idea that the Max Havelaaar/Fairtrade approach (abbreviated by FT), as it is currently conceived and as it currently works, is an alternative neither to aid nor to free trade. In some ways, as we will see, it tends to reproduce their shortcomings.

I – The Fair Trade economic model in theory

Developing countries producers face generally three kinds of interrelated issues in conventional markets: the price of their product are often very volatile; the price they receive for their products tend to be low, sometimes below the cost of production, and non-sustainable ecologically and humanely; due to the influence of middlemen and inequalities of power, their share of the added value created in agricultural value chains tend to be low, even in the circumstances when the price of their products is booming.

To address the issue of price volatility, the FT economic model sets for each product a guaranteed minimum price. The second issue is addressed by making sure that the guaranteed minimum price covers the cost of a “sustainable production” (that is a production which is environment-friendly and which is associated with decent working conditions for producers) and by the payment of an additional premium (which amounts to a pre-defined fraction of the FT volume sold by each producer organisation). As for the exploitation of producers by “unfair” middlemen, the issue is supposed to be tackled by the certification process (only buyers complying with FT standards are able to enter FT value chains).

The crucial element of the FT economic model is however the availability of “ethical consumers” from the North who are ready to pay a higher price for products labelled FT. This element of solidarity forms the basis without which the model is simply impracticable. The growth of FT markets is ultimately dependent on the growth of the population of “ethical consumers”. Hence the strong need for the FT movement to have recourse to awareness and marketing campaigns.

This is in a nutshell the logic, or the spirit, of the FT economic model.

Though the rhetoric of FT activists might sound progressive and opposed to free trade, as a matter of fact, the FT economic model obeys in practice to a neoliberal logic. I must add that this unexpected and unfortunate outcome derives from the premises of the FT economic model itself.

II – Some limitations of the FT economic model

For the FT economic model to be efficient and to be considered as a superior alternative to free trade, it has at least to provide to producer organisations better outcomes in terms of prices and market access compared to conventional international trade. However, owing to the way in which it has been conceived, there is no guarantee a priori that producers involved in the FT movement should be better-off than conventional producers, or at least that the FT economic model can help stabilise or improve the revenues of FT producers.  

First, there are limits to the “generosity” of the FT minimum price. If it is too high relative to standard price observed in conventional markets, there is the risk that consumers will be discouraged to buy FT products. However, if the FT minimum price is not generous enough, it will probably not have a significant effect on poverty. In other words, there is a trade-off to be made between the need to ensure the growth of FT markets and the need for the FT movement to have a significant economic impact for the producer organisations involved. Given the high level of competition in the field of “ethical consumption” (with the proliferation of “ethical labels” with varying standards), there is a growing tendency in the FT movement to privilege FT sales growth, tendency which implies to lower standards and to align FT prices more closely to conventional market prices.

Second, contrary to a popular belief, the disposal of a FT label does not guarantee producer organisations that they will be able to sell all of their FT production at FT conditions. Labelling initiatives can just simply define the rules of the game for FT markets (certification, minimum price,

pre-financing, traceability, etc.) and try to ensure that standards are enforced. They cannot guarantee that each producer organisation involved in the movement will have access to FT markets. They cannot guarantee either that buyers involved in the movement will pay a price higher to FT minimum price. In other words, as in conventional markets, market access and prices are also determined on a competitive basis in the FT value chains. Free trade logic takes place once FT rules and standards are accepted by the different protagonists in the FT value chains. As underscored by one author: “Fair Trade does not pose any challenge to the free market system; rather it is a part of that system that increases the welfare of a target group through a speciality market” (Mohan, 2010: 45/6).

Following this free trade logic, it is not a surprise that FT producer organisations are generally recruited not from the most marginalized but from the better-off among them. Producer organisations that have some “social capital” and some international ties are those that are more likely to enter the FT value chains.

“Over-certification” is the other unfortunate implication of this free trade logic. “Over-certification” means that some FT production (production obtained by following FT standards) had not been sold according to FT conditions. According to estimates from F air t r a d e I n t e r n a tio n al (FLO), over- certification concerns on average 30 per cent of the volume produced by producer organisations and up to 70 per cent in the case of “hired-labour” (that is plantation wage workers) organisations. Note however that some case studies tend to report higher over-certification rates. Whatever the case, one scenario must be borne in mind: as FT producer organisations tend to have higher costs on average, they might incur huge losses in the case where their “over-certified” production is sold on conventional markets at prices below their costs.

These limitations regarding price-setting mechanisms and market access explain why the local impact of the FT movement is generally mixed. In some circumstances, involvement in Fair Trade has proved beneficial for producer organisations. In other circumstances, this had not been the case.

III – The global impact of FT

If the evidence regarding the local impact of the FT label tends to be mixed, it is all but unambiguous regarding its global impact. It is at this latter level of evaluation that the shortcomings of the FT economy are more apparent. We must say that if Fair trade has been a huge marketing success (revealed by the important sales growth rates recorded until now), it remains until now a very insignificant part of the world trade system.

As an alternative economic model which aims to supersede aid and free trade, the FT approach tends to generate low average revenues for producer organisations involved in it. In 2008, the gross average revenues that accrued to producer organisations amounted to 74 Euros annually per worker. This figure which represents 16 per cent of the average GDP per capita of the Least Developed Countries in 2008 is not measured net , i.e. costs are not deducted.

As a transfer mechanism, the FT economic model seems also to lack efficiency. To take the case of the United States, for each dollar paid by “ethical consumers” to buy a FT coffee product, only 0.03 dollars are actually transferred to producer organisations. This low rate of transfer is illustrative of the fact that the surplus paid by consumers is appropriated by intermediaries, including the labelling initiatives.

If the FT economic model is supposed in principle to benefit producers in the poorest countries, in actual practice, the FT movement targets more those in the richest developing countries. The Least Developed Countries are for example underrepresented among FT producer organisations (13 per cent of the total). This outcome derives from the bias associated with the FT certification model. To be involved in the FT value chains, producer organisations have to pay for the certification (which is to be renewed annually). Given that the certification process is relatively costly, this tends to favour producers in countries with a higher level of development. There is also the fact that the offer of certification by labelling initiatives is biased towards products exported by Latin America countries (coffee and bananas for example), a region which is on average richer than Africa and developing regions in Asia.

Besides excluding producers in the poorest countries, the FT movement tends also to marginalise the countries which are the most dependent of the revenues obtained from the exports of primary products. To illustrate this, let’s take for example the case of coffee, the FT flagship product. Ethiopia and Burundi are the two countries most dependent in the world on coffee revenues which account respectively for 34 and 26 per cent of their export revenues. Until 2009, there were only three FT coffee certifications in Ethiopia and none in Burundi. Paradoxically, Mexico and Peru which are not dependent at all on coffee exports (less than two per cent of their export revenues) accounted for 31 per cent of the total FT coffee certifications, that is a share superior to those of Latin America countries like Honduras and Nicaragua which are much more dependent on coffee exports. For products like bananas and cocoa, the same pattern can be observed. In these different cases, the geography of trade flows obeys the classic determinants of conventional trade flows: development level and distance. American buyers of FT products will prefer to buy FT coffee in Mexico at lower costs than to travel until Burundi just to make the world trade exchanges “fairer”!

Conclusion

Despite the generous intentions of its protagonists, the FT economic model is not in practice an alternative to aid and free trade. It tends rather to reproduce their deficiencies, those of free trade notably. If the FT label has been more successful than previous attempts (“historical” Fair Trade) in terms of sales, it owes that performance to its association with standard distribution networks and the giants of the agrifood business, i.e. the same actors who are considered by many as responsible for a non-negligible part for the “unfairness” of the international trade system. Looking at its global socioeconomic impact, the limits of the FT economic model are certainly illustrated by the way in which it marginalises the poorest producers and the most dependent countries as well as it low average returns.

However, the most important criticism that can be levelled at the FT movement is that it does not challenge the current structure of the international trade system. Its acceptance of the current global division of labour is a serious impediment to the achievement of fairer distributional outcomes. For producer organisations in developing countries are not poor because they receive low prices. The fundamental reason is that they are trapped in low-productivity economic activities. Unless developing countries change their economic specialisation, by starting to process locally their own primary products, it will be in vain to expect a strong economic development. Centuries of history within the capitalist global system show that specialisation in the exports of primary products is not conducive to economic development. That lesson is still to be learnt by the FT movement.

The current challenge is not to adapt to the current neoliberal order (what the FT movement does) but to transform it. This radical idea of “alternative” Fair Trade remains relevant more than ever. Its practicability will no doubt necessitate stronger mechanisms of international solidarity between peoples.

References

Mohan, Sushil (2010) Fairtrade without the Froth: A Dispassionate Economic Analysis of ‘Fair Trade’ (London: Institute of Economic Affairs).

Sylla, Ndongo Samba (2014)

The Fair Trade Scandal. Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich (Pluto

Press; Ohio University Press).

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Economy

Economy Contradicts Democracy: Russian Markets Boom Amid Political Sabotage

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The political game plan laid by the Russian premier Vladimir Putin has proven effective for the past two decades. Apart from the systemic opposition, the core critics of the Kremlin are absent from the ballot. And while a competitive pretense is skilfully maintained, frontrunners like Alexei Navalny have either been incarcerated, exiled, or pushed against the metaphorical wall. All in all, United Russia is ahead in the parliamentary polls and almost certain to gain a veto-proof majority in State Duma – the Russian parliament. Surprisingly, however, the Russian economy seems unperturbed by the active political manipulation of the Kremlin. On the contrary, the Russian markets have already established their dominance in the developing world as Putin is all set to hold his reign indefinitely.

The Russian economy is forecasted to grow by 3.9% in 2021. The pandemic seems like a pained tale of history as the markets have strongly rebounded from the slump of 2020. The rising commodity prices – despite worrisome – have edged the productivity of the Russian raw material giants. The gains in ruble have gradually inched higher since January, while the current account surplus has grown by 3.9%. Clearly, the manufacturing mechanism of Moscow has turned more robust. Primarily because the industrial sector has felt little to no jitters of both domestic and international defiance. The aftermath of the arrest of Alexei Navalny wrapped up dramatically while the international community couldn’t muster any resistance beyond a handful of sanctions. The Putin regime managed to harness criticism and allegations while deftly sketching a blueprint to extend its dominance.

The ideal ‘No Uncertainty’ situation has worked wonders for the Russian Bourse and the bond market. The benchmark MOEX index (Moscow Exchange) has rallied by 23% in 2021 – the strongest performance in the emerging markets. Moreover, the fixed income premiums have dropped to record lows; Russian treasury bonds offering the best price-to-earning ratio in the emerging markets. The main reason behind such a bustling market response could be narrowed down to one factor: growing investor confidence.

According to Bloomberg’s data, the Russian Foreign Exchange reserves are at their record high of $621 billion. And while the government bonds’ returns hover at a mere 1.48%, the foreign ownership of treasury bonds has inflated above 20% for the second time this year. The investors are confident that a significant political shuffle is not on cards as Putin maintains a tight hold over Kremlin. Furthermore, investors do not perceive the United States as an active deterrent to Russia – at least in the near term. The notion was further exacerbated when the Biden administration unilaterally dropped sanctions from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. And while Europe and the US remain sympathetic with the Kremlin critics, large economies like Germany have clarified their economic position by striking lucrative deals amid political pressure. It is apparent that while Europe is conflicted after Brexit, even the US faces much more pressing issues in the guise of China and Afghanistan. Thus, no active international defiance has all but bolstered the Kremlin in its drive to gain foreign investments.

Another factor at work is the overly hawkish Russian Central Bank (RCB). To tame inflation – currency raging at an annual rate of 6.7% – the RCB hiked its policy rate to 6.75% from the all-time low of 4.25%. The RCB has raised its policy rate by a cumulative 250 basis points in four consecutive hikes since January which has all but attracted the investors to jump on the bandwagon. However, inflation is proving to be sturdy in the face of intermittent rate hikes. And while Russian productivity is enjoying a smooth run, failure of monetary policy tools could just as easily backfire.

While political dissent or international sanctions remain futile, inflation is the prime enemy which could detract the Russian economy. For years Russia has faced a sharp decline in living standards, and despite commendable fiscal management of the Kremlin, such a steep rise in prices is an omen of a financial crisis. Moreover, the unemployment rates have dropped to record low levels. However, the labor shortage is emerging as another facet that could plausibly ignite the wage-price spiral. Further exacerbating the threat of inflation are the $9.6 billion pre-election giveaways orchestrated by President Putin to garner more support for his United Russia party. Such a tremendous demand pressure could presumably neutralize the aggressive tightening of the monetary policy by the RCB. Thus, while President Putin sure is on a definitive path of immortality on the throne of the Kremlin, surging inflation could mark a return of uncertainty, chip away investors’ confidence: eventually putting a brake on the economic streak.

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Economy

Synchronicity in Economic Policy amid the Pandemic

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business-economy

Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.Carl Jung

The Covid pandemic has elicited a number of deficiencies in the current global governance framework, most notably its weaknesses in mustering a coordinated response to the global economic downturn. A global economy is not fully “global” if it is devoid of the capability to conduct coordinated and effective responses to a global economic crisis. What may be needed is a more flexible governance structure in the world economy that is capable of exhibiting greater synchronicity in economic policies across countries and regions. Such a governance structure should accord greater weight to regional integration arrangements and their development institutions at the level of key G20 decisions concerning international economic policy coordination.

The need for greater synchronicity in the global economy arises across several trajectories:

· Greater synchronicity in the anti-crisis response across countries and regions – according to the IMF it is a coordinated response that renders economic stimulus more efficacious in countering the global downturn

· Synchronicity in the withdrawal of stimulus across the largest economies – absent such coordination the timing of policy normalization could be postponed with negative implications for macroeconomic stability

· Greater synchronicity in opening borders, lifting lockdowns and other policy measures related to responding to the pandemic: such synchronicity provides more scope for cross-country and cross-regional value-added chains to boost production

· Greater synchronicity in ensuring a recovery in migration and the movement of people across borders.

Of course such greater synchronicity in economic policy should not undermine the autonomy of national economic policy – it is rather about the capability of national and regional economies to exhibit greater coordination during downturns rather than a progression towards a uniform pattern of economic policy across countries. Synchronicity is not only about policy coordination per se, but also about creating the infrastructure that facilitates such joint actions. This includes the conclusion of digital accords/agreements that raise significantly the potential for economic policy coordination. Another area is the development of physical infrastructure, most notably in the transportation sphere. Such measures serve to improve regional and inter-regional connectivity and provide a firmer foundation for regional economic integration.

The paradox in which the world economy finds itself is that even as the current crisis is leading to fragmentation and isolationism there is a greater need for more policy coordination and synchronicity to overcome the economic downturn. This need for synchronicity may well increase in the future given the widening array of global risks such as risks to cyber-security as well as energy security and climate change. There is also the risk of the depletion of reserves to counter the Covid crisis that has been accompanied by a rise in debt levels across developed and developing economies. Also, the speed of the propagation of crisis impulses (that effectively increases with technological advances and globalization) is not matched by the capability of economic policy coordination and efficiency of anti-crisis policies.

There may be several modes of advancing greater synchronicity across borders in international relations. One possible option is a major superpower using its clout in a largely unipolar setting to facilitate greater policy coordination. Another possibility is for such coordination to be supported by global international institutions such as the UN, the WTO, Bretton Woods institutions, etc. Other options include coordination across the multiplicity of all countries of the global economy as well as across regional integration arrangements and institutions.

Attaining greater synchronicity across countries will necessitate changes in the global governance framework, which currently is characterized by weak multilateral institutions at the top level and a fragmented framework of governance at the level of countries. What may be needed is a greater scope accorded to regional integration arrangements that may facilitate greater coordination of synchronicity at the regional level as well as across regions. The advantage of providing greater weight to the regional institutions in dealing with global economic downturns emanates from their greater efficiency in coordinating an anti-crisis response at the regional level via investment/infrastructure projects as well as macroeconomic policy coordination. Regional development institutions also have a comparative advantage in leveraging regional interdependencies to promote economic recovery.

In conclusion, the global economy has arguably become more fragmented as a result of the Covid pandemic. The multiplicity of country models of dealing with the pandemic, the “vaccine competition”, the breaking up of global value chains and their nationalization and regionalization all point in the direction of greater localization and self-sufficiency. At the same time there is a need from greater synchronicity across countries particularly in the context of the current pandemic crisis. Regional integration arrangements and institutions could serve to facilitate such coordination in economic policy within and across the major regions of the world economy.

From our partner RIAC

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Economy

A New Strategy for Ukraine

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Authors: Anna Bjerde and Novoye Vremia

Four years ago, the World Bank prepared a multi-year strategy to support Ukraine’s development goals. This was a period of recovery from the economic crisis of 2014-2015, when GDP declined by a cumulative 16 percentage points, the banking sector collapsed, and poverty and other measures of insecurity spiked. Indeed, we noted at the time that Ukraine was at a turning point.

Four years later, despite daunting internal and external challenges, including an ongoing pandemic, Ukraine is a stronger country. It has proved more resilient to unpredictable challenges and is better positioned to achieve its long-term development vision. This increased capacity is first and foremost the result of the determination of the Ukrainian people.

The World Bank is proud to have joined the international community in supporting Ukraine during this period. I am here in Kyiv this week to launch a new program of assistance. In doing this, we look back to what worked and how to apply those lessons going forward. In Ukraine—as in many countries—the chief lesson is that development assistance is most effective when it supports policies and projects which the government and citizens really want.

This doesn’t mean only easy or even non-controversial measures; rather, it means we engage closely with government authorities, business, local leaders, and civil society to understand where policy reforms may be most effective in removing obstacles to growth and human development and where specific projects can be most successful in delivering social services, particularly to the poorest.

Looking back over the past four years in Ukraine, a few examples stand out. First, agricultural land reform. For the past two decades, Ukraine was one of the few countries in the world where farmers were not free to sell their land.

The prohibition on allowing farmers to leverage their most valuable asset contributed to underinvestment in one of Ukraine’s most important sources of growth, hurt individual landowners, led to high levels of rural unemployment and poverty, and undermined the country’s long-term competitiveness.

The determination by the President and the actions by the government to open the market on July 1 required courage. This was not an easy decision. Powerful and well-connected interests benefited from the status quo; but it was the right one for Ukrainian citizens.

A second area where we have been closely involved is governance, both with respect to public institutions and the rule of law, as well as the corporate governance of state-owned banks and enterprises. Poll after poll in Ukraine going back more than a decade revealed that strengthening public institutions and creating a level playing field for business was a top priority.

World Bank technical assistance and policy financing have supported measures to restore liability for illicit enrichment of public officials, to strengthen existing anticorruption agencies such as NABU and NACP, and to create new institutions, including the independent High-Anticorruption Court.

We are also working with government to ensure the integrity of state-owned enterprises. Our support to the government’s unbundling of Naftogaz is a good example; assistance in establishing supervisory boards in state-owned banks is another. We hope our early dialogue on modernizing the operations of Ukrzaliznytsia will be equally beneficial.

As we begin preparation of a new strategy, the issues which have guided our ongoing work—strengthening markets, stabilizing Ukraine’s fiscal and financial accounts; and providing inclusive social services more efficiently—remain as pressing today as they were in 2017. Indeed, the progress which has been achieved needs to continue to be supported as they frequently come under assault from powerful interests.

At the same time, recent years have highlighted emerging challenges where we hope to deepen and expand our engagement. First, COVID-19 has underscored the importance of our long partnership in health reform and strengthening social protection programs.

The changes to the provision of health care in Ukraine over recent years has helped mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and will continue to make Ukrainians healthier. Government efforts to better target social spending to the poor has also made a difference. We look forward to continuing our support in both areas, including over the near term through further support to purchase COVID-19 vaccines.

Looking ahead, the challenge confronting us all is climate change. Here again, our dialogue with the government has positioned us to help, including to achieve Ukraine’s ambitious commitment to reduce carbon emissions. During President Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington in early September we discussed operations to strengthen the electricity sector; a program to transition from coal power to renewables; municipal energy efficiency investments; and how to tap into Ukraine’s unique capacity to produce and store hydrogen energy. This is a bold agenda, but one that can be realized.

I have been gratified by my visit to Kyiv to see first-hand what has been achieved in recent years. I look forward to our partnership with Ukraine to help realize this courageous vision of the future.

Originally published in Ukrainian language in Novoye Vremia, via World Bank

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