Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Re: Fair Trade Coffee

Note: I wrote this last week in a long ramble, but rather than waste any more time trying to clean it up, I will just post it.

Triumvir Vis commented on my post about Fair Trade Coffee asking what I concluded from the essay I linked to. He noted, "While Fair Trade Coffee may not consider the seasonal worker, non-Fair Trade Coffee certainly gives those workers no more consideration." I was going to respond to the comment with another comment, as I usually do (I respond to all the comments that call for it, ask a question, or disagree with me), but ended up writing this post instead.

Fair Trade Coffee is yet another example of a project that, although begun with the best intentions, is designed (perhaps unintentionally) to make consumers feel good rather than effectively help anyone. Far too often efforts at helping "those less fortunate" (since it is always a matter of luck when people are poor, not bad policy or personal decisions) are not structured to help real people with real problems, but to boost the ego of guilty westerners/upper middle class/white/men/insert over privileged class here.

If you want to help coffee growers in third world countries, show them how to grow premium coffee and market it as such. "From the serene slopes of Mt. Where-the-hell-is-that." Establish the Fresh From Nature, All Organic (since they can't afford pesticides) Premium Coffee Brotherhood of Fairness and have the growers sell directly to high end restaurants. Or McDonald's. Think about it, McDonald's knows people want premium coffee, they have started selling it already. If they could slap a Brotherhood of Fairness label on it, they could sell it for more, and sell more of it. It would be fantastic publicity, and by cutting out the distributer, more profit could be sent back to the growers. To make a better life for these people, show them how to win in the market. Don't just enforce "fairness" and governmental structure.

But Fair Trade Coffee will never ensure better lives for the growers. All it does is throw around some buzz words about "cooperation" and "fairness" forgetting that if they enforce inefficient practices, it will cost the farmers money. I object very strongly to things like this, or Save the Earth concerts, or National Baby Seal Day. They exist only to make the organizers feel good about themselves, not to produce results. Did the concert to raise awareness of poverty really cause anyone to say, "What? There are poor people in the world? Thank God these musicians flew all this way to let me know!" People are well aware of poverty, especially the people who go to concerts to raise awareness of poverty. If a bunch of famous people held an event to raise awareness of snow blindness in cats, I am sure many people would learn something. But poverty, global warming, the fact that junk food may be bad for you? That is like going up to a smoker and asking "Did you know those will kill you?" As if the smoker is going to fearfully put out his very expensive, overtaxed cigarette, look at his savior and say "You saved my life! Thank you citizen!" The thing events like this do is allow people feel good without making them really do anything.

International programs of all kinds frequently fall into this trap. They must be seen to do something, so they brag about how much money has been spent "combating AIDS" (presumably unarmed combat, since that is more honorable) without asking what those dollars have gotten us. Are there fewer cases of AIDS now than before we spent $500 million? It doesn't matter, because we are doing something.

Just because a project is launched with good intentions does not mean that it will succeed. Charity must be held just as accountable for it actions as any private corporation or government program. Donors must ask if their money is being well spent and achieving results, and if not they must redirect those funds to where they will do more good.

Politicians often resort to these tricks. Montgomery County, Maryland recently banned trans-fats. It is claimed that this will increase health. Will it? What if in five years if a study shows the county is no healthier than its neighbors? If there is no evidence that the law does any good, will the law be repealed? No, because anyone who moves against the law will be accused of not caring about public health. The fact that the law might have no effect on health, only annoy citizens and inconvenience businesses, is not relevant to the do-gooders. Similar logic was used to pass the Assault Weapons Ban, since most of the banned features have nothing to do with real killing power, only the impression of nastiness. The image of helping is what is important and rewarded, not actually helping anyone.

While the offenses of Fair Trade Coffee may be far less than other efforts to do good, that is no reason to give an ineffective, burdensome project a free pass.


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