Solidarity: for all or none at all; Colonialism: still here

Display of Fairtrade products at the Derbyshir...
Image via Wikipedia

Bjarne argues that while we don’t need a planned economy, we do need an economy that takes people into account and acts fairly and morally. I tend to agree, but I am not sure how this is supposed to look. I would argue that global fair trade must come along with a strong domestic safety net, or not at all, and that financial exploitation is only one aspect of a bigger problem.

Unintended consequences of fair trade

What were to happen if every developed country in the world simultaneously passed good labor laws that applied not only to workers in the country, but also to workers employed directly or indirectly by companies in that country? In other words, what if the first world would suddenly apply the same standards when it came to those it employs in the third world as it does to those employed domestically?

Like any change in a complex system, this would have all kinds of different consequences, some of them unintended. For one, this would, with 100% certainty, mean that almost all goods and services sold in the first world would become a lot more expensive to produce, and somewhat more expensive to consume. This would hurt the middle and lower class hard: they would no longer be able to afford to consume nearly as much as before, at least in the short term. In the long term, this would give companies in the first world less of a reason to employ people in the third world, meaning more people in the first world would have jobs. This would, in turn, also mean that the first world would produce more goods and services, increasing exports. So I imagine it might actually balance out eventually. (I’m trying to think like an economist here – tell me if it’s working.)

A conclusion is simply where you stopped thinking

So in the short term, making world trade fair would harm everyone in the first world but the rich – massively. This is, of course, a bad thing. Should this be our conclusion then, that fair trade is a luxury and forcing it upon society would punish “our own” poor? No, of course not, that would be near-sighted. Rather, I think fair trade is a good argument for social solidarity and a strong safety net in the first world.

After all, there is an enormous amount of wealth in the first world. The existence of poverty is not a force of nature but an aspect of our economic system. With tools as simple as progressive taxation and a basic income guarantee, we could tweak our system to protect all individuals in society from the chaos of post-industrial life. And if we can make sure that even a large, across-the-board spike in the price of goods would not harm anybody too much, we can afford to trade fairly with the developing world.

In other words, global solidarity and domestic solidarity are interconnected. Only enforcing fair trade would harm the first-world poor in the short run. Only guaranteeing economic security in the first world would come at the continued cost of the third-world poor. In fact, presenting the two as separate could be seen as a subtle factor in why neither is terribly popular – if you really care about the basic rights and conditions of all people, why should you want to improve conditions for the poor at home but not elsewhere, or vice versa? But if we consider the two to be one package, one thing, inseparable, suddenly the parts all make sense.

Schooling the world for the wrong jobs – colonialism is alive, and kicking the third world in the face

But fair trade is not enough for the third world, either. The western corporate colonization runs much deeper than that.

This summer, at IDEC@EUDEC in England, I had the opportunity to watch a very difficult film, Schooling the World. What I learned is that what we know as conventional schooling in the west is being forced upon communities in the developing world which have no need for this form of education, nor for the content taught in it – essentially the same content as taught in the first world. Young people there are being trained for western jobs and academic careers where there are none, in communities which have their own way of life, requiring neither. The young people subsequently have no real choice but to move to big cities, where there is at least some chance of finding a job they are qualified for – but there there are still not enough modern jobs for everyone. Imagine being a young adult faced with the choice between poverty in the big city, where you have a chance of finding a job you are somewhat prepared for, and moving back to the countryside, where you might not even speak the language (as many schools forbid native languages and enforce the use of English and/or the state language) and would have to learn traditional crafts from scratch in order to be useful.1

Bringing “modern”, “high-quality” education to the developing world – often motivated by the best of intentions – is destroying cultures and forcing young people to either work for first-world companies or actually move to the first world. And if this is not stopped, universal fair trade could be a disaster for the third world as well, at least until developing economies are able to offer the jobs domestically that “modern” education requires for its graduates.

Exploitation of low or non-existant standards in the developing world is in the end only one facet of what western colonialism has become in the “post-colonial” era. Although the colonies are gone and the developed world’s mindset has shifted, it has not changed completely. In our arrogance, we help the developing world mainly in ways that help us more, and there are many, many fronts to fight on for a more just world, with freedom for all. The past is never gone, no matter how much we wish it so, and we have to be curious, brave, and determined if we are to find and root out its poisonous remnants wherever they may be.

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. It’s worth noting that radical democratic schools would not have the same effect, as their content is whatever the people present bring in – not a curriculum designed by someone from the city. []

3 thoughts on “Solidarity: for all or none at all; Colonialism: still here”

  1. Well the first and most major fallacy you made was the assumption that fair trade improves the life of people in the third world.
    People of the third world are not salve by coercion, but by a lack of choice. The have to work 10 hours a day not because Nike employers are sitting behind them with whips, but because the alternative – quitting – would mean no food and much worse conditions. It’s very sad and tragic, but some people are born in shitty places.
    The first thing that would happen if all of the developed world passed fair trade laws, is that all third world economies will die. They would cease to exist, causing starvation, poverty and death to millions. China has gone from 38 – 46 million deaths from famine under communist rule to a blooming economy thanks to “sweatshops” – and it also directly translate to better life for the poor: hundreds of millions have risen out of poverty in China since 1978 (when the economical reforms started). Fair trade laws would mean Nike would not benefit from operating in China any more – Think of the costs of operating half the world across! Nike would pull out a long with many more foreign companies and the Chinese economy will lose it’s momentum, hurting millions of people.
    Economies are not static, as the third world countries’ economy evolves, the cheap workforce would grow smaller (more educated people, more new domestic businesses, more competition between employers etc.) and living and working conditions would improve – it happened in China, it’s happening all across the third world countries who were smart enough to use the momentum (which there are not many of, unfortunately.)
    Does that mean fair trade is bad? of course not, but it can’t work with an artificial law. A law would not make you “trade fairly” (a term I hate, I don’t think the current trade is unfair) with the third world, it will make you not trade with it AT ALL, because it will have nothing to offer you. Right now, fair trade is a luxury for people who can and want to pay more for it, it helps bring better conditions to the third world at the pace the market is setting – And by market I mean the people, you and me, the employers at Nike and, most importantly, the Chinese workers.

    1. Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply.
      I understand your argument, and believe it has some merit, but I think you take it to a conclusion that is too extreme and not necessary.
      First of all, you assume that global fair trade would necessarily mean paying workers in the third world much, much more. But perhaps it should only include controls for working conditions, some limit to the length of the work day, and maybe some basic standard of wages. None of these have to match the situation in the west.
      Second, you assume that the only reason first-world corporations have workers in the third world is the cheap labor. What about natural resources? What about being able to grow crops like coffee? There are all kinds of reasons developed countries are involved in developing economies, and not all of them require that workers in the third world work at unacceptable conditions in order to benefit their society in the long term.
      Finally, you assume that it’s better to give three poor people enough money to feed their families than to give one poor person three times that amount. By economic reasoning, that’s wrong. If you give every worker significantly more money but employ less workers, you could benefit their community more, since the well-paid worker could afford to consume more within the community, making local businesses more viable, or alternatively the worker could save up and start a business of their own eventually. This empowers the community much more than having three people spending just enough to scrape by.
      It would be perfectly fine if the developed world employed less people in the third world if their conditions were more humane and their pay enough to help them or their communities towards self-sufficiency. And western investment would not, as you suggest, cease entirely, since there are good economic reasons other than cheap, abusable labor, for them to be there.

      And perhaps more importantly: it’s wrong to assume that everyone born in say, Nepal, is worse off for it. There are hundreds of thousands of communities around the world that practice traditional ways of life and have nothing to gain by westernization in the short run. If western businesses are drawing people away from traditional farming, it’s not a choice of being dirt poor and jobless versus working in a sweatshop and being just barely poor – it’s a choice between living outside global modern systems in comfort and living within them in poverty.
      Yes, this is not always the case. Yes, there are some serious human rights issues in traditional communities as well. But simply destroying different cultures and replacing them with one which will abuse them in the short term but may give their grandchildren true freedom is not exactly a fair trade, if you’ll excuse my pun.

      It’s easy to assume that the western way of life is an improvement upon all others. In some ways, it is. But to act on this assumption and destroy things on the way is simply a continuation of colonialism, and that’s not acceptable. To me at any rate.

Comments are closed.