FairTrade and the African Dream
This is a heavily edited version of an original story. It would have been great if I’d only written it better the first time. Anyhow, its getting submitted for a magazine.
During FairTrade Fortnight the BBC website ran some articles looking at the issues around FairTrade. In one of them, they asked a representative of the right-wing Adam Smith Institute to give their views on FairTrade. He claimed that it was keeping Africa poor, preventing some pre-ordained transition to urban industry across the continent. So should we really encourage Africans to keep farming?
The man from the Adam Smith Institute claimed FairTrade was a bad idea because it acted as a disincentive to poor farmers to move to the cities, to take part in urbanisation and industrialisation, and to adopt the vision for a perfect lifestyle, the one we know as the ‘American Dream’. His western-centric ambitions for development assume that everyone the world over must be in search of the lifestyle he is ‘lucky’ enough to have achieved.
I doubt he asked the Africans if they really wanted to live in desolate suburbs, never talk to their neighbours and drive around in expensive cars. Perhaps we should ask people before deciding that their lifestyle is invalid; before we force our vision of prosperity upon them. Perhaps we should differentiate between their desire for their young to learn and their elderly to receive health care, and their desire (or lack of it) to ‘westernise’.
But what if we did go and ask them? From my limited experience of these things, I’m guessing upon two common answers you might get back. On the one hand, you get people who want to stay, because they feel a connection to their land or because of family. FairTrade enable that to happen: we can help them improve their lives with little to no disruption to community and family routines. We can give people a better future without trampling their past. Why should we force them to a new place, smash their cultural heritage and force their lives to fit around a factory shift rota?
The other answer you get is a statement of tragedy. Those who want to move to cities for work will have various reasons. Some because we have forced them down stamping down on their earnings as farmers, others because the west was kind enough to sell weapons to their political leaders, and now their country is shattered. Some it is because they have had their land seized to make way for our industries and our demands for oil or minerals. Others, its because we sold them the false hope of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or worst of all, GM seeds that can’t be reused. These are real reasons to desire such a move, but they’re reasons for which we are guilty. Us, not the whims of a soulless market, nor even the tide of history.
There’s also the other reason that gets given: because life must be better in the cities. Hollywood, the media at large, the lie that is the American, and some say Western, Dream. Whatever it is they’ve chosen to believe, we can assure them they won’t find it. Shanty towns from Lima to Jo’berg to Mumbai declare that urbanised development will result in disaster for 3 in 4 of the worlds inhabitants, if not more. And in reality, we know we haven’t found fulfilment through the goods and lifestyle they seek.
And to answer the suggestion that we should be encouraging these people to develop mechanised farming and new lines in export manufacture: the former has caused enough trouble to the west in recent years and continues to degrade our food supply. The idea that we should build factories in Africa is laughable: there are many factories creating what is needed by Africans; perhaps not enough. But factories need two things: investment and sales markets, and the man from the Adam Smith Institute meant western investment and western sales market, neither of which can be provided in enough volume to help significant numbers of people effectively. Besides, we don’t need more tat in the west, we’ve got too much already. Just look at the volumes of toys, for example, that end up in landfill.
I find this whole debate nauseating because of the normativity which lies at the heart of it: it’s apparently normal to want to live in a city, to see farming as a second rate job, to be materialistic, to seek ways of forcing the earth to give us more food for less. The great thing about indigenous people is their ability to stay in touch with the Earth. The problem is, we’ve so much clutter in our lives, we can’t see the bigger picture. In the case of those who advocate westernised development in Africa, all they can see is an ideal of life which thankfully more and more people recognise to be founded on lies.
To the American dream I would like to propose a counter dream: It occurs to me that there’s an African dream, one which is far more fulfilling. It means farming the land of your ancestors, receiving a fair price for what you make, being able to feed your family, keep them safe and comfortable, and to send your children to school, knowing that, at the end of your life, the next generation can take over with a sense of hope. Next time you buy FairTrade, that’s what you’re supporting.