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274. The FT4All pilots: What does success look like?

Fair Trade USA is rolling out Fair Trade for All pilots with coffee estates and independent smallholder farmers all around the world.  If these pilots succeed, we expect to see more and more of them.  But what does success look like, and how will we measure it?

I have had several good discussions of this issue with Fair Trade stakeholders recent weeks, both online and off.  I also noted with interest this Tweet from FTUSA on 17 May:

Our pilot programs are being carefully tracked at a micro and macro level to ensure that the model is beneficial for everyone involved.

Turns out that measuring the impact of the pilots — both on the people who participate in them and the cooperatives that have had the Fair Trade market all to themselves for so many years — may be trickier than it sounds.

Fair Trade cooperatives.

Immediately after FTUSA announced its withdrawal from FLO and its FT4All initiative, one online commentator reminded readers that there is a growing body of literature to suggest that Fair Trade has a negligible impact on such fundamental indicators of human wellness as poverty and hunger.  The comment ended with a valid and memorable question: What are the benefits, exactly, that FTUSA is expanding?

We consider pilot projects to be small-scale experiments of limited scope that, based on observed outcomes, (a.) won’t be expanded, (b.) will be expanded, or (c.) will be expanded with significant modifications.  If FTUSA is looking at its coffee pilots in the same way, and if it is true that traditional, cooperative-only Fair Trade doesn’t perform particularly well in reducing hunger or poverty, then we have a problem.  If “negligible impact” is the standard, it is hard to see how the pilots could be judged a failure, even if they aren’t shown to be doing much good.

Independent smallholder farmers.

What if the naysayers are wrong?  What if traditional, cooperative-only Fair Trade is an effective tool to reduce hunger and poverty in the coffeelands?  Well, we may have a measurement problem there, too.

It is simply not fair to compare independent smallholder farmers who are organizing for the first time with members of Fair Trade cooperatives that has been working for years to improve the quality of their coffee and the quality of life of their members.  In Central America, we partner with cooperatives that emerged from grassroots efforts at wholesale social transformation.  In some cases, these coops have been working collectively for change for more than 20 years.

FT4All proposes to work with independent smallholder farmers who have not participated in those processes, and inverts the incentive structure to encourage them to begin down the path to sustained social organization.  Rather than offering Fair Trade premiums as the reward for years of effort organizing cooperatives, FT4All offers FT premiums from day one and a road map for a six-year process of organizational development for farmers who have not been well-served by coops.

To judge members of such different stakeholder groups by the same standard doesn’t seem to make sense.  In my mind, the best point of comparison for an independent smallholder coffee farmer in an FT4All pilot is a neighbor who farms coffee but doesn’t participate in the pilot or belong to a Fair Trade cooperative.

Judge and jury.

With so much business at stake, it seems to me problematic that FTUSA would conduct the official impact evaluations on its own pilot projects.  Even if FTUSA’s impact assessment is impeccably designed and implemented with unimpeachable integrity, the perception of an underlying conflict of interest may make it hard for others to accept the results.


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