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280. CRS is piloting FT4All. Not endorsing it.

Last week we announced here that we are getting involved in a Fair Trade for All pilot project with independent smallholder farmers in Nariño, Colombia.  Since then the suggestion has been made, both online and off, that our involvement in the project constitutes an endorsement of the overarching vision behind FT4All.  Today we set the record straight.  The four key characteristics of our support are the hallmarks of a true pilot project:

  • We are testing an idea we believe has potential to serve poor people;
  • We have made a time-bound commitment to work on a small scale in a single place;
  • We are focusing on learning; and
  • We are open to the possibility of failure.

  • We have not endorsed Fair Trade for All.

We did not like the process behind FT4All, which was roundly condemned as undemocratic by networks of smallholder cooperatives in Africa, the Americas and Asia.

And we remain concerned about the ability of smallholder coops under FT4All to compete effectively against the coffee estates from which Fair Trade has historically protected them.

But we are a development agency that works with smallholder farmers in places where there is no co-op.  We have an interest in better understanding FTUSA’s approach to organization and social empowerment among independent smallholder farmers, and whether it can improve our ability to serve some of the millions of smallholder farmers who do not belong to cooperatives or participate in Fair Trade.

Years ago, a Fair Trade pioneer confessed to me that he didn’t feel qualified to implement the plan he hatched with some friends to create a revolutionary new approach to the coffee trade.  And yet, he explained, “It was an idea that deserved to be tried.”  We feel something similar in regard to the smallholder pilot we are supporting in Colombia: “It is an idea that deserves to be tried.”

  • We are keeping it small. 

Pilot projects, by definition, involve risk and the possibility of failure.  Keeping them small mitigates the risk to all stakeholder groups.  We are keeping our support for the FT4All smallholder pilot in Colombia small: it is a six-month affair that represents less than 3 percent of the total Borderlands Coffee Project budget and involves about 6 percent of all participating farmers.

  • We are focused on learning.

The primary motivation for our involvement in the Colombia pilot is the opportunity it presents for us to learn from the FT4All approach to organizing independent smallholder farmers, and to influence the evolution of the Fair Trade system in a direction that most effectively improves the livelihoods of poor people.

  • We don’t have a dog in this hunt.

A little more than a month ago, the Harvard Business Review suggested in this flash case study that pilots may be less about learning than about demonstrating success and generating commitment to the initiative being tested.

That may be true for a corporation developing proprietary products for profit, like the one in the HBR case study.  But CRS is not a profit-seeking corporation — it is a non-profit development agency driven by a mission to serve the poor.  And FT4All is FTUSA’s innovation, not ours.  We do not have a structural incentive for it to succeed.  Or fail.  We do, however, have an institutional interest in documenting rigorously their impact on the poor people we serve around the world, and using what we learn to help us serve them more effectively.

We will work hard to make the pilot succeed on the ground in Nariño.  We will make adjustments to improve the prototype on the ground.  And we hope it will deliver improved livelihoods outcomes to participants.  If we like what we see, we may invest in further field tests in Colombia.  But doing good in Nariño will not bring a system-wide endorsement.  That will only come after we are satisfied that doing good in Nariño does no harm to smallholder cooperatives.




  • Miguel says:

    Hi Michael,

    We agree that this is “an idea that deserves to be tried.” Our mission is to significantly improve the lives of small farmers and farm workers everywhere though trade. We are implementing these pilots slowly and with care in order to learn, adapt and improve the model in ways that fit with this mission and maintain the rigor of Fair Trade certification.

    We are committed to creating something that brings the benefits of Fair Trade to independent small farmers and farm workers in larger farms while also growing the market for the cooperative sector in Fair Trade. We count on people like you to hold us to our word.

    We are trying to engage with different local NGO’s to participate in our different pilots to see how we can learn from their feedback and how we can create more impact. Having their participation in impact evaluation is also important to us and to the process. In Nariño, we have been working with local NGO’s AVINA and FUNDES on this process already. Learning directly from the small-scale farmers in Nariño on what works and what does not work continues helping the process too. Having CRS involved also brings a lot of benefits in the evaluation of the impact of this work.

    We look forward to working with you in Nariño as we proceed thoughtfully through these pilot programs, and look forward to engaging in open, honest, productive and respectful dialogue with everyone along the way.


    Miguel Zamora
    Fair Trade USA

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thank you for your kind words. We do hope and trust that our engagement in the process in Colombia can generate some of the benefits we describe here for the independent smallholder farmers who participate, for everyone interested in an independent stream of data about the process and impacts of the changes to the Fair Trade system currently underway, and for the many millions of smallholder farmers still searching for effective mechanisms to access Fair Trade and other high-value markets.


  • Rodney North says:

    Re: “We are keeping it small”
    I know that you, Michael, and CRS, and FTUSA have all made this point before, but I think I can now explain why what is a small project in one community in one coffee-growing country can at the same time be very large in the Fair Trade movement.

    First, let me double-check a fact: the coffee from this pilot, and the parallel plantation pilot in Brazil will go to market with the Fair Trade USA seal – yes?

    If so then overnight there’s been a big change –even if the exports of those projects equal only 1/1000th of 1% of the Fair Trade coffee on the US market.

    This is because before the pilots a Fair Trade consumer in the U.S. knew that every package of Fair Trade USA-certified coffee (and every chocolate bar or tin of cocoa, bag of sugar) came from a small-farmer co-op.
    And now they don’t. If they look more closely, they may or may not find information about the source. But in any case, the FTUSA seal on a bag of coffee – all 100,000,000+ lbs of it sold in the US annually – has gone from meaning one thing to meaning one of _three_ things.

    Consequently, if my earlier assumption is correct I’d like to make a suggestion: quarantine these supply-side experiments from muddying the waters on the demand side by _not_ putting the FTUSA seal on the coffee involved. Run the experiments*, see if they deliver strong, definitive social/economic/political impacts – and do not harm the farmer co-ops along the way, and only then put the seal on the coffee from those sources.

    Otherwise the “test population” is not just a few hundred Colombian farmers, but also 330,000,000 American consumers.

    (*Aside from the above comments, and many other concerns, we think the pilots are deeply flawed for a host of methodological reasons as Michael himself explained best here
    & here

    Consequently we don’t believe the coffee community can rely on the pilot results to tell us what we really need to know to answer all the very big questions they entail.)

    • Michael Sheridan says:

      Thanks, Rodney. You make some good points, as usual.

      Thanks in particular for the reminder that the expansion of the FT marketplace has implications for consumers as well as coffee growers.

      As you know, I am not positioned to respond to the two big questions you pose here.

      Whether or not the coffee from the Brazil and Colombia FT4All pilots bears the FTUSA seal is a decision made by every roaster who might source it. It may be a question better posed to them.

      And the quarantine idea has some appeal to me, although I suspect much of the appeal to folks who source pilot coffee will be precisely the ability to label it as Fair Trade Certified in the marketplace. But CRS isn’t the architect of the pilots and isn’t making decisions about whether/when to apply the FTUSA seal. These are questions for the certifier and its licensee roasters.

      Finally, regarding the measurement issue, I am glad you have appreciated our analysis of the challenges and our perspectives on what might represent the ideal scenario. There are some circumstances that will make measurement difficult, not least the breakneck pace at which FTUSA is mobilizing the pilots, which makes a credible baseline survey difficult. But we are widening the circle of our conversations around this issue to include academics specializing in smallholder production systems, and industry leaders who are all over the map regarding their positions on FT4All. We remain optimistic that we can generate evidence of value, and wish you wouldn’t give up on the effort so soon.


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