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280. CRS is piloting FT4All. Not endorsing it.

2012-06-04 Comments Off on 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.