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290. Em [power] ment

Empowerment is a popular term in the fields of international development and Fair Trade.  It has been mentioned many times in the current debate over changes to the Fair Trade system — including several times on this blog — by people who are both for FT4All and against it:

  • Ed Canty buys Fair Trade Certified coffee for Green Mountain, the world’s biggest buyer of Fair Trade Certified coffee and a participant in the FT4All pilots.  He raised the issue in his guest post on this blog last month.
  • Rodney North heads up communications for Equal Exchange, a Fair Trade pioneer and vocal opponent of FT4All.  He and I discussed it during this FTRN webinar after I gave this presentation.
  • And it has been frequently cited by Fair Trade USA as the goal of its FT4All pilot projects on coffee estates and with independent smallholder farmers.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that the future of Fair Trade may hinge on the degree to which FT4All is perceived to have fostered empowerment among farmers and farmworkers.  Here is the problem: empowerment is a complex concept.  Notoriously hard to define.  Even harder to measure.

Don’t take my word for it.  Here are two citations that jumped out at me from some of the scholarly articles I have been reading about the issue as we try to measure the impact of one Fair Trade for All pilot in Colombia:

  • “Despite empowerment having become a widely used term…there is no accepted method for measuring and tracking changes.”
  • “Not everyone accepts that empowerment can be clearly defined, let alone measured.”

Most definitions of empowerment focus on the sources, distribution and use of power — another contested concept that is embedded, quite literally, in the concept of empowerment.  But not all definitions are power-centric.  Another leading school of thought, led by the eminent development economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, focus instead on the capabilities of an individual — what someone can reasonably aspire to do and be in the world.

When the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was challenged to define hard-core pornography in 1964, he couldn’t.  But, he said famously, “I know it when I see it.”

In this contested terrain, there may be some appeal in the idea of applying Stewart’s wisdom to the issue of empowerment.  While each of us may have an idea of what empowerment looks like, it will be awfully hard to measure it or talk about it in any widely accepted way until there is some general agreement around a shared and rigorous definition.


  • Michael says:

    Rather than some sort of universal definition, wouldn’t it make more sense for FTUSA to define what they mean by empowerment so you can go about developing metrics to measure empowerment gains through the pilots?

    If you or CRS have a different take on empowerment, then you can define it in your own way and see if the results of the pilots meet your standard. Others will undoubtedly do the same, but without the advantage of being able to affect what gets measured.

    You don’t need general agreement to measure something, Michael. If people disagree with how FTUSA defines empowerment then that’s a sales problem, not a measurement problem.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for the comment. I suppose I agree with you — there doesn’t necessarily need to be a consensus definition of empowerment. But if you use the word, I think you do need to at least make an effort to define it rigorously.

      I am afraid this is my Jesuit training at work, but I struggle mightily with the way the term “empowerment” is often applied without that rigor. (“Hate” was the rather less diplomatic term I used during this FTRN webinar appearance with Rodney.) There are, of course, incredibly rich, textured, rigorous approaches to the concept in empowerment literature. Personally, I am strongly inclined toward the capabilities approach. Others may prefer other frameworks. You are probably right to suggest there is room for different frameworks. I don’t have to convince you mine is better. In other words, it may be ok for me to have what you call a “sales problem” as long as I am being clear about my own framework. But what doesn’t seem to work is throwing the term around without being clear which framework you are using and what criteria you may be applying in presenting evidence to suggest it is happening on the ground.


      • Michael says:

        Coming up with a rigorous process to define empowerment only makes sense if you’re at the “should we do this” and not the “how do we measure this” stage.

        Presumably FTUSA knows what they mean by empowerment, elements of the already released standards should have been informed by it, and so what’s left is to rigorously measure the outcomes of their pilot to see if they conform with their definition of empowerment.

        Whether or not the definition of empowerment used to inform standards development, marketing messages, etc. is a good one or was developed through a rigorous process isn’t a measurement problem.

  • Rodney North says:

    First, I’d like to support what Michael (the commenter) said.

    Second, from the last line of the post “…it will be awfully hard to …. talk about [empowerment] in any widely accepted way until there is some general agreement around a shared and rigorous definition.” I’m inferring that you _might_ be saying that debating ’empowerment’ and FT4All could be fruitless, and therefore, _maybe_, it’d be wise to shelve that specific debate and focus on other, more measurable aspects of the FT4All debate. I could make more guesses, but I’ll wait for you to respond and possibly clarify what you have in mind.

    In the meantime I’d like to assert that ’empowerment’ is a term like ‘justice’ or ‘discrimination’. We can talk productively about what increases, or diminishes, these things, even if they are inevitably topics that cannot be contained within strict definitions.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Good to hear from you.

      I didn’t mean to imply that we ought to shelve the empowerment discussion. Quite the opposite, in fact — for purposes of the current discussion of the future and impact of Fair Trade, we ought to define it more rigorously, more deliberately.



      • Rodney North says:

        It’s a good thing that you DO welcome an ’empowerment’ conversation – ’cause you now got a bunch of us thinking & talking about even more!

        As for defining how one is using the term – at Equal Exchange there are at least three elements that we associate with ’empowerment’:
        1 – increased political power
        2 – ownership of the means of production (yes, I wish there were another, less culturally burdened phrase)
        3 – increased control over one’s fate & options

        re: #3
        One of our concerns around the certification of plantations is that if – for whatever reason – the plantation owner(s) decide that Fair Trade is no longer working for them, or not worth the hassle, or someone else buys the plantation, say someone unsympathetic to Fair Trade – then that’s it. For those workers Fair Trade has come to an end and there’s nothing they can do about it. We think that kind of lack-of-control over one’s fate is incompatible with Fair Trade.

        • Michael Sheridan says:

          Thanks, Rodney. This is a very helpful contribution.

          I see the first two elements of your definition, which change power relationships, in service of the third. Means, in other words, to the end of expanding the independence of farmers and the options available to them.

          Can you say more about increased political power? Is it formal? Relational? Individual? Collective?


          • Rodney North says:

            Re: increased political power
            Meaningful political power can, as you suggest, take many forms and we’d welcome an increase in any of those forms. And tho’ others at Equal Exchange & elsewhere are more conversant in this area I’ll take a shot at elaborating, at least on some ex’s of informal power.

            Informal ex. #1
            In some areas with successful, thriving farmer co-ops elected officials, who before had long ignored the communities (or at least the farmers) now make a point of visiting and politicking in the expected fashion. The pt being that farmers had become an meaningful constituency and that the elected representatives now had to pay attention to them and their concerns.

            Informal ex. #2
            During the coffee crisis 10 years ago many plantations simply ceased operations and left their workers destitute and hungry. In Nicaragua many of these unemployed workers organized themselves to march on the capital, Managua. Guess who were among the groups who assisted them? The small farmer co-ops, who had a few more resources, were more organized and probably had a little more clout with the local & federal gov’t officials. It was not the plantation sector. (Correct me anyone if I got this wrong – it’s been a while.)

            Informal ex #3
            In Peru CEPICAFE helped support the political career of one local journalist, Marisol Espinoza , someone sympathetic to the issues and needs of the farmers. Today she is the nation’s Vice President. This Spring she invited a leader of CEPICAFE, Santiago Paz, to visit her in her Lima offices. See

            I’ll leave it there for now. With more time I’m sure I could list some formal, individual, collective examples as well. Maybe somebody else could weigh in?
            In the meantime can you also explain a bit on what you mean by “relational” political power?

  • Rodney North says:

    PS – I meant to add that a mistake that is often made in the FT4All/empowerment discussion is to ask the artificially-narrow question of “Does Fair Trade activity X deliver empowerment or not?”.

    I say that’s a mistake because ultimately the empowerment goal of Fair Traders is not only to empower some people some degree, but rather to empower people _as much as possible_, and to do so in a way that offers the _greatest_ long-term potential for empowering both individuals and whole communities.

    And given that Fair Traders, and participating retailers, activists and shoppers have a finite amount of market power, a more useful way to phrase the question is “How can we conduct Fair Trade so that each transaction delivers the greatest empowerment possible? What manner of Fair Trade will do the most over the long-term to increase the power, and potential, and opportunities, for those who now lack it?”

    And (in case there are any late-comers to the conversation) many of us are convinced that a pound of Fair Trade coffee, or bananas, or tea bought from a small farmer co-op will deliver more empowerment (whatever your definition) than had it been sourced from a large plantation.

  • Michael,

    You continue to touch on deep and nuanced issues. Thank you for creating a space for informed discussion on these topics.

    I’m wondering what your reaction is to FTUSA’s regular press releases touting the “benefits of Fair Trade” in their pilot projects (e.g. My take (in the comments section on that site) is that this reveals a lack of seriousness to the kind of real analysis that you say is required to be able to evaluate the effectiveness (however defined) of FTUSA’s new standards.

    It is also useful to note that Allegro/Whole Foods (not a fan of unions, btw), is excited about this new standard because it allows them to continue their current practices except for contributing to a charity fund. If we take FTUSA at their word, this vision of “empowerment” is pretty darn weak.

    Ultimately, a point I think you’ve missed in these recent posts is that the controversy would likely not have erupted if Paul Rice had simply admitted that his effort to get plantations certified as Fair Trade were not going to win out and then started his own certification scheme (Paul Trade?) with it’s own name. Although longtime Fairtraders have plenty of critiques of the other certification regimes out there, they haven’t launched broad campaigns against them. You can debate the merits of shortcomings of the certified plantation model, but the heart of this battle is that Paul Rice has appropriated the name of a movement that doesn’t belong to him, and given it a different meaning. It’s a shameful way to operate.

    -Daniel Fireside, Equal Exchange

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