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322. Recommendations for the future of FT4All

2012-11-29 Comments Off on 322. Recommendations for the future of FT4All

The world’s first Fair Trade Certification pilots with independent smallholder coffee farmers are winding down in Colombia.  CRS supported one of those pilots. Based on that experience, we offer three recommendations for future pilots: two to ensure they generate the kind of rigorous, results-based evidence we believe should drive decisions about the future of Fair Trade, and one to increase the likelihood they contribute to genuine farmer empowerment.


We reiterate the call CRS first issued here for an impact assessment process that is independent, long-term and system-wide, and put into place before the action starts.  With the one-year anniversary of Fair Trade for All approaching fast and more pilots in the queue, there is no time to lose.

Ideally, FTUSA would not be judge and jury in the assessment process.  FTUSA changed the rules of the game to make indepedent smallholder farmers and coffee estates eligible for certification; it is coordinating the implementation of the pilots; and it has a lot to gain (or lose) from the results of the impact assessment.  In the interest of impartiality, it should not lead the process. A credible third-party organization — preferably a research institute, university, international organization or a consortium of these institutions — should lead the design and implementation of the study.

We had originally proposed this role for CRS, but critics of FT4All and of our engagement with it have questioned whether we can be trusted to remain impartial given our modest financial support for the pilot in Colombia.  We no longer seek sole leadership of impact assessment efforts, but we welcome opportunities to contribute to an independent assessment effort through data collection and/or analysis efforts. We remain committed to the ideal of a truly independent assessment.    And we continue to work behind the scenes to try to bring donors and qualified research institutions together in the hope of making one happen.

A credible, independent impact assessment will require radical transparency from FTUSA: it would not lead the design of the impact assessment, but would need to cooperate fully with the independent inquiry, wherever it might lead.

The pilots described here were short-term affairs.  Barely long enough to conduct a baseline survey, let alone assess the impacts of the pilots on participating farmers.  The ideal scenario is one in which pilots track changes in key variables among participants and non-participants over a period of time, preferably several years.  By including both participants and non-participants scientifically selected to ensure they are representative of the broader population, the assessment can credibly attribute the differences observed between the two groups to the pilot activities; by tracking impacts over time, the assessment allows for the pilot projects to mature and the impacts of longer-term processes of empowerment to materialize.

It is not enough to show that FT4All has generated benefits for independent smallholder farmers or estate workers who are new to Fair Trade; it is also necessary to show that the changes in the rules of the Fair Trade game haven’t adversely affected the welfare of cooperative farmers already in the Fair Trade system.  And measuring impact at the household level is not enough — in any comprehensive assessment, the effects of FT4All must also be measured at the group and market levels as well.  We continue to apply a three-level framework in our thinking about FT4All that includes impact indicators at the micro (individual), mezzo (collective) and macro (systemic) levels.


Literature on pilot projects suggests that site selection must strike a delicate balance – implementation sites should be complex enough to test the rigor of the pilot’s design, but not so complex or idiosyncratic to limit the replication of the approach beyond the pilot site.

The world’s first certification pilots with independent smallholder farmers were implements in Nariño, Colombia, which is among the most idiosyncratic coffee origins in all the Americas.  Among Nariño’s peculiarities is a level of competitiveness that is rivaled by few other origins in the Americas.  Coffee from Colombia commands a premium price on international markets; coffee from Nariño commands an additional premium within Colombia; and fierce competition between two leading global coffee brands in Nariño drives prices up even further.  When we got involved in the pilot process, we suggested here that Nariño’s hyper-competitive context might complicate the pilot:

It is not clear whether in the general context of high market prices, and the particular context of Nariño, Fair Trade Certification premiums will be sufficient incentives for organization.

As it turns out, we were right to wonder.  A project report from the organization that the implemented the pilot we co-funded in Nariño noted that the prices offered by the Market Access Partner were lower than the prices in Nariño’s very competitive local market.

In sum, even with an impeccably designed monitoring and evaluation system, it is not clear whether success or failure in Nariño would have spoken to the validity of FTUSA’s approach to independent smallholder certification more generally given Nariño’s peculiarities.


The cautionary tale described here, in which farmers missed income opportunities because they perceived themselves as being contractually bound to sell all their coffee to the Market Access Partner, may have been the result of confusion and not willful coercion, but it was the opposite of empowerment and it was wholly avoidable.  FTUSA should be vigilant in its auditing of the relationships between Market Access Partners and Registered Producers and ensure that pilot relationships and the written agreements that govern them are always and everywhere oriented toward farmer empowerment and do not compromise the commercial independence of Registered Producers.

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This post is the third in a three-part series on The Future of Fair Trade for All.

<< Previous: Observations on the FT4All pilot.