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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.




  • Rodney North says:

    First, I want to thank Michael for taking the time to report to the coffee industry and the Fair Trade movement how the pilot project turned out.
    I frankly do not expect FTUSA to do the same, but let’s hope I’m wrong.

    Way too often one only hears about these initiatives during the optimistic days of the launch phase. I’m thinking for instance of the Fair Trade USA garment pilot in 2009 that started with a splash but later (I believe) wound down without this kind of essential after-the-experiment analysis & public learning. (See & ) CRS was, I think, involved in that, too, so maybe someone can elaborate if I’m mistaken.

    Second, I personally appreciate Michael’s candor and the careful, clear way he’s described the results and how things could have been better.

    Third, Michael makes many good recommendations. My 1st Q to Michael – and to any readers – is this:
    Based on Fair Trade USA’s track record, especially their history of unilateralism, is it reasonable to expect them to adopt any, let alone all, of the recommendations?
    Is it reasonable to expect them to acknowledge CRS’s assessment of this pilot and that with the poor methodology, and lack of proper baseline information or controls that they cannot answer essential questions like:
    Were the participating independent farmers better off than they would have been?
    How much so? & were they empowered?
    Did small farmer co-ops lost potential sales because of this & other pilots?

    And if FTUSA does not adopt Michael’s recommendations what will be the consequences?
    I fear it’ll be more of the same – poorly designed “innovations” that don’t really work, that siphon sales away from farmer co-ops, and yet are declared to be successes regardless*. Or maybe there will be no public claim of ‘success’ but the new practices will persist – and expand – all the same, but quietly out-of-the-limelight.

    (*Eg Let’s look at how FTUSA has publicized their coffee pilots projects so far. Success is sometimes overtly declared from the get-go, and routinely implied in most communications with the media.

    Ex. #1 In this press release from August FTUSA presupposed the very thing the pilot programs were to test. More specifically they declared that “Fair Trade USA Extends Benefits of Fair Trade to Independent, Small-Scale Coffee Farmers”, when really, at best, they could have stated less presumptuously that they were launching a pilot to see if it was possible to “extend Fair Trade benefits” in this new manner.

    Ex. #2 After only a few months FTUSA was already publicizing the success of a pilot with a Brazilian coffee plantation, even though it was too soon to assess the overall results either on the plantation or the indirect effects upon the small farmer co-ops in the Fair Trade system who stand to lose FT marketshare to this estate.
    See: )

    As I stated in an interview (or maybe a webinar) 8 or 9 months ago we at Equal Exchange did not think it was ever really FTUSA’s intent to run proper pilots and honestly assess the results. Rather we believed (& still believe) that the pilots are essentially a public relations and sales exercise to create the _impression_ that FTUSA is acting like a careful steward on behalf of all the stakeholders in the movement, including the small farmer co-ops. Instead we imagine FTUSA will move ahead with certifying plantations and unorganized small farmers regardless of the results of the pilots – assuming they can find buyers for that coffee. In other words, the future for these pilots and the “innovations” they represent will be decided in the marketplace, & not by what happens at origin.

    I know that all sounds very skeptical, but it’s just a reflection of how much trust has been lost between FTUSA and many of us in the FT movement.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your perspectives.

      I want to point out that while I have contributed to the Fair Trade for All observations and recommendations published here, they are not mine alone. Rather, they represent the results of work undertaken with a project team on the ground in Colombia and coordination with colleagues in other places who have experience with Fair Trade, certification and programmatic efforts to expand market access for smallholder farmers.

      Regarding your comments, I will say that I am optimistic that Fair Trade USA will publish some findings of its own from the work in Colombia. I know it continues to work to develop indicators against which it will measure future pilot work and is expanding the network of organizations it is consulting with regarding efforts to assess the impacts of Fair Trade for All — all of which is positive, of course.

      I can only hope that whatever impact assessment strategy emerges from this process is consistent with our recommendations for impact assessment.


  • Chris London says:

    Like Rodney I think these posts are a great, honest reflection on the process. They’re exciting to read actually. I teach very abbreviated sessions on M&E and lament that the challenge is that in the scheme of things M&E is often driven not by really wanting to know what works but rather to have a document that can be used to satisfy donors that their investment was ‘successful.’ In the future I’ll have students read through these posts (hopefully you’ll keep these coming; even better: pull them together into a report/document about M&E in the process of trying to do social change).

    But one thing I wonder is if anything that was done were things that wouldn’t have happened anyway? I don’t see anything here that wouldn’t be done in a project sans ft4all. It seems like all ft4all maybe adds is a marketing mechanism but that mechanism really by itself is meaningless, any social value depends on what people like yourself locally do. So ftusa maybe should just drop the pretense of being a certification agency and just be a marketing partner, picking and choosing who it wants to promote at any given time, the benefit to producers being a marketing opportunity they might not otherwise have. But ftusa would have to drop any claims of social benefit being due to itself and would have to explicitly and solely rely on being careful in who it chooses to business with.

    In other words, it should just do ‘direct trade’, drop the ‘fair’ part and get on with it. As Rodney points out, that seems to be what they’re doing anyway, they’re making claims without any real evidence, which unfortunately is what happens with some of the ‘direct trade’ stuff. (A student of mine contacted several companies trying to get info. on the claims they had on their websites; only Cooperative Coffees was serious about actually having something resembling data, the rest blew smoke). But given that they’re not in the coffee business maybe they can be more a little more serious about it, though I can imagine skeptical response to that idea. (Though I guess if they did that they’re own business model of selling the seal would fall apart.)

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to weigh in here. Your comment includes a number of provocative points, three of which I want to address.

      What certification can do that good projects can’t.

      You ask:

      One thing I wonder if is anything that was done were things that wouldn’t have happened anyway?

      We made a similar observation in this 2009 case study on our Fair Trade coffee programming in Nicaragua.

      Fair trade certification has various benefits to farmers. It guarantees them a decent price and steady income during times of market instability. It pays a social premium, which enables investments in social projects that neither governments nor markets provide in coffee-producing countries. But these are not its main benefit. The other things that tend to come with fair trade—effective organization, access to business development services, direct relationships with other actors in the value chain, and participation in specialty coffee markets—may be even more important. This suggests that CRS might help facilitate the participation of smallholder farmers in high-value coffee markets without Fair Trade certification by focusing on these activities.

      Three years later, I have concluded that there is no substitute for Fair Trade certification. Not because it does boots-on-the-ground work or value-chain development more effectively than good projects can. But rather, as you suggest, because certification is a key that can unlock important doors in the marketplace that remain firmly closed to uncertified coffees.

      Fair Trade v Direct Trade

      I think your characterization here may undermine the value proposition of Direct Trade. The role you describe for Fair Trade USA would be in my mind more of a brokerage role: it would generate value for buyers by expanding access to coffees that are traceable and meet minimum quality requirements, but it wouldn’t require direct trading relationships.

      In some ways, I think from a developmental perspective that the “direct” part of trading relationships may be more important than the “fair” part. Buyers who spend time at origin with coffee farmers working to jointly address challenges and seize opportunities create possibilities that can’t be generated even by a roaster who only buys Fair Trade Certified coffee but never goes to source.

      (In case you are interested in exploring this issue further, this blog has hosted some excellent discussion about Direct Trade and its relationship with Fair Trade.)

      Transparency in Direct Trade

      I agree with you to a point, and have expressed concerns here and here about the claims made by Direct Trade roasters.

      But I also believe that groundbreaking initiatives in transparency, like the one you mention at Cooperative Coffees or Counter Culture Coffee’s annual Direct Trade Certified Transparency Report, among others, represent real progress and set a standard by which others can be measured.


  • A quick response to one of Rodney’s points about the FTUSA pilot on apparel:

    CRS has been involved in that effort since the original needs assessment in 2006 or so. We’ve continued to be engaged as another attempt at influence and learning. The CRS Fair Trade Fund is actually covering the cost of a publication of a “warts and all” report out from the multi-stakeholder group on apparel that convened 2 years aog. It should be ready by December 21st at the latest.

    The resport will be distributed by and other channels, and I’m sure Michael can cross post here on “coffeelands” if that is helpful to his readership.

    Jackie DeCarlo, CRS economic justice team
    Baltimore, MD

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for adding your perspective to the discussion, and for the heads up on the forthcoming report. I look forward to reading it and will be happy to publish a link to it here.


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