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323. “Empowerment partnerships” for FT4All?

I published a series of posts last week that included observations and recommendations for the future of Fair Trade for All based on our experience in Colombia with one of the first Fair Trade Certification pilots for independent smallholder farmers.  What I didn’t include was a description of a strategy we have applied in the pilot process to bolster the FT4All empowerment agenda — widening the circle of collaboration.

Last week, I explained the role of the Market Access Partner:

Fair Trade USA’s independent smallholder standard currently calls for the certification of Market Access Partners – local organizations that can export coffee, link Registered Producers in the coffeelands to Fair Trade buyers in the marketplace, and support processes of farmer organization, farmer empowerment and community development over a period of as long as six years.

I also identified two sources of potential weakness in the Market Access Partner concept.  First, there is the question of the ability of Market Access Partners to foster processes of farmer organization and empowerment.

Since the primary requirement for eligibility is coffee exporting experience, it seems that Market Access Partners will frequently be commercial coffee exporters.  While that may satisfy the “market access” role of Market Access Partner, it says less about the social aspect of its role: the willingness and ability to foster the long-term processes of farmer organization and empowerment that are at the heart of the standard’s proposal for social development…[F]armer organization and empowerment are not generally among the core competencies of commercial coffee exporters.

Then there is the question of their willingness to do so.

At a certain point on the path to full empowerment, there is a structural tension between the economic interests of traditional coffee exporters and the organization and empowerment of smallholder farmers – one that can be mitigated but not eliminated because it is rooted in zero-sum economic decision-making.

The most “empowered” cooperatives I have encountered in Central America export their own coffee; assuming this function has been an important milestone in their development and a source of considerable added value.  It has also meant less business for exporters.

Expanding the circle of collaboration may help FT4All address these issues.

What if FT4All didn’t ask coffee exporters to become development agencies?  What if, instead, it fostered relationships between coffee exporters and local development agencies to ensure that FT4All effectively addresses both the commercial and social needs of participating farmers?  This is precisely the approach that we applied to the independent smallholder pilot project we supported.

In Colombia, we partner with a local Church development organization for our Borderlands Coffee Project.  On the FT4All pilot, that same organization worked with the Market Access Partner to help facilitate community-level social needs assessments; our partner will continue to support farmer empowerment efforts over the next four years, simultaneously advancing the goals of the both the Borderlands project and the FT4All pilot.  I didn’t include this model in the observations I published last week because I had always considered this a one-off arrangement made possible by the happy coincidence of multiple sources of project funding in a single area.  But perhaps it can inform the evolution of the FT4All model.

FT4All might more effectively serve independent smallholder farmers over the short term through the creation of Empowerment Partnerships at origin — coalitions of local organizations that unite Market Access Partners experienced in commercial development with Social Development Partners focused on farmer organization and empowerment.  Natural Resource Partners could be included to help participating farmers meet the environmental requirements of the standard.  This approach would permit specialization and increase the likelihood of high-quality service delivery by organizations that are expert in their respective areas of engagement.  It could create localized partnerships or multi-stakeholder platforms for integrated service delivery in support of coffee value chain development.  It might even help mitigate some of the structural tensions in the independent smallholder standard by separating the trade development and social development functions.

1 Comment

  • Matt Warning says:

    This is a great suggestion, Michael. As I believe you said in an earlier post, grassroots development is unlikely to be a core competency of a coffee exporter. It seems wise to let exporters export coffee and turn to development entities to do development.

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