Max Havelaar or the ambiguities of fair trade (abstract)

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Why the South is Rebelling

World leader in fair trade, Max Havelaar claims to satisfy the demand for a “different” mode of consumption based on solidarity between consumers of the North and smaller producers of the South. However, the organization seems to be taking a “pragmatic” turn by collaborating with large groups which are far removed from its original concerns. It is not certain that producers and citizens will be able to mentally clear up the situation.

How can we provide smaller famers an income that makes it possible for them to meet their basic needs, preserve their environment, and build human relationships on values different from those recommended by the world’s unbridled economic liberalism? It was at the first United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1964 that the idea “Trade not aid!” gave rise to fair trade. Until then limited to a select group of supporters, the old idea of a fairer North-South relationship became more popular with a group that we can easily qualify as “alternative consumers.

Created as solidarity trade,” adds the sociologist Virginie Diaz Pedegral, “fair trade was deeply imbued at its inception with the humanism of Christian religious movements and a Protestant ethic”. Initially charity-based, but later influenced by a more third-world political approach, this solidarity trade became an act of opposition to the capitalist system, becoming “alternative”. Then Max Havelaar came along.

We were and still are anti-capitalist, opposed to multinationals,” recalls the worker-priest Frans van der Hoff, who cofounded the Max Havelaar brand in 1998. But, caught in the neoliberal wave, the approach which started out as “solidarity” and then became “alternative” was transformed, at the turn of the 21st century, into the largely depoliticized “fair trade.” “It is no longer a time for revolution but for reform,” highlights Diaz Pedegral. “The objective is to improve the liberal system by changing it from the inside.

Found in many countries of the North and main promoter of this change, Max Havelaar is at the center of a vast debate taking the ideology back to its historical and political bases. On the one hand, there are those in support of the commoditization of fair trade products. On the other, there are those who promote a more social and environmental model throughout the supply chain, both in the North and the South, grounded in reflections on the crucial question of wealth distribution.[…]

Currently, no certification or regulations provide consumers an official guarantee regarding fair trade products; they are therefore forced to trust the manufacturers. The word “certified” can only be used if the terms of reference meet the following three criteria: they are submitted to independent monitoring agencies, certified by an organization that is itself independent and certified by the government. There are no fair trade organizations that meet these criteria.

Those who benefit most from the current framework are first and foremost auditing structures […].

“Max Havelaar ou les ambiguïtés du commerce equitable” (extraits)

Christian JACQUIAU

Le Monde Diplomatique

September 2007

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