Sunday, August 05, 2007

governmental, pseudo/wannabe-governmental, free market enterprise and the business of guilt assuagion

[this is part one of two (or three?) in a discussion of how certain segments of the coffee industry operate and whether those operations are ultimately viable, relevant and good for coffee and the people who grow and consume it. it is NOT a technical white paper. it is my opinion; and i invite comments, questions and discussion.]

i seem to have the same conversations over and over again. someone i know (or barely know) finds out i'm "the coffee guy" and almost the first question out of their mouth is, "so, you like all that fair trade stuff?"

i've blogged about this many times before; but something i've been thinking about has me blogging about it again. from a macro view, the whole fair trade question is really a question of which engine the majority of people think can most efficiently and effectively assuage their guilt when it comes to the question of first world westerners consuming goods produced solely by third worlders. as i contemplate the many, many moving parts of this question you can see the political arguments coming into play as well and the argument loses its coffee personality and eventually simply becomes a subject matter argued in exactly the same way as, say, healthcare or global warming or taxes or military spending or foreign aid...and on and on.

the question evolves (devolves!) into who do people believe can best execute the solution to tackle problem x, where x happens to be global wage inequities vis-a-vis coffee. it seems there are several candidates for the role of 'alleviating wage inequities' (which, to my mind, is really just codespeak for 'blotting out my rich, western consumer guilt') and bringing poor, helpless tropical farmers into the circle of comfort we in the northern hemisphere enjoy. the players: governments, pseudo/wannabe/para-governmental organizations/departments/bureaucracies and private (read: free market) enterprises.

our first candidate, governments, are easily enough defined and understood. by them i mean actual departments or segments of a sovereign government's actual budget that regulate, influence or otherwise attempt to control the prices of commodoties, goods and/or services. these can be tangible or intangible, bananas or pension funds, if you will. i include the auspices of the united nations in this first group because, even though they are a supergovernmental body, they overwhelmingly tend toward that strain of socialistic paternalism i'm considering in this post.

second are the clutch of players who are not governmental in actuality but who may work in tandem with sovereign national governments, or who present an air of governmental heaviness and officialness with their proclamations and certifications. i think of organizations like oxfam, trans-fair, quality assurance international, and the like, who certify whether, for example, big, rich, western multinational corporations are not taking advantage of small, poor outfits and individuals in developing nations of the world. their work is important and they have a place at the table of the macro-economic table of commodities movements. however, it should be noted that none of the players mentioned in this group or in the first group above make any claims toward issuing their certifications and edicts with regard to actual product quality (i.e., they don't measure taste). they are simply political/economical entities.

finally there are players in the market who are not governmentally associated or sponsored, who, relative to the first two groups, don't get involved in the politics of the situation(s) and whose primary focus is on quality and the appropriate recompense for quality. they are groups such as the cup of excellence program, utz kapeh, many of the online auctions such as the best of panama, and systems such as starbucks c.a.f.e. practices.

none of this is new territory. it has been more articulately laid out by brighter minds than mine. but in this first part i wanted to bring a new perspective of definition as to who ultimately is behind the entities controlling the fate of coffee producers and what the beliefs and stakes are for each.

in a sentence, it comes down to whether an entity believes that a government (or the semi-official proclamations of semi-governmental organizations) are best suited to regulate a product like coffee or is it best left in the hands of the free market.

in the next installment, i will attempt to lay out why governmental bureacracies and their softer n.g.o. siblings are ill-equipped to help the masses of smallholders come out of poverty (if that is even their goal) and produce quality, desired products such as great coffee. in short, why politics makes for a bitter brew.

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At Sunday, 05 August, 2007, Anonymous Stephen Leighton said...

Interesting reading my friend look forward to pt 2


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