Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Fair Trade Struggles in Nicaragua

I’m just back from my third trip to Nicaragua. The first was about eight years ago, soon after I had encountered Fair Trade in Chiapas. I didn’t stay long because, thanks to my poor sense of direction and Managua’s lack of street signs, I stumbled—quite literally—onto a dog who bit me. With the help of the U.S. Embassy, I was on a plane to the States to get rabies treatment after having only spent a day in what is one of Central America’s most fascinating countries. Luckily all went well—no rabies for the dog or for me, so neither of us had to be put down. And, after my detour, I was fully vaccinated for my next dog run-in on the streets of Mexico. I am not making this up…I have been bitten twice on my Latin America travels. And people wonder why I have cats in my Washington, DC apartment!

My last two visits to Nicaragua have been much more enjoyable and educational. My day-job with CRS Fair Trade has meant that I’ve gotten to know the work of some farmers and agro-enterprise specialists in the Matagalpa region who are working to improve the quality and market access of Fair Trade and organic coffees. This visit involved two days of meetings with folks from four CRS countries to plan a new coffee initiative in Latin America that focuses on the emerging realities and changes in the marketplace—including consumer desires to make socially responsible choices in the context of big-box stores and mega-supermarkets.

While coffee was the focus of this trip, I had a couple of opportunities to visit with women who are trying to use the principles of the Fair Trade movement to shape their businesses and confront poverty in the cities. One was Eileen Moore, a development professional and social entrepreneur who is associated with a local NGO called Dos Generaciones and its supporter Trócaire. A two year-old report about the community where Eileen and her colleagues work is, unfortunately, still very relevant as it describes the heart-breaking situation of children trying to survive in the dumps of Managua. Eileen is marketing the products of parents who are being trained to sew, and she is developing a business plan, thanks to the support of groups such as Agora partnerships, to help gain business in the local tourist and expatriate markets and abroad. After meeting with Eileen, I come away with an almost overwhelming sense of how hard it is for disadvantaged groups, even those with a network of supporters, to make it in the modern marketplace.

This was also a message I took away after meeting with Nueva Vida, a clothing cooperative, located near Managua. Nueva Vida, which was formed by the women of a community devastated by Hurricane Mitch, had also received an array of public and private support, for many years being a featured vendor of Maggie’s Organics and touted as a “sweat-shop free” alternative. Recently organizational, political, and interpersonal challenges have slowed the progress of the group and new leadership is trying to regain a foot-hold in an intensively competitive apparel market. While I was taken with the determination of women such as my hostess Maria Elena to improve their customer service efforts and professionalize their operations, I couldn’t help but worry about the obstacles they have to overcome as they seek to be viable in an industry characterized by the “just-in-time” demands of consumers who want to buy clothes cheaply and quickly.

This is one of the tug-of-war battles in the Fair Trade movement. We say we are about offering a viable “alternative” way of doing business. But the realities of that business—building the skills and capacities of often under-educated vulnerable groups living in economies suffering from lack of infrastructure—come up against the “realities” of the traditional marketplace. Consumers expect rapid service, an array of color and design options. An inspiring story like that of Nueva Vida might encourage a church group or non-profit to buy their t-shirts once, but if the order is delayed or the cost of organic cotton too high—then tough choices are sometimes made in the future. Those truly committed to Fair Trade know that it has many development related functions: it helps disadvantaged groups build their capacity to meet the expectations of consumers, but that trajectory can be slow and painful. Meanwhile, clients can be lost or become disenchanted. It takes a special kind of commitment to not only pay a higher price but also wait a little longer for a product to arrive.

Of course, for me the commitment is stoked by visits to places like Nicaragua, where I witness the street children begging at each traffic stop, where I see the desperation in the eyes of women like Maria Elena, and where I am encouraged by the persistence of businesswomen like Eileen who creatively design new products—such as an adorable cloth teapot set for children--to appeal to sophisticated shoppers. If you can’t meet personally with those involved in making trade fairer, making it a tool of opportunity and advancement, please check out the links of this posting to learn more details directly from those living the realities. Please give the products and the women behind them a chance. And then comment on this blog about what your experience is in dealing with organizations that might lack capacity, but not determination.

thanks to catholic relief services for the photo from my 2008 trip

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