Are Fair Trade cooperatives voluntary?

Alex Singleton at the Globalisation Institute reports that all is not well, in at least some fair trade cooperatives

Sadly, for too many farmers in poor countries today, they are trapped in not terribly voluntary co-operatives. Out in rural Kenya last week, I found that there was some scepticism towards the traditional view the co-operatives are always forces for good. In fact, in Kenya, the coffee co-operatives have suffered from significant mismanagement, with individual farmers often exploited by the leaders of the co-operatives. In fairness, Kenya has been trying to help rebalance the situation, for example introducing six year term limits on co-operative leaders. I do worry that spokespeople for the Fairtrade movement suffer from a myopic romantic vision of the coffee farmer in a co-operative, which the truth such an existence is backbreaking and mired in exploitation.

It would be a cruel irony if the fairtrade movement itself became a new form of expoitation.  The principle of fair trade – that people should be able to spend more buying products that they know to have been produced without exploitation – is a good one.  But the recent articles in the FT and Alex's report from Kenya suggest that more needs to be done to ensure that the fair trade certificate means what it says.

See also today's FT leader

Update: the Fair Trade Foundation replies here

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