The price of being fair

Consumers are keen to buy fairly traded goods and the higher prices we are prepared to pay can be a

Like most projects in international development - aid, debt relief, microfinance - fair trade can help reduce poverty. What it cannot do is effect fundamental change in the world trading system. I tend to be suspicious of attempts to change market outcomes by fixing prices, which is what fair trade boils down to. But, in practice, the armchair economists' objections that high fixed prices lock farmers into overproducing (rather than abandoning crops with little future) seem a bit overdone.

Farmers selling goods certified under the Fairtrade label can only sell as much at the Fairtrade price as they have contracts for. I have visited cotton farmers in Mali who were fully aware of the dangers of relying too much on one crop, even with a higher price, and continued to rotate cotton with peanuts, maize, sesame seeds and so on.

But, now that Fairtrade is gaining a larger share of the total market, the threat could become more serious. Unless every single coffee buyer in the world, for example, buys the same amount of coffee as before at a higher price, Fairtrade may well be in the uncomfortable position of closing its books to new applicants or certifying farmers who cannot get any contracts at a Fairtrade price.

The risk of overproduction through price- fixing is not theoretical. Governments in Bangla desh and elsewhere guaranteed absurdly high prices for jute farmers, with the result that more and more jute was produced and shovelled on to the world market and prices collapsed. What farmers need to do - and Fairtrade could be a bit more explicit in encouraging them - is to use Fairtrade income to improve the quality of existing crops, diversify into others or move out of farming altogether. I was heartened to be told of Ecuadorean coffee farmers who felt that Fairtrade would give their children a choice not to grow coffee.

On this subject, a useful if little-known aspect of Fairtrade is the "social premium", a payment the co-operatives receive to be spent collectively. There are well-documented problems with Fairtrade's predilection for dealing only with co- operatives (farmers have usually been organised otherwise). But where it works, it can work. One Malian village I visited used its premium to build a crop store that enabled it to distribute supplies of grain evenly over the year.

Fairtrade has no way to make sure that farmers diversify or improve quality, and I have some sympathy with companies such as Green & Black's, which say they aid farmers more by helping them to improve quality and go organic rather than just guaranteeing a price.

Fairtrade is fine as far as it goes. I part company where a moderately sensible market intervention is dressed up as part of a mission for global "trade justice". Itself a creation of NGOs, the UK Fairtrade Foundation sits on the board of the Trade Justice Movement, a coalition of dozens of NGOs. The movement's analysis of trade - that poor countries are prevented from trading by unfair rules, tariffs and subsidies - is wrong and its suggested solutions are routinely misguided.

With a few exceptions (cotton in particular), rich nations' trade tariffs and subsidies do not significantly hurt developing-world farmers, and certainly not those in Africa. The products most African farmers grow are not subsidised heavily by Europe and the US, which concentrate their support on temperate crops such as beet and wheat.

Even in crops where rich and poor compete head-on, pursuing trade justice often means not backing poor against rich but weighing in on the side of one set of developing countries against another. Take the NGO cause céèbre of rice, of which there are now Fairtrade versions. Famously, the markets in Accra, Ghana are piled ceiling high with subsidised American rice that undercuts domestic produce. (Printing the Stars and Stripes on the sacks, as American rice exporters often do, is a particularly nice touch.) NGOs lead a steady stream of pliable celebrities and journalists round by the nose and invite them to be outraged.

But if they look carefully in the markets, they will also see rice from Vietnam and Thailand that is competitive without subsidy. If the US never exported another grain of rice, Ghanaian farmers still could not compete with Vietnamese and Thai imports. Protecting them with tariffs merely means transferring money to the rice farmers from everyone else in Ghana, by making them pay more for a staple food.

Prices in one of Fairtrade's biggest markets, coffee, were driven down a few years ago by huge expansion of cheap production in Vietnam and Brazil, the former helped by its government. One solution proposed by NGOs in the trade justice coalition, including Oxfam, is to hold up prices by "managing supply" - in other words, to form a global coffee cartel.

It is hard enough holding together a cartel like Opec, where countries either have the commodity or they don't. Trying to support a global price in a commodity where production can be expanded rapidly almost always fails. The previous coffee cartel, along with a whole bunch of similar commodity arrangements in decades gone past, collapsed precisely for that reason.

And can we seriously envisage going to Vietnam, a country poorer than Mexico, Ecuador and Peru, whose farm exports have helped it reduce poverty at a spectacular rate, to tell it to cut production? How is this trade justice? Why do Vietnam's coffee farmers matter less than Mexico's?

Fairtrade can be a useful support to farmers if it pulls them into the existing world trading system and helps producers diversify and go up the value chain. But it cannot function as a club whose members take on the hopelessly unrealistic and misguided quest of slaying the chimerical beast of trade injustice.

Alan Beattie is world trade editor of the FT

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood