Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Fair Trade Debate

We went to a debate on fair trade last night, which featured an economist called Peter Griffiths, who has worked in the developing world and written a book about it. He was very critical of fair trade as a concept, blaming it for various economic ills and for being “dishonest”.

Now it’s tempting to just dismiss his views on fair trade as those of an arrogant idiot, and certainly that’s the persona he put across, and move on. But the problem with idiots is that they tend to be noisy and promulgate their idiocy aggressively. So, here are some of the basic things Peter Griffiths got wrong last night.

1) He characterised “the fairtrade” as one homogenous movement with one website and one point of view. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

There is not one business model, not one monolithic outlook, not one dictated point of view. It is a heterodox movement, of many trading and education organisations, in both the developed and the developing world. To attack the concept of fair trade as not relying on statistics, of not presenting facts, of being dishonest in the way it presents itself, on the basis of visiting one website (as Peter Griffiths implied was his basis for his attack) is at best naïve, or at worst willfully ignorant.

2) He was factually inaccurate.
“The first thing the fairtrade says is that it will only deal with co-operatives.” Rubbish. Fair Do’s isn’t a co-operative. As a Director there, I’m a director of a Limited Company. We trade with some co-operatives, charities, other limited companies, small family-run business, sole traders and Traidcraft who are a PLC. When he states nonsense as fact, Peter Griffiths shows he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he talks about “the fairtrade”.

3) According to Peter Griffiths, “the fairtrade” is primarily agricultural and is a food-oriented issue and that keeps people in poverty, ergo “the fairtrade” is bad for people.

Visit our shop, Peter, and you’ll see that we sell crafts and low-tech produced goods, like soap. The reason many fairly traded goods are agricultural produce is because there are hideously unfair trade barriers and tariffs, which prevent value-added products from being exported to the developed world.

These trade barriers are designed to protect Western jobs and keep the developing world reliant on trading agricultural products. It’s not the fault of “the fairtrade” that the EU, America and various other powerful nations limit what developing world countries can export. As an economist, you should really know that.

4) Also, according to Peter Griffiths, paying fair prices stimulates over-production, which results in lower prices for everyone else, thereby causing a greater social evil. This is one of the main things he accused “the fairtrade” of being dishonest about.

But as another panelist said, the power of fair trade organisations to influence global productivity, pales in comparison to the power of large multinational companies and the Western governments the multinationals use as stooges.

5) On that note, coffee is a price-volatile commodity. So, how does the guaranteed price offered by most fair trade organisations cause price volatility? Stabilising prices should surely have the opposite effect, unless “the fairtrade” is a convenient scapegoat for Western corporate greed.

6) Peter Griffiths described co-operatives as a ‘dirty word’ in the developing world as they are ‘inevitably corrupt’.

“The guy doing the books has never seen thirty quid before in his life, so it goes into his pocket…. If, as a co-operative manager you don’t take the kickback, someone else will.” Those statements didn’t go down at all well with the chap who was at the meeting and who works for a co-operative in the Windward Isles.

Let’s not be so naïve as to say that corruption doesn’t occur in co-operatives, but come on, Peter. Describing everyone who works in a co-operative as a thief-in-waiting is slander. Our own hands aren’t so clean. Not long ago the EU had to shut down for several months while it investigated internal corruption. And many farmers say they value being in a co-operative because of the open-ness, the transparency, the regular audits, and they know what everyone else is getting and whether it’s being fairly distributed.

7) Anecdotes aren’t evidence. Peter Griffiths railed against the dishonesty of “the fairtrade” and the lack of fact-based evidence. But then based his slurs about co-operatives on his own (negative) experiences. He presented no stats to back up his 'facts'. He offered no hard evidence.

8) Saving money is only half the solution. Peter Griffiths trumpeted how he had saved millions of pounds for developing world governments in food programmes and the like. Well done.

But saving is one thing, earning is another. If I go to town and buy a bargain I might have saved £20, but I will still have spent money. Enabling people to spend more efficiently is a good thing, but the bottom line is you are still helping them spend. And the money you save is just figures on one side of a balance sheet.

Trading fairly with people, on the other hand, enables them to earn. They end up with real money, which they can then choose to freely spend on the goods and services they need. Freeing up capital in the developing world to stimulate local economies is the great boon of “the fairtrade”. The savings Peter Griffiths has made won’t ever be spent, because they’re only numbers in a ledger, not real dollars in a pay packet.

9) And finally, Peter Griffiths attacked the whole of the “the fairtrade” as unprofessional and incompetent. Well, if I can return the favour and tar all economists with the same brush, I’d like to say this: economists like Peter Griffiths have had billions of pounds of resources from various institutions to sort out global poverty and decades to do it in.

And so far, they haven’t delivered.

Peter Griffiths may not like fair trade, he may even have valid criticisms to make, but compared to the mess economists have made in Africa, for example, the ‘damage’ caused by “the fairtrade” is negligible.

What fair trade as a method of business has done is bring real change to poor and marginalised communities, provided sanitation, education, security, health and wealth. It has given people benefits today and the hope for a brighter tomorrow. And it has done this, generally, as a grass roots movement, in the face of opposition from powerful institutions and governments. It has succeeded against the odds because it has proven that there is another way to do trade. And, frankly, it has rendered the opinions of economists like Peter Griffiths about “the fairtrade” irrelevant.

A final note.
When I was a kid we lived in a country in West Africa. Economists from various international bodies like the IMF and the World Bank, almost all of whom were white Westerners like Peter Griffiths, advised the government to stop people growing maize and to grow rice instead. Now thirty years later, that country has to import rice and other food to prevent its people starving to death.

When it was obvious that the switch to rice wasn’t working, the economists encouraged the government to promote peanut harvesting instead. And they said the same things to every other West African country. When we returned to the UK, the value of the peanuts which were being harvested was less that the value of the sacks they were being sold in.

Those are anecdotes, not evidence, although you can look it up if you like, to check out whether I’m lying or not. But, those stories indicate, perhaps, why I don’t really rate the opinions of ‘development economists’. The advice of economists destroyed that country and kept it impoverished. So forgive me for trying to find a better way to make life better for people.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stuck on Jesus

Place: Youth meeting
Time: Sunday morning

[leader:] So how can we keep Jesus in the centre of our life?

[kid (Huw):] Gaffer tape?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sneaky Valentine's Day Visitors

Cathy relates a story from last Saturday (Valentine's Day). It's mid-morning. I'm out. There's a knock at the door. Could this be a big bunch of flowers? Or maybe a special Valentine's Gift? Or even just an over-sized card that her husband bizarrely decided to post (I have an odd sense of humour, you see)?

No. It was the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Still you have to say, knocking doors on Valentine's Day is probably a good way of getting people to open the door. What a let down though.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The rage

This blog post by Scott Meyer (of Basic Instructions fame) outlines something I suffer from: The rage caused by other people's ignorance. The Da Vinci Code was a classic example of that. Regardless of the merits/demerits of the book/film/computer game, much of what was stated as 'fact' was just plain wrong. And stupidly so, in some cases.

Another thing which gets me all fist clenchy and muttery is when people start slagging off Star Wars, then let some reference slip which means they're thinking of Star Trek.

I also loathe people who think they're funny mocking Star Wars and pretend to be the first person ever to make the 'Pizza the Hutt' gag. It was in a Mel Brooks movie, for criminy's sake. That's how unoriginal you are.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Valentine's poem

We had a power cut on Valentine’s night
So we played Scrabble by candlelight
I got two bingos, which was well nifty
And Cath had all vowels, but still scored two fifty

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nothing says "I love you" more than a cuddly Boba Fett

I love my wife. She's great. For Valentine's Day she bought me a plush Boba Fett for my collection.

She also bought me this - from the Galactic Heroes range. How great is he?

I now have 28 Boba Fett figures, 4 Jango Fett figures, and four other Mandalorians, including the legendary Mandalore himself.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I take back what I said about PayPal being nebbishly shite as they've responded to my email. My PayPal access has been restored. Huzzah!

My email with occasional sentences in caps obviously did the trick.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The downswing

I've been off anti-depressants for over six months now, and generally am doing okay. But what I have to watch out for are the downswings in mood.

For me, the drugs established a basement level beyond which I couldn't spike down, so now I'm not on them, I'm having to learn how to handle the downswings. That means recognising when I'm stressed and doing something about it, and also seeking out the things which help me not feel so down. Guitar Hero, when I can master the damn song, is one way.

And Spring is coming up. I'm not sure why, but I always find Spring a tough time. I usually feel like ditching my job, and running off around the world. I often think it's my genetic wanderlust coming out. After all Spring was 'raiding season' for my Viking forbears. I'm not making that up - my Viking Omma (Grandma) has a family tree which stretches through the Sagas to the 6th Century and includes several 'sailor adventurers' - a euphemism for pirate and sea-raider.

Ah Spring! The pillaging season.

Monday, February 09, 2009

In this world, or the next

I went to see my Grandad on Saturday, braving the predictions of dire weather (which never materialised) and accompanied by my loving wife (and handy potential co-shoveller if we got stuck in snow).

Since Grandad had a stroke last year he has been in and out of hospital. It's hard to see him so reduced and rendered immobile, when he had always been so healthy and such a 'potterer'. He didn't like sitting still and would always find something to do in the kitchen, the garden, the shed.

Basically he's dying. And healthcare being what it is, a process which would have taken a few days a century ago has stretched out for nearly a year. I have no doubt of where he is going. Part of me wishes he was there already, because seeing him in that hospital bed slowly robs me of my memories of him as he was.

But, you know, my Grandma says that she feels that Grandad has told her that he loves her more often since the stroke, than in all their years together - it was their 64th wedding anniversary this year. So maybe there is some point to that drawn out goodbye.

And I've been able to tell him that I love him too. Because we men are crap at doing that unless it looks like someone is heading Home. I've had the chance to tell him how much I appreciate all the things he's done for me; all the things he's done for the family. How his work ethic and self-sufficiency inspired me; how grateful I am that he gave up six years in the prime of his life to serve in the armed services and protect this country from tyranny and horror, by playing his small background part, for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.

And on Saturday I was able to say again that I loved him. I wanted to tell him that whatever happens I know I'll see him again soon. And if it wasn't in this life, then he should know I'd never forget him until I saw him again. But I couldn't speak past the lump in my throat, so I gripped his good hand tightly and muttered a prayer, kissed him on the forehead and left.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Irritating turns of phrase

These are some of the phrases people use that grate with me, some of them more than others…

Do you know what I mean? repeated frequently. Yes. I speak the same language as you. I can follow the thread of your argument. I have a brain. I know what you mean.

Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! I have two female friends who will suddenly sing a loud ‘la’ note for no apparent reason other than that they’re not the centre of the conversation. Possibly the most annoying way to grab attention.

Guess what I did today… You gave yourself a full-frontal lobotomy with a spork? No? But what else would explain your prob…? Er. I don’t know. What did you do today?

Would you like to…?
I’m on dodgy ground bringing this up because this is my lovely wife’s favourite prefacing question. “Would you like to empty the bins and recycling?” No, not really. Or, classically when I’ve just sat down on the sofa after a hard day, “Would you like to go out to the kitchen and do a random chore involving heavy lifting?” (Okay, that’s not a literal report, but the gist is true.) Used as a ‘non-nag’ nagging method. ‘I’m not telling you that you ought to phone your dad, but would you like to phone your dad…’

I’m not being funny but… Good thing you said that or I’d have burst out laughing at your point. You will let me know when you are being funny won’t you. I might miss it.

Have you got two minutes to [insert random charitable endeavour]? Yes I do have two minutes, thanks. And I’d like to keep them.

[In lilting sing-song] Thank you. One of my colleagues uses this method to signal the end of a conversation; say ‘thank you’ in a sing-song voice and then walk away. Thank you for listening to me; I’m bored of you now. Or, thank you for allowing me to interrupt your work; I don’t want to hear why my idea will create a lot more work for you because frankly I don’t care. Goodbye.

“Hello, can I speak to Mr Mattius/Mathis/Matthews/Matt-i-ass please?” No. Get lost.

I’m sure you’ve got your own - add them in the comments…

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Why PayPal are nebbishly shite

A while back I set up a PayPal account on behalf of freelance theology and because it was for that project I ticked the box marked ‘nonprofit organisation’. Now I know things have been tightened up recently to prevent money laundering, but a quick glance at that account would tell you it’s only ever been used to pay tiny amounts very infrequently, and they’ve all come off my credit card.

But PayPal, being the faceless corporation it is, don’t bother looking at things like that. Instead they send out a standard email demanding proof of nonprofit status… about 3 years after I set up the account.

I don’t have that proof, so I went on to my account and changed the account status to personal. Except then I was told that because I hadn’t sent in the documentation, my account access was limited and one of the things I couldn’t do as a result was amend my status. I also couldn’t close the account, unless I provided the documentation I didn’t have. So, in order to resolve the fact that I don’t have the documentation I have to… produce the documentation. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But in the crazy universe where PayPal employees live it’s all perfectly logical.

I have emailed PayPal to try and point out that I can’t actually do anything because they won’t let me. The email I got back said, ‘Durr, I am a customer service drone and I can’t do anything to help.’ I’m still getting the emails saying ‘Your account access has been limited’ and ‘Visit here to find out how to restore your account’. YEAH I HAVE AND YOU WON’T LET ME YOU CHIMP-BRAINED IMBECILES.

I get paroxysmally mad at those emails. You can’t reply to them because you get an auto response. They direct you to the ‘resolution centre’ instead; a euphemistic term meaning ‘you’re doomed’. The only way to resolve the issue is send them the documents. THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE. THERE IS NO POSSIBILITY THAT YOU MADE A MISTAKE AND CAN CORRECT IT. No, the only way you can correct your mistake is if you first ‘resolve’ the ‘conflict’ and send in the documents.

And don’t think about trying the frustrating ‘contact us’ option. It’ll only break your soul and make you want to poke your fingers through your eyes to stop your brain exploding with rage. It’s an automated system designed, I think, to make you go off and hang yourself so that no one at PayPal ever has to answer an email. I managed to break through and actually send an email to them by typing ‘Why are you twats?’ in the form box. Unbelievably, that isn’t a regular question they deal with at PayPal so I was spared the inane unhelpful ‘FAQs’, which pop up instead of letting you contact them.

For such a world-encompassing financial system, I cannot believe that PayPal are so uncontactable. It’s as if it’s run by one robot somewhere sending out emails and following protocols and not understanding why the stupid humans don’t send in their documentation to prove they don’t have their documentation.

Bollocks to them I say. And believe me, that’s the polite version of what I’m thinking.

To prove my point, this is the email I got back last time I got through:

Thanks for contacting PayPal. My name is Nikki and I appreciate the
opportunity to assist you with your questions about the case status.

I apologise for the inconvenience or dissatisfaction because of this case.

However, we are unable to answer your query regarding the PP-555-112-703
case, for I am not trained for that specific field. I do not wish to
mislead you as well. I have forwarded your concern to the Resolutions
Department who were trained in this kind of case.

In those circumstances, and in order to maintain the integrity of an
account and to know the status faster, they need to make sure that they are
speaking directly to the account holder. In order to assist you, I
recommend that you contact them by telephone at 08707 307 191 and verified
your identity to a customer service representative. Then you may request to
be connected to the Resolution Department, so that a specialist may be able
to assist you regarding the case on your account.

Again I apologise for the inconvenience this may have caused you.

Thank you for choosing PayPal and it's been a pleasure doing business with

PayPal European Services
PayPal, an eBay Company

Needless to say I phoned the number she gave me. After about half an hour they told me there was nothing they could do and I needed to phone Luxembourg. Fantastic service! In that it made me fantasise about buying a shotgun and paying a visit to their head office.

To make it ironic, I’d buy my weapon off eBay…

Monday, February 02, 2009

The debate around flirt to convert

Had a convo last night at the 'youth in a cafe thing' about whether it was okay for me to chat up, er, I mean 'witness', to the hot waitress and ask her about her cool neck tattoo. One person said, 'Should we tell your wife'. I was like, 'Yeah, she would laugh and gleefully watch me crash and burn...'*

But anyhow, I didn't, because there is always that thing of if you talk to someone they might get the wrong idea. And then today I discovered this blog post about witnessing that looks like hitting on people. The comments are as funny as the original post.

I particularly like the acronym S.T.U.D. - Salvation Through Unbiblical Dating. Quality.

*I was like, so, offended that they thought I meant it... that I started using 'like' instead of 'said'!