A year or so back my wife and I were lucky enough to visit St. Lucia. It is a beautiful island, and if you get the chance to go there, I do recommend it. It is a place where we from the developed world can enjoy great luxury in the sun, buy cheap goods in the market, and generally have a good time.
Yes, and yet… And yet the one thought that struck us as soon as we got out of town was the extreme poverty. We had seen appalling poverty before in South Africa, but that didn’t make it any easier in St. Lucia. How can we Westerners imagine living in a wooden shack with no washing or toilet facilities, and perhaps relying on a spring or a stand pipe outside or some hundreds of yards away? How can we imagine having inadequate protection from the weather? It may seem like paradise to us, but when it rains in St. Lucia it really rains, and the winds during the storms are tremendous.
In some ways it took a while for the full reality of life there to sink in. We might have felt condescending in the first place to those in the street who would create an animal out of a palm leaf for one US dollar. Our Western sensitivities were upset along the country roads by men who had captive boa constrictors they wanted to show us for money. “How cruel” was our first reaction!
Yet, how are these people to get by? We learned that J Sainsbury, the UK supermarket bought most of the year round banana crops from the plantations, which at least shows that someone cares. Fresh local bananas are delicious. St. Lucia bananas are sold under the Fair Trade scheme in the UK, and since our visit to St. Lucia, my wife and I have always bought Fair Trade bananas. If they are from the Windward Islands we hope sometimes they are from St. Lucia. Of course they are often more expensive than other bananas but we allow ourselves to think we are doing our bit. Are we really, though?
We have been moved to buy other Fair Trade products such as tea, but how much responsibility should we take in our shopping, and do we always know whether we are doing the right thing?
The same applies to business purchasing of course. There are some who boycott products from certain countries and I have done this in the past too, but someone somewhere may suffer from a boycott. Many workers in poor countries may be exploited dreadfully, but as Chris Brogan reminded me (see the comments) that may be the only job they can get to feed their families. It may be that someone has to do the job even if in much worse conditions than Chris’s thoroughly Western mayonnaise factory and unless we are really sure that boycotting or supposed ethical purchasing doesn’t hurt anyone, maybe we should avoid it.
That doesn’t get us off the hook of course. We need to press Governments and NGOs to encourage or persuade poorer nations to tackle exploitation. The main way will be through education and cracking down on criminals who may be involved in the effective slavery of men, women and tragically, children.
My take is that Fair Trade is helpful, that we must think very carefully before boycotting products (probably mostly electronic and computer gear in business), that we should press Government and help charities working in the relevant areas.
My, what a thorny issue. What do you think?