10 February, 2008

Why dumbing down Social Justice makes me mad!

It seems that in our zeal to make social justice advocacy accessible to the Salvo-in-the-pew, we are missing some of the important subtleties.

Take chocolate as an example. We love to demonise chocolate manufacturers, but sometimes they’re doing better than we are.

Some of the things we like to think about them include:

“They are exploitative, self-seeking, and amoral.”

“They do nothing to reduce the injustices in chocolate production.”

“They have the power to end all of these evils immediately.”

But even a cursory investigation will show that the situation is more complex than this. Consider this:

1. The volume of cocoa that multi-nationals buy is so large that they have to use middle men to collect it all together. (43% of the world’s chocolate starts out in the Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire) from one of 600,000 farms, on which there are about 15,000 child workers.)
2. Thus, the multi-nationals do not have absolute control over the price paid at the farm gate, nor the conditions under which the labourers work.
3. However some of them are working with agencies such as the government of the Ivory Coast to eradicate unjust employment practices, and working through their wholesalers to set up labour accountability systems.
4. The price at the farm gate has little impact on the price we pay in the supermarket. It could double and the price we pay for our chocolate would be only slightly higher, and the profitability for the multi-nationals will not be greatly impacted. Most of the costs in making chocolate come from the transport, manufacturing and marketing. (Thus there are only minor built-in economic drivers for the multi-nationals to exploit.)
5. Farmers in the Ivory Coast have farmed cocoa since 1880, and have got locked into traditional inefficient methods of farming on small-holdings. Attempts by multi-nationals to move them to more efficient means of farming is a double edged-sword. It means that small-holdings have to be combined into larger areas, but by doing this the farmer is deprived of his right to the land. Efficiency may bring the capacity for greater income, but at the cost of autonomy for the small-holder. The resistance from local farmers keeps them ineffecient, and their income low.
6. Cocoa is a world commodity and market prices are determined on the world stage. Indirectly, African small-holders are competing with highly efficient cocoa farms in (for example) Queensland in one of the most agriculturally efficient countries in the world, Australia.
7. Extreme poverty drives people into unjust employment. Most child-workers in Ivory Coast come from Mali, which has a GDP of just $850 per capita! (Compare this with Australia’s $37,500.) Child labour is abhorrent to the Western mind of course, and it is becoming so in most developing countries. Most African countries for example have programs to eradicate child labour. However, some families rely on the income from their children for subsistence, and many, many, more rely on it to be able to educate their children and end the inter-generational cycle of poverty. So, abruptly curtailing child labour without changing the economic landscape, is over-simplifying a complex problem.

It is clear that there are a variety of historical, economic, and cultural systemic factors that cause the current situation. Just refusing to eat chocolate does not account for this inter-relatedness and complexity. If you really want to take an intelligent approach to the chocolate injustices, don’t just stop eating chocolate. Instead Google “Ivory Coast” or "Cote d’Ivoire” and “cocoa” and start reading.

Its great that at last social justice is back on the agenda in TSAAST, but let’s get intelligent with it. No more dumbing down!
- Mike.

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