Well a lot has happened in the weeks since my last post; I will do my best to summarize. I spent the week of Feb. 15-19 at the
After the week at the AVRDC had concluded, Samara returned to Shirati on his own and I had about five days of downtime before the start of our quarterly MCC Tanzania staff retreat in Arusha started, so I decided to go to Nairobi, Kenya to meet up with a friend named Steve who did an MCC term in Kenya with his wife in the 1970's and who was spending a few months back in East Africa. He had come to Shirati in late January to meet me and check out my project, and he was now staying in
Another very interesting and eye-opening experience for me in
When we first arrived to this region called the white highlands in the late afternoon on Sunday, Steve took me to the tiny home of a Kenyan family that he had met while walking around in the area weeks before. The mother, Alice, picks tea leaves for a living, and she had a number of children of various ages that she was trying to support. As we sat in this tiny little house, receiving the abundant hospitality of this poor but gracious woman, eating the beans, rice, and chai tea that she had prepared for us, I felt a wonderful sense of peace and belonging. I had been in enough tiny little houses, and had spoken enough Swahili, that as we sat and talked with this woman I was able to just enjoy the moment and to receive her hospitality without feeling uncomfortable in the strange surroundings.
In talking with
But getting back to my point about
We said good-bye to
The next day, as we were exploring the area on Steve's motorcycle, we came to a tea processing plant where a lot of the tea from the area is processed into the final product and sold or exported. I found it extremely interesting that at the bottom of the sign for this processing factory, it was indicated that the factory was owned by Unilever, the giant multinational consumer products corporation based out of
But as I have thought about this whole situation for a few weeks now, and researched a bit about Unilever, I have realized that this initial gut reaction of mine was in some ways right and in some ways wrong; the situation is far more complicated and less black and white than I had first suspected. In Unilever's defense, they are not the ones controlling the wages of these Kenyans picking tea. The farm owners, most of whom are the descendants of the British settlers, are the people ultimately responsible for paying people like
Having lived in
This bigger system that I am referring to is international capitalism and the relatively small number of massive multi-national corporations that make up the big players in this system. I did a bit of research on the Unilever website, and it turns out that in 2009 the CEO of Unilever made the equivalent of approximately $4,300,000, not including the value of shares in the company which he also received. Alice and the millions of people like her working for Unilever's myriad subsidiaries make up the foundation of the massive supply chain which allows Unilever's executives and shareholders to obtain these massive amounts of money. Now I won't hide the fact that I am very uncomfortable with this system of wealth creation/attainment, but the complicating factors which preclude a simple condemnation of the actions of large multi-national corporations like Unilever are: 1) Alice and everyone else who works at the bottom of this supply chain is choosing to do this work, and she and these others are almost certainly making more money than they would be if Unilever wasn't directly or indirectly providing them with a job, and 2) The middle-men who come between Unilever and these bottom-rung workers--in this case the plantation owner who pays Alice seven cents per kilo of tea leaves--make it difficult to determine who is ultimately responsible for the fact that Alice works her butt off and still can't feed her family and send her kids to school.
In regard to this question of who is ultimately responsible for
I think these are the types of questions that need to be asked if we want to figure out how to help Alice and millions of people like her. It is too easy for many people to either simply blame huge corporations for these sorts of problems, or to praise them for providing jobs at all, when in reality the system which allows
This is what the fair trade movement is all about; it recognizes that consumers have the power to demand that Alice and others like her at the bottom end of the supply chain be paid a wage that allows them and their families to live respectable lives, to have enough food and to send their kids to school at the very least. Because while it is true that
And one additional note. Most of us are not CEO's of giant corporations, and I've already spoken about the power that we have as consumers to participate (even unknowingly, in fact almost always unknowingly) in the system that brings us cheap products by taking advantage of people's dire poverty, or to use our power as consumers to ensure that the people involved in producing the products that we buy are paid a wage that provides them with a decent life. But another position of power that many of you (not me yet) hold is that of a shareholder. On behalf of all of the people like Alice in the world, I would encourage you to take an interest in the companies that you invest in and use your power as a shareholder to speak up for those who don't have the strength or the power to speak up for themselves. As I understand it, for-profit companies have a legally binding duty to operate in such a way as to maximize profits for their shareholders. So when a person buys stock, whether or not they know it they are telling the company in which they are buying stock to do whatever is necessary within the limits of the law to maximize their profits. As Christians we have higher standards than legality (or at least we should), so we need to make these higher standards known to the companies in which we invest, or to choose companies to invest in which have a track record of using their power to ensure that the people involved in their supply chain receive a decent wage.
So it turns out that truly helping the