Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Update on travels, and observations on the economic and ethical complexity of a globalized economy

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 East Africa headquarters of the World Vegetable Research Center (AVRDC) in Arusha, TZ. My Tanzanian work partner and I went for a week of class to learn more about how to grow indigenous vegetables well. We took classes on soil fertility maintenance, nursery and planting methods, pest management, and various other relevant topics. All of the researchers/instructors were able to speak English well, and many (although not all) also knew Swahili, so most of the time they would teach me a concept in English and then teach Samara in Swahili, which made for an interesting experience. It was a very interesting week for me because I was able to interact with and learn from professional scientists and researchers from various African countries, most of whom held advanced degrees in some type of plant science. This is not something that is at all common for me here obviously, as the level of education in Tanzania is quite low, especially in rural areas like Shirati. It felt like I was back in college again for a week studying biology, which was a lot of fun. However, much of the teaching was unfortunately a lot more technical than I and MCC had hoped it would be. Samara (my work partner) has only attended primary school (this low level of education is fairly common in Tanzania) so a lot of the teaching was not really helpful to him at all since it was dealing with information that he didn't even have conceptual categories to understand it with. But other sessions were much more practical and hands-on, which was exactly what we had hoped for.

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 Nairobi. He invited me to come and to show me around the city for a few days, so I took a shuttle bus from Arusha to Nairobi and arrived on Sunday afternoon. I only stayed with Steve in Nairobi for three days, but even in this short time I learned and was challenged by many things.

For one, Nairobi is huge. It was by far the biggest city I had been to since leaving the States (it is much bigger and more modern than any city in Tanzania), and at times I felt like I was in Chicago or something. We walked into a mall complex comparable to any very large mall in the States, and I couldn't believe my eyes. I just walked around for a half-hour in awe that a place like this existed. Having lived in rural Tanzania for six months with only occasional trips to moderately large but by U.S. standards very undeveloped cities, I was definitely feeling a strong dose of culture shock. It was like I had instantly been transported to the Mall of America or something and my brain had a lot of difficulty dealing with the instant change. I couldn't believe I was still in East Africa, or that a place like this existed in the middle of a city (and a region) with such a huge number of desperately poor people.

Another very interesting and eye-opening experience for me in Nairobi occurred when Steve arranged for us to spend a night at a guest house in an area about a half-hour drive outside of Nairobi called by some the "white highlands". This was an area of very high elevation that the British took over during their colonization of Kenya. Because of the mild climate and the highly productive farmland, the British settlers kicked the Kenyans off of the land and claimed it for themselves. This theme is of course all too common throughout human history the world over; it is similar to what happened between Native Americans and the English colonists in North America, but with at least one major difference. The area is still controlled mostly by the white descendants of the first British colonizers, but many Kenyans still live in the area and work for these white farm and estate owners. This whole large area has been planted almost entirely for tea production, so as we walked around we encountered view after stunning view of rolling hills covered in perfectly manicured tea bushes stretching as far as we could see. So while this was one of the most beautiful places that I have been to in East Africa, it was also tainted by the history of colonization, the effects and injustices of which were still very present.

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 Alice, we learned from her that she is paid by her white employer the equivalent of seven U.S. cents for every kilogram of tea leaves that she picks, and since she can pick about 50 kilograms in a full day, she is able to earn about $3.50 cents per day. Now this may sound like an awful daily wage to readers in North America, and really it is, but sadly this is much better than the wages of many of the people that I know in Shirati. For instance, Samara, my work partner, has four children and a wife whom he is trying to support, and he is paid by the church here the equivalent of about $1.50 per day, which is the going rate for the back-breaking work he does as a farmer. Now although the cost of living is much lower here, that is still a terrible wage. He grows most of his own food, because he would never even be able to afford enough food for his family on this wage, much less the other needs of growing children like clothing and school supplies. In defense of the church here, they like almost everyone else have very little money, so they are paying Samara what they can.

But getting back to my point about Alice, she explained that since she is paid by the kilo of tea that she picks, during the dry season, when the tea doesn't grow, she is not able to pick and therefore has no income for those few months. She does not make enough money to pay for her teenaged daughter to attend secondary school (the equivalent of High School) consistently, and at certain times there is not enough money for the family to afford dinner, so they simply don't eat on those days. This was of course very difficult to hear, but the events that came next made it more difficult for me.

We said good-bye to Alice and her family and headed over to the guest house where we would spend the night. It was a large, beautiful old English style house that was built probably at least a hundred years ago by some of the first British settlers/colonizers, and the house was still being lived in and maintained by the 3rd generation descendants of these original British settlers. They had sold most of their land and had turned the estate into a place where tourists could come and learn about the process of tea harvesting and production, as well as about the history of the area (as seen from the perspective of the British settlers). It was in many ways wonderful to be at such a beautiful old home and to have delicious food and all the comforts of Western life that I grow to miss here sometimes. But having just left Alice's home, I also felt very uneasy about the whole situation. The conversation eventually turned to the fact that violence and car-jackings of white people was on the rise in the area, and as I listened I just thought to myself, "man, ya think?! what took so long?!" This community of white farm owners lives in the midst of pretty serious poverty on land that was taken by their ancestors from the ancestors of the Kenyans living around them and working for them, and the people that they pay to pick their tea don't even make enough money to feed their families well year-round. It is no wonder that violence is finally occurring in the midst of this long-standing tension.

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 England and the Netherlands that owns over four hundred brands of food and hygiene products. Dove soap, Ben and Jerry's ice cream, Ragu pasta sauce, and Lipton tea are just a few of their brands that are common to me as an American (read up about them on Wikipedia if you are interested, that is where I learned this basic information). So seeing this sign, and putting it together with Alice and the descendants of the British colonial settlers that still controlled most of the land, I began to feel pretty uncomfortable. It was as if I was seeing this clear example of racism, colonialism, and the exploitation of multi-national corporations all coming together in this one place.

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 Alice such a low wage that she can't even make sure that her kids are well fed and able to attend school. Also in Unilever's defense, according to their website and other sources they are actually an industry leader in trying to improve the environmental and social standards of their tea suppliers. These efforts do not seem to have yet found their way to Alice, but according to Unilever, by 2015 all of their tea suppliers will be certified by the Rainforest Action Alliance to meet high social and environmental standards. So while it was tempting for me to jump to the hasty conclusion that Unilever was oppressing these workers for the sake of their bottom line, this would be a false and oversimplified conclusion.

Having lived in Tanzania for over six months now, I have observed that a major problem here is a lack of jobs. People are poor and there are no jobs to be had, especially in the rural areas, except for subsistence farming. And this situation cannot easily be blamed on any outsiders, corporate or otherwise; it is just the way it is. There is no obvious oppression or exploitation that is keeping the people down; there is just a general lack of economic activity and a very low availability of jobs. So in some ways Alice in Kenya picking tea for $3.50 per day is better off than many Tanzanians; at least she has a job. This is a difficult reality for me to get my head around--especially when you step back and take a look at the global picture of the system of trade that Alice is involved in and the massive wealth that this system is producing for some--but it seems to be the case.

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 Alice’s situation, it seems to me that a number of possible answers could be given. Is it the plantation owner who takes an inordinately large profit before passing the tea up the supply chain? Is it Unilever because they set the price at which they will pay the middle-man for his tea, thus forcing him to skimp on his wages to his workers so that he can make even a reasonable profit? Is it the consumer in North America or wherever else Lipton tea is sold who is only willing to pay a pittance of his or her income to buy tea, so that Unilever is forced by the demands of the consumer to keep its costs so low that Alice can't make a decent wage? Is it the shareholders of Unilever who demand (implicitly in the act of purchasing stock) that Unilever do whatever necessary within the law to give them as high a return on their investment as possible? Or is it the combination of all of these factors working together? (and undoubtedly others that I haven't thought of or mentioned)

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 Alice to be paid so poorly is far more complicated than these simple conclusions. Although I think that any of the various groups of people whom I mentioned could take action to intervene on Alice's behalf, the most potent power is held by the consumer.

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 Alice is better off than she would be without her job picking tea, the fact remains that she is not being paid enough to feed and educate her children. I think as Christians we need to begin to think about standards other than the immutable laws of supply and demand for labor to decide what is a fair wage to pay people involved in producing the products that we buy. To pay Alice just enough so that she is better off than she would be without the job you are providing is really to take advantage of her desperateness. And sadly, maddeningly, this to my understanding is what the global system of trade that provides the world’s wealthy (i.e. me and you) with such an abundance of cheap products is founded upon. To pay extra for fair trade tea, coffee, or whatever else is being sold these days under a fair trade system, is to put your money where your mouth is in saying that you care about the least of these, the Alice's of the world. It is to confess that as a Christian (or even just as a caring human being), your standards for what the people involved in bringing you your products should be paid are not determined simply by what you can get away with. Millions of people are desperately poor, and I think that providing them with jobs is the best way to bring them out of poverty, but we as consumers need to use our power to ensure that we are buying products from companies which pay people a livable wage rather than taking advantage of and profiting from their desperateness.

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 Alice's of the world isn't easy. Of course she can be helped by our charity and hand-outs in the short term, but this is not a sustainable solution, and it does not provide her with a due measure of dignity. It also turns out that in a globalized economy our actions as economic agents are more ethically complicated than they have ever been, and than in most cases we would care to recognize. But helping Alice demands that we take an interest in how our purchases and investments either capitalize on her destitute state or serve to empower her and lift her out of poverty.

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