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Jem Bendell
Adjunct Associate Professor,
Griffith Business School, Australia

Founder, Lifeworth, Switzerland

Shilpa Shah |
Associate, Lifeworth

Tipping Frames: The Lifeworth Review of 2006
[ PDF: 2585kb | 54 pages ]

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That's just not fair!


In January the Just Change (India) Producer Company Ltd was launched in Tamil Nadu, India. The company is the brainchild of Stan and Mari Thekaekara, who have been working with the Adivasi ('original inhabitants' or tribal people) communities of the Nilgiri Hills in India since the 1980s. It is the latest step for Just Change, an organisation promoting alternative trading mechanisms that will benefit poor communities in both high- and low-income countries. 'We try to achieve this by directly linking poor communities and encouraging them to trade among themselves,' explained Stan Thekaekara to JCC.

Thekaekara found that, in spite of the successful leap from labourers to producers, the Adivasis he has worked with found they were catapulted from a local wage economy into a global market economy that is extremely vulnerable, due to the market forces determining the price of their produce. For instance, tea prices at the producer level have dropped to nearly half of what they were four years ago. 'It has become evident over the years that the strategy for poverty reduction based on the traditional approach of gaining control over assets can no longer, on its own, guarantee success,' explains Thekaekara, who is also a trustee of Oxfam GB and Visiting Fellow at Oxford University. 'We believe that lack of power and control in markets contributes significantly to poverty all over the globe.'

The launch of the company is the result of connection made in 1994 when the Thekaekaras spent a month in the UK researching community work. In the UK, Stan and Mari found large numbers of long-term unemployed people almost completely dependent on social welfare, living in pockets of extreme deprivation. In spite of government investments into these areas, the condition of these communities did not improve significantly. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) argued that the situation in these deprived areas of Britain is somewhat similar to those of the Adivasis in India, to the extent that, despite public investments, much of the money leaks out of the local economy into large national and global economies.37

The Thekaekaras also noticed that poor Britons like their tea, and pay a relatively high price. As the tribal groups in India grow tea, so they thought of making a direct link to the benefit of both poor communities, by establishing a co-operative of producers and consumers. Trading began with the help of the Matson Neighbourhood Project (MNP) in Gloucester, who were working with the residents of a council estate. The Adivasis of Gudalur send their tea directly to the residents of Matson, who package and sell it both to their own community and to other local customers such as the Council.

This initiative is prototyping a new way of doing business. By sharing the ownership of the value chain, and thereby spreading the risk along that chain, the consumers and producers involved are gaining greater control of their participation in the market economy. Producers can retain ownership over their product all along the market chain and can therefore benefit from the final retail value of the product. Consumers can work directly with producers to establish a price for the product that is based on direct communication and hopefully principles of equity, rather than fluctuating and speculative markets.

It is a prototype of a new approach to both business and social change. If communities across the globe could link up to trade directly with each other, they could form a social chain which could be a powerful force for economic, social and political change. 'People need to believe in themselves and in their capacity to take control over their own economy,' states the Just Change website.38 Their work recognises the problems and potential of disadvantaged people and communities no matter whether they live in hot or cold, rich or poor countries. As such it hints towards a new approach to international development work, as well as a different form of trade.

Three broad concepts of more responsible trade are emerging. 'Ethical trade' describes the work of large companies, such as those involved in the 'Ethical Trading Initiative', which focuses on improving workplace conditions, but does not yet address power relations and revenue distribution in value chains. 'Fairtrade' includes the same concern for better workplace conditions, but also addresses the buyer-supplier relationship, as described above. As the consumer is asked to pay a premium, there is an element of charity to fair trade. The Just Change initiative does not involve a premium. In fact, the prices paid by poor consumers can be lower than the market price, as savings are made through cutting out the middleman and the payment of surplus to distant shareholders. The principle is solidarity, not charity. As such, this small initiative suggests a new form of solidarity trading could emerge as a new paradigm for people interested in working on trade for social goals. We could call it 'Just Trade'. The power of naming it thus may arise by provoking us to question what we have hitherto assumed is either 'ethical' or 'fair' in the area of trade.

Just Change is the latest example of the forms of innovation possible as information and communication technologies spread further for cheaper. Business-to-business (B2B) and peer-to-peer (P2P) applications may become sideshows to new community-to-community (C2C) collaboration in shaping 'Globalisation 2.0' by flattening power hierarchies on our planet.39 Our global village may be creating itself a virtual village market. If successful, in the years to come the best tea in the West may be found on poor council estates, not high-class cafes.

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37 Bernie Ward and Julie Lewis, Plugging the Leaks (London: NEF, 2002; www.neweconomics.org/gen/z_sys_publicationdetail.aspx?pid=125).

38 www.justchangeindia.com/frames.asp?file=concept.htm&head=Concept

39 The concept of 'Globalisation 2.0' is referred to in T. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005).



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