Rebuild Better: How to Support Farmers and Workers Through the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond

By Catherine David, Head of Commercial Relationships, Fairtrade Foundation

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for nations to ensure that the recovery plan for the Covid 19 crisis creates a fairer, more sustainable world, with six green ambitions at the heart of his proposed strategy. With nation states jostling up against each other it’s unclear how the new power dynamics will look once the dust has settled, and what the appetite or potential might be for this kind of unprecedented shared effort.

It’s hard to predict what this crisis may have done to speed up the consolidation of China’s influence in the international development sector (and beyond), what kind of USA administration we’ll be left with at the end of it all, and what the future of multi-lateral intervention on the wicked problems of global poverty and the climate crisis will look like. Will we be galvanised into collective action, or further polarised into isolationist nation states?

The Covid-19 crisis has shown  the vulnerability of supply chains , as shelves are left bare of products, just-in-time logistics unable to cope with the rapid change in demand patterns as the UK public shops like it’s Christmas week.

What has been less well covered in the media is the plight of farmers and workers facing the double crisis of a new disease racing towards them, at the same time as their livelihoods crumble. In the UK around 50% of our food comes from overseas, with about 10-15% of this coming from the world’s poorest countries. Supporting these vulnerable farmers and workers is, therefore, not just a case of mitigating a humanitarian catastrophe, it also contributes to our food security.

The food security crisis in origin countries is likely to be a key part of the pandemic’s impact, with many people in the poorest countries already spending over half their income on food – the World Food programme warns of a looming crisis for these families and imported food becomes more expensive, and cash crops harder to export.

Fairtrade has long argued for the importance of fair value in the creation of resilient supply chains. Through Fairtrade farmers receive a fair price for their products and some additional investment in the form of the Fairtrade Premium. Farmers are able to invest in the longer term sustainability of their farms and communities, and develop greater resilience to shocks.

Fairtrade communities invest their Premium in projects that they decide are best for their own development – a pension scheme for coffee farmers in Colombia; income diversification for cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast (enabling individual farmers to buy chickens, grow tomatoes, or set up a small business like a shop or a hairdresser’s). The Fairtrade Premium enables them to create savings schemes, a ‘rainy day’ fund so that when things go wrong – illness in the family, the loss of a harvest – they have some way to survive, and are not forced to migrate to the cities. 

In the current COVID 19 crisis, Fairtrade farmer organisations are putting that additional investment to good use – every day we are hearing reports of Fairtrade Premium being used to purchase PPE and vital medicines. In the case of cocoa farmers in West Africa cash payments from the Fairtrade Premium have been a lifeline. But the need is far greater than the money available, and the funds they have so diligently saved up are running out.

The situation is desperate right now, but unless we ensure that the recovery from this crisis involves fairer prices being paid to farmers and workers on a longer term basis, we will be facing an ongoing crisis of poverty in our supply chains. It will be complicated to achieve this, as it always has been, but we should not let this complexity deter us from acting.

Businesses have led the way in the pandemic response with many supporting Fare Share to get food to the most vulnerable in the UK. We’ve seen Fairtrade partners like Bewley’s and Divine adapting their logistics to get food and treats to NHS workers on the frontline.

In the next phase, we are calling on businesses to support the most vulnerable people at the other end of their supply chains. We need to act fast to support farmers and workers through this crisis by providing emergency funding now. But we must not stop there – we should take this opportunity to build back better together for a fairer and more sustainable future. This must involve working together to fix the complex problems that have foxed us for so many years as a sustainability community, but with renewed vigour and focus. And it must involve treating our farmers, workers and their communities as partners in that endeavour, who deserve their seat at the table, their voice in the conversation, and their share of the value created in the supply chain.

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