So, DfID paid London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) more than $1 million to answer a pretty important question: Whether or not Fairtrade certification improves growers’ lives. As has shown up in the media (see here and here) and around the development blogosphere (here), the headline finding of the report was unexpected: wage workers on Fairtrade-certified sites made less than those working on regular farms. Admittedly, this is a pretty shocking finding, as it undermines the basic premise of Fairtrade.

Edit 12 June: As Matt Collin notes in a comment below, this reading of the study is flawed, as it was not set up to capture the wage effects of Fairtrade. There were no baselines, and without baselines it is impossible to tell if there were improvements in Fairtrade sites – in short, the differences seen in the report could just be pre-existing differences, not a failure of Fairtrade. See the CGDev blog post on this here. So the press’ reading of this report is pretty problematic.

At the same time, this whole discussion completely misses the point. Fairtrade doesn’t work as a development tool because, in the end, Fairtrade does absolutely nothing to address the structural inequalities faced by those in the primary sector of the global economy relative to basically everyone else. Paying an African farmer a higher wage/better price means they are now a slightly wealthier farmer. They are still exposed to environmental shocks like drought and flooding, still tied to shocks and trends in global commodities markets over which they have almost no leverage at all, often still producing commodities (like coffee and cocoa) for which demand is very, very elastic, and in the end still living in states without safety nets to help them weather these economic and environmental shocks. Yes, I think African farmers are stunningly resilient, intelligent people (I write about this a lot). But the convergence of the challenges I just listed means that most farmers in the Global South are addressing one or more of them almost all the time, and the cost of managing these challenges is high (both in terms of hedging and coping). Incremental changes in agricultural incomes will be absorbed, by and large, by these costs – this is not a transformative development pathway.

So why is everyone freaking out at the $1 million dollar finding – even if that finding misrepresents the actual findings of the report? Because it brutally rips the Fairtrade band-aid off the global economy, and strips away any feeling of “doing our part” from those who purchase Fairtrade products. But of course, those of us who purchase Fairtrade products were never doing our part. If anything, we were allowing the shiny idea of better incomes and prices to obscure the structural problems that would always limit the impact of Fairtrade in the lives of the poor.