We have all heard the old adage “give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” Perhaps a better adage for the world of fair trade would be “buy fish from a man for a fair price, he eats for a year; show him how to craft a better net, he eats for a lifetime.” Possibly not as catchy…but it’s a good illustration of one of the important principles of fair trade — capacity building.
In an ideal world, fair trade handicraft buyers work with artisan groups, giving them the opportunity to build their businesses until they are no longer small, marginalized producers, but successful business men and women. This is another way in which the fair trade model turns traditional purchasing on its head. Instead of trading on exploiting producers who have little leverage and will take whatever they can get, fair trade purchasing is founded on the belief that the people whose goods we buy deserve a living wage, and that their success is our success.
There are many ways of implementing capacity building. Some of the ways Unique Batik supports artisans have already been mentioned in previous posts, including our work funding scholarships for children in Guatemala, the nutritional program we support for mothers and infants, and the product design and development we provide for all of our producers. As part of our business model, we work with our artisan partners to set goals, dialoguing with them to determine ways in which they hope to improve their businesses. Since fair trade is about a relationship of mutual respect and trust, it’s crucial that capacity building is based on that kind of dialogue, not imposing our ideas, but offering guidance when needed and supporting their plans for growth.
Education is a high priority for Unique Batik. There are few things that can impact a life and change its course like education. It’s important that the children of all of our producers get the opportunity for education that many of their parents were unable to receive. In reading any of our artisan profiles, it’s clear to see that educating their children is a priority, and that the income provided through fair trade, and the scholarships and help with teacher’s salaries Unique Batik offers are a valuable part of our fair trade relationship.
But education doesn’t have to stop outside of a formal education. We are also educating artisans about better business practices, such as organization and management skills; this kind of learning benefits them not only in their dealings with Unique Batik, but with any other purchasers with whom they deal. Sometimes developing their businesses can include skills most of us in North America take for granted, such as creating and using an email account, which is a great step in opening up new markets for small producers in developing countries.
Whether it is a small step forward, or a huge leap, as fair trade partners, our goal is to be there next to the artisans with whom we work, encouraging, helping, and providing the resources they need to reach their goals. Capacity building is not a dry principle on a list — it’s building a future. And that’s an exciting thing to do.