The Market, Ideals, and International Volunteers: The Story and the Tensions Behind Fair Trade Learning

By Eric Hartman

Below are my comments as part of a plenary panel at the International Service-Learning Summit at Northwestern University last night. Called “Can ISL be a Fair Trade: Developing a Road Map for Higher Standards,” the panel also included Matthias Brown (Association of Clubs, Amizade Site Director, Petersfield, Jamaica),  Patrick Green (Loyola University Chicago), and Richard Kiely (Cornell University). The slides are available here. As always, your comments are most welcome.

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Good evening. Thank you for being here. And many thanks to Northwestern’s Center for Global Engagement for hosting – and thank you for your continuous demand for good and community-serving work at the nexus of global university-community partnerships.

I’ve worn the hats of the faculty members leading this work, the researchers publishing on this work, and the nonprofit directors and administrators supporting this work. So I know that no matter how you got here, you’re probably tired. I also know how deeply you want to do this work extremely well – and how many pressures you face that militate against that desire.

That’s why I’m here tonight to talk about a movement now afoot called Fair Trade Learning. The Fair Trade Learning ideal suggests a set of standards to advance more equitable exchange and partnership in a sector that is increasingly driven by consumers who tend to know little about global community development or community-based partnership principles. In a few minutes you’ll hear the story regarding how Fair Trade Learning as an applied ideal emerged from the rural community of Petersfield, Jamaica. It emerged from the Association of Clubs and a house mother collective there, but soon many of us in The United States and elsewhere around the world realized how much we needed this ideal too.

The first people in my little window on the world who really latched onto this concept were the staff members at Amizade Global Service-Learning, where I serve on the board of directors and several years ago served as Executive Director. The Amizade staff enthusiasm grew from the pressures they felt they faced. They felt pinched between, on the one side, organizational ethics and history – that required them to take the time and invest the resources to engage carefully and conscientiously in community-driven development. And on the other side they found themselves increasingly a small player in a growing sector that – as it grew – was suddenly part of a $173 billion dollar global tourism industry.

Slide1A market exploded around them. After years as one among several minor players in global university-community partnership, seemingly overnight, they became one rather minor example in a corporate-dominated sector catering to probably compassionate consumers who nonetheless were coming to the idea of doing good rather unprepared in any way other than having digested 15 – 20 years of some of our culture’s most harmful stereotypes about the developing world.

In very practical terms, this means that organizations that systematically invest in communities – and Amizade is one among several here tonight that do this well – are competing with corporations with marketing departments larger than the community-based organizations themselves. And these marketing departments sell the experience of having done good to people who understand themselves as good. It’s not that hard a sell. And it is typically supplemented with glossy photos, opportunities to go to beautiful places, and the clear allure of adventure.

This observation suggests two of my most basic points. The first basic point is that we are operating inside markets. We are a small part of a much larger social phenomenon or corporate sector, however you like to say it. International volunteering is hot. Mission trips, school trips, temple trips, family volunteer vacations – all of these things operate in a sector that often operates through similar or even the same organizations, makes a name for young Americans around the world, and shapes perceptions of you and your students long before you begin to shape your program. If this doesn’t worry you, it should.

But we are in the university. And our first impulse might be to better mind our own affairs. This is laudable, but I’d suggest pushing beyond our community for two reasons. One – there is some kind of expertise that brought you here. Perhaps you’re a public health person, a community development practitioner, or you have a strong background in development or policy studies. Perhaps it is just that you have experiential expertise with university-community engagement. Either way, you know that the nuance of these fields and this practice – and the human implications that extend from outsiders’ uninformed tinkering in others’ communities – are such that there is a moral imperative to set clear and just standards of practice. At the very least we might ameliorate the many harms that have come and might come from uninformed outsider interventions.

Second – the second reason I’d suggest we should be pushing beyond the community gathered here – is I suppose simply historical precedent. Privilege. Authority. Hegemony. These are often dirty words in our fields. But we have places within structures. Our university voices come with at least some opportunity for amplification. It’s our responsibility to look beyond our specific institutional relationships to help this whole cumbersome sector agree to a set of standards and to a strategy to communicate them with a larger public. Because it is the large public that is engaging in these experiences – and there is currently very little in the way of shorthand resources to help consumers understand how to engage responsibly.

Another insight arguably stemming from understanding our roles within markets is that if we can alter consumer perceptions of what counts as quality, we may move consumer behavior toward quality. This is one of the lessons behind sustainable forestry or fair trade coffee and clothing. Perhaps part of communicating quality is sharing how we ourselves make choices about how contractors and subcontractors will be rewarded at locations throughout this rather shockingly expensive educational intervention called global service-learning. That is, our contracting choices determine whether housing costs go to a rotating group of community families or are captured by a dormitory or hostel that is actually owned by a tour company based in New York or London. They determine whether community staff members are justly remunerated, or whether experts in the local community, from the local community, are always a regular part of site direction, leadership, education, and program remuneration. We are in a position to move around fairly vast sums as part of our programming. That privilege can systematically support community development through deliberate local sourcing.

Years ago, for example, the house mother cooperative in Amizade’s partner community of Petersfield pushed me, as Executive Director at the time, to raise home stay rates. I was worried those rates were already too high. But we discussed the risks and the opportunity and raised them. Since that time, the house mothers have always set their own rates. It’s participatory budgeting in a cooperative and community-based model of village tourism that sprang from the community itself.

Air travel is still expensive and it will always draw a significant portion of our costs, but the difference between making standard corporate decisions in this area and making community-sourcing decisions instead translates quite clearly. The UN World Tourism Organization estimates that, on average, only 5% of tourism dollars stay in communities visited in the global south. In Amizade’s Jamaica partnership, nearly 70% of funds stay in Petersfield – and a significant part of the remaining balance is actually for airfare.

The Fair Trade Learning Standards as they’ve developed are a few pages long. I’m not going to read them to you now, but as a way of concise summary, they suggest 8 things, each being far more robust than I can quickly summarize here, but nonetheless, Fair Trade Learning suggests:

  1. Explicit dual purposes in our work, serving community and serving students simultaneously, and explicitly not privileging students over community
  2. Community voice and direction – at every step in the process
  3. Institutional commitment and partnership sustainability – and scholarshipping multidirectional exchange
  4. Transparency, specifically in respect to economic relationships and transactions
  5. Environmental Sustainability and Footprint Reduction
  6. Economic Sustainability in terms of effort to manage funding incursions in the receiving community and fund development at the university in a manner that takes a long view of the relationships involved
  7. Deliberate diversity, intercultural contact, and reflection to systematically encourage intercultural learning and development among participants and community partners
  8. Global community building – in the sense that we keep one eye always on the question of how this work pushes us into better relationships around the world; how our civil society networks grow into community; how our efforts abroad should inform our actions at home

I have briefly shared how the original standards set emerged emerged from Jamaica and then grew on the US side because of a concern regarding our positions within a growing market and suggested that we have a moral imperative and responsibility – as experts – to develop and share standards. As Amizade began to share some of this language I rather rapidly found myself connecting with some very serious thinkers and strategic actors advancing this kind of work. So the standard set we have heavily reflects some of the original work of Richard Slimbach, who has been doing this work from Azusa Pacific University for several decades. It also has benefitted from consideration and feedback from Mireille Cronin-Mather, of the Foundation for Sustainable Development, who – like Amizade, has proceeded to share this standards set with a growing set of global community partners, and they in turn have provided additional feedback. As Fair Trade Learning has emerged as an ideal, feedback has come anonymously and explicitly from scores of people. And if I haven’t mentioned you personally it is only because so so many people have contributed to this point. And of course we don’t all agree all of the time.

Several questions have arisen in the two or three years since this concept first emerged and we started dialoguing about it at conferences, professional association meetings, and with community members. Your feedback on all of these questions is enthusiastically sought, both here in person and on the website I manage, criticalservicelearning.org, where the Fair Trade Learning standards document is currently posted to invite critique and feedback.

Tension 1, Voice and Authority: Should we have standards or guidelines? Should the voice be prescriptive or suggestive? Should the document share statements or questions?

Tension 2, Transparency: Amizade has been enthusiastic, to say the least, in proposing budgetary transparency as a component of Fair Trade Learning. My experience working with professionals across many sectors suggests that transparency is as much an American Value as apple pie – We at least all say we support it – and in that way it is supported and enforced at least as much as the American Value of excellent public education, which is to say spottily and shoddily and as long as it doesn’t mess with power holders’ privilege. Amizade shares budgets. When community partners or university administrators ask, they’re shared. This is a commitment that I understand makes many administrators and faculty members uneasy.

Tension 3, Working among Experts or Working with a Growing Community of Interest: I have met a number of faculty members who have provided formal and informal feedback to the effect of – this all seems great, but we’re just getting started. Or, this is all wonderfully idealistic, but we lack the capacity to engage with all of it right now, and there is some chance that these standards could negate the possibility of good work in favor of a kind of ideal work that seems to happen rather rarely if ever.

Related, what we might call Tension 3b, Expert desire to engage definitional debates: We could talk for the rest of the evening, and we could do so insightfully and interestingly, about what community means and about what development means. These are important questions. Who gets to claim community voice? When, if ever, might development ideals reasonably come from outside? Yet if these standards are going to serve not only to differentiate quality in global engagement programming, but also to communicate with the growing populace that is engaging in this kind of work, we must be able to agree to enough terminology to talk – and that terminology cannot be so specific that it is not accessible to the people who are driving the purchasing side of these kinds of experiences.

Or so one might argue. This leads to Tension 4, Wise Embrace or Wise Rejection of the Role of the Market in our Interactions. I suppose in this debate I’ve already shown my own personal cards. That is, I’ve shared that I see us as operating inside markets. If that’s right, then the question becomes how to transform the market to better serve communities. One individual who has provided feedback on the standards said she appreciated that the title clearly acknowledged, perhaps even embraced, the position that this work occupies within markets and consumer preferences. And another respondent recently shared that, and I’m quoting here: “I’d like to respectfully suggest that in addition to discussing the core principles and standards, that we might also discuss the proposed title of these standards.  “Fair Trade Learning” seems to be only one term in a sea of different terms addressing similar concepts; “learning service”, “justice-based service learning”, “critical service learning” to name a few. I’d like to propose a brainstorming session to talk about a name for the standards that encompasses a broad spectrum of practitioner’s experiences and a term that sounds less about commodification or business transactions and more about building authentic, human relationships.”  Indeed, so therein lies tension 4.

Tension 5, Have Standards, Be Dynamic, and Be Inclusive: This is the challenge of living, I suppose. We want to be inclusive, we want to grow and change and respond to lessons learned through experience and reflection – and we also want to have clear standards of excellence. We want to be able to say what is quality and what is not. So how can we craft standards that are clearly open to continuous learning yet hold tightly to high expectations where those expectations matter most?

I hope we dive more deeply into dialogue on best practices for application of the ideals that should guide our practice during the next two days. As I’ve said it’s my impression that we largely operate inside markets, which is not intended as a flag of surrender to the crassest impulses of market forces, not at all. It’s a call to better educate the people who individually fund these efforts to do good work across cultures around the world. We are sitting in positions where we may be able to shape and influence dialogue – and help young people and their parents make decisions that advance the goals they wish to serve through their service experiences. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it should be done; just because the ideas are idealistic doesn’t mean they can’t be achieved. It may be a quixotic fight, but it’s a challenge worth engaging. My friend from Jamaica – whose example has taught me a great deal about the often slow yet nonetheless steady beat of community-driven development – will now share with us how these kinds of ideals have shaped experience in his community of Petersfield.

 

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