Tale of Two Countries – Haiti and the US in Matthew’s Aftermath

hurricaneAfter spending  two days in our home with windows covered with plywood, no electricity, little cell service and no outside news other than an occasional text I had a lot of time to reflect.  Earlier in the week we’d heard stories of the effects of Hurricane Matthew on Haiti and thankfully heard from the artisans that they were safe but had family in hard hit areas.  As we boarded up our home with plywood that was cut for each window and safely stored in our garage for just this purpose, we heard that the death toll in Haiti was 100 but expected to rise.  As we charged our cell phones, saved up ice from our ice-maker, gassed up both of our cars, bought food — that we’d still be able to cook on our gas stove– red wine,  and a few bottles of water in case our whole-house filter didn’t work, we saw the death toll rise to 264.

When we finally manually lifted our electric garage door and found a large percentage of a 100-year-old cedar tree cracked and blocking our exit and another large percentage of the tree leaning against our roof, we knew that some tree contractor from another part of the state would knock on our door, offer to cut it up, and charge a hefty fee — it wasn’t our first rodeo, we’d lived through a similar situation in 2004. With what little cell power I had left, I put a call in to the insurance company to view the small amount of roof damage.

The black out on news was in a way a relief.  No politics, no business, no commitments.  When power was restored it was information overload.  It was then we heard about Haiti. More than 1000 people dead, bodies buried in mass graves, the spread of cholera rampant and the very real fear of famine.  Haiti is less than a 2 hour plane ride and just over 700 miles to Miami.  We felt guilty for our few days of respite when we thought very little about people in a country with whom we shared a hurricane.

The last line of the Global Crafts mission statement is “help improve the lives of some of the people with whom we share this planet.”  When Haiti was struck by an earthquake, we placed orders and paid advances with no expectation of delivery of products in the near future or possibly even at all.  We bought pieces that artisans could salvage from their businesses.  But to our surprise, the planes that were taking aid to Haiti were filled with metalwork on the return trips to Miami.  Our bi-monthly orders had changed to weekly and we were selling receiving deliveries three weeks after the ground finally stopped shaking.

Our email conversations with the artisans after Hurricane Matthew are the same as they were after the earthquake.  When we asked how we could help, they said, “Please give us orders.”  In a country that has had sustainable trade relationships crumble under political turmoil, failing infrastructure and lower worldwide labor costs, the artisans find fair trade relationships invaluable and the return to normalcy crucial to their survival.

There has been a lot of talk about broadening the definition of fair trade to include marginalized producer groups in the US and Canada, because they follow fair trade principles.  This could be an organization that works with refugees to make handicrafts, an inner-city women’s group that produces soaps, or a marginalized farmer’s co-op.  While I have always contended that fair trade is an attempt to level the playing ground for producers and farmers in the “Global South,” I struggled to justify what harm it would do to allow these organizations that do good work and produce products to be a part of our trade organization.   It’s not like a light went on when the 120 mph winds hit my house but the original mission of fair trade was reaffirmed. And this is where that word “fair” really means something. I cannot see any way in which producers from an organization in the Global North would be subject to the lack of infrastructure, humanitarian support, and just basic needs that Global South producers experience daily.  Introducing products as “fair trade” that are produced or grown in the US could compete directly with those made or grown in the Global South.  And while organizations in the Global North may be subject to higher wage requirements and administration costs, there is no need to consider import and tariff costs and long shipping times to get the products to market.

Don’t get me wrong, retail outlets need to make intelligent buying decisions based on what sells and if a US-based organization  makes something that is important for their market, by all means, carry it.  But we at Global Crafts make a clear distinction between the poverty of the Global South and the poverty of North America, both of which need solutions but are very different.  I saw a meme on social media just yesterday that went something like, when life sucks remember your life is what 75% of the worlds population dream of. For us Fair Trade will remain a movement to solve Global South poverty.  Unlike infrastructure, stable political environments, and Mother Nature, not competing with Global South producers for market-share with US products is the one thing on which fair trade producers have been able to depend and we hope the Fair Trade movement continues to follow this principal.

Renice co-founded Global Crafts in 2002 with her husband Kevin Ward after settling in Florida after 3 years in Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer. Creating a Fair Trade business that married her passion for artisan-made pieces and years of experience in IT finally enabled Renice to find her perfect career.

2 thoughts on “Tale of Two Countries – Haiti and the US in Matthew’s Aftermath

  • Renice,
    I think this thoughtful reflection is a very important piece in the discussion. Thank you for continuing to be real, compassionate and measured in your words. The Fair Trade movement benefits greatly from your insight.

  • Thank you, Renice. I’m in Southeastern Europe for several weeks, learning and seeing some handmade work. But the prices are higher than similar embroidery work in Global South. It’s truly beautiful work, but if you think about who needs help the most, it’s not even here in Macedonia, Albania, or Kosovo.

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