Kids Need Fair Trade… In Order to Afford School

In recognition of this year’s World Fair Trade Day, May 12, Carolyn Barker, a fellow board member and volunteer, penned the following opinion piece based on Kitty’s experience from her recent Learning Tour to Africa. It is a thoughtful reflection about the tangible impact of fair trade on kids in Kenya. This year’s WFT Day theme is “Kids Need Fair Trade.”

Carolyn is currently completing a dual degree Master’s program in Latin American Studies and Public Affairs at the University of Texas Austin. She graduates later this month.

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In a small schoolhouse on the edge of Kibera, one of Kenya’s most impoverished slums, sits a group of eager elementary school students. The room is so packed that many are sharing desks. Their faces are beaming with pride as they pull out their notebooks. In a country where less than half of students will graduate from high school, the future of these children may seem grim. Yet, in this school, there is a glimmer of hope. The students here receive a free lunch every day, and they don’t have to wear a uniform, which is required in most other schools. For thousands of children in Kenya, the cost of a uniform alone can close the door to an education.

This story may seem far removed from the lives we lead in Austin, but in a globalized world, we are more connected to the children in places like Kibera than we ever have been before. Truth be told, the school wouldn’t exist if not for the vision of people living thousands of miles away from each other. This vision is part of the Fair Trade movement, which promotes an alternative approach to the conventional system of international trade that tends to favors profits over meeting basic human needs. By creating market opportunities for economically disadvantaged farmers and artisans to sell their products at a fair price, Fair Trade seeks to reduce poverty and improve sustainable development. It is also a way of thinking about the economic footprint we each choose to leave in the world.

But Fair Trade is more than the colorful basket from Kenya that you bought your mother for Mother’s Day or the coffee you drink with the nice label on it, promising you that a farmer in Mexico or Tanzania has been paid a reasonable price for his coffee beans. In the case of the school in Kenya, it also means that 160 more students are getting an education that was closed off to them just a few years ago. Without the investment of the Undugu Society, a fair trade organization based in Kenya, the school would never have opened its doors. The Undugu Society employs disabled people throughout Kenya to make beautiful handicrafts, which are sold in the United States and Europe. Part of the proceeds from their sales is returned to poor urban communities in the form of micro-credit loans, job training centers and schools like the one in Kibera. Undugu is true to its name, which means solidarity in Swahili. Their solidarity stretches beyond Kenya’s borders in the form of Fair Trade to countries and cities thousands of miles away—and even into Austin, where Undugu’s sculptures are sold. The school in Kibera is one of the thousands of examples of the opportunities that Fair Trade opens up for education, health and employment throughout the developing world.

Saturday, May 12 is World Fair Trade Day, and this year’s theme is “Kids Need Fair Trade.” The image of the schoolhouse in Kibera shows just how deep this message runs. But it is just one part of the story. Fair Trade can help to keep millions of children around the world out of child labor. It can also help their families send them to school every day and put food on the table at night. Fair Trade will not solve these problems on its own, but it can at least start to heal the wounds of an economic system that has disfavored the poor for far too long.