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How should charities respond to criticism?

Socially conscious labels such Fairtrade must achieve their good intentions to hold water – but criticism should be constructive
Socially conscious labels such Fairtrade must achieve their good intentions to hold water – but criticism should be constructive

People can sometimes be very critical of charitable organisations and individuals for not doing enough or for doing things wrong. Stanley Ellerby-English looks at how criticism can be put to best effect.

There are a lot of reasons why people give money to charity. It could be because they have lost a loved one to a particular illness or because they were moved by a news article they saw. However, regardless of the particular impetus, most people give money to charity because they think it will make a difference. This belief is not only at the heart of charitable donations, but also relates to other sorts of socially conscious spending. For example, when people buy Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance products they are usually doing so because they hope it will make life better for the people producing them or for the environment.

In fact, research has shown that consumers are increasingly choosing certain products or services based on the social impact it has. Unsurprisingly, this is also changing the way that companies promote their products. Fairtrade logos can be found on everything from tea to t-shirts, and companies in many other sectors, such as energy and banking, are equally keen to promote their social credentials. This shift towards social consumption is incredibly important, but, as a recent study has shown, it may not always be having the positive impact that consumers desire.

A fair assessment?

All in a day's work – manning the stalls at Canchungo market in Guinea-Bissau
Because claims such as Fairtrade carry the promise
of social change, consumers must be able to see
the positive impact of their purchase

A study, which was published this week after five years of research, suggests that buying Fairtrade products may not have the social impact it is meant to. Fundamentally it suggests that wages for farm workers are often below average and the benefits of social programmes are not equally shared. This isn't the first piece of research to suggest that fair trade farming may not be as good at reducing poverty as is often assumed. For example, a past study of coffee producers found that the policies of fair trade organisations did basically nothing to help the poorest people involved in the industry.

These criticisms have important implications for the fair trade movement, but they are not the only ones to face stiff criticism of their work. For example, NGOs have recently been critical of the approaches adopted by DfID, the UK governments department for international development. The Guardian newspaper reports that though the pro-private sector approach may be having some positive impacts for the poor, it is not necessarily the most effective poverty reduction strategy. Similar criticisms have been levelled at other governments' approaches to aid, particularly Australia and Canada.

Be the best

It can seem harsh to criticise those who are achieving some positive results for not being good enough, but this is really the only way to assess and discuss their effectiveness. Whilst in the past a company selling coffee could have traded on the quality and price of their product alone, a Fairtrade logo carries with it the expectation of positive social change. Equally, government departments have a duty to ensure that tax money is being spent as effectively as possible, not least because those in charge may find themselves out of power if they don't. Charities have perhaps the most to prove, given that their existence is based solely upon making a difference. But, this often means that people feel uncomfortable about pointing out shortcomings.

It is certainly hard for anyone to hear that despite their good intentions they are not having the impact that they want. For example, Fairtrade has been critical of the report's findings. However, they and all other groups, should embrace criticism. No organisation is perfect and recognising problems is an essential first step to overcoming them. Equally, critics should be proactive in helping organisations identify solutions. It is all very well telling people that they are doing something wrong, but it is only the first step in helping them to become better. All organisations and individuals that hope to create beneficial social change should jump at the chance to have their work critiqued. Without it they may be unable to see the progress that they aim for.

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