The treatment of the just-ended “Fair Trade Fortnight” on the Children’s BBC website could do with one or two words of dissent from the chorus of approval. The treatment of trade issues as a whole on the CBBC website is one long hymn of praise to the anti-globalisation movement.
This piece, “What is Fair Trade?” presents the “fair trade” initiative as an unquestioned good. Children would never guess that there are respectable arguments against the project: for instance that by disguising price signals it encourages African farmers to ride for a fall. The farmers get a false impression that coffee or chocolate is a safe bet when this isn’t true. This post from the Adam Smith Institute blog by Alex Singleton has more. Incidentally, that post is so straightforwardly written that it could be understood by a young audience. It gives an impression of the sort of pro- free trade arguments that the BBC could put on its children’s website to balance the anti-free trade arguments it does provide – if the BBC were so minded, which it isn’t.
I don’t want to be too critical of the young authors of this report, “Think twice when you buy a chocolate bar.” Encouraging children to think and write about current affairs is a good thing, and it is a rare thirteen year old that knows anything whatsoever about economics (although, come to think of it, the CBBC website does nothing to alleviate the general ignorance when it could do so quite easily). Still, a responsible grown-up should have been found to either edit out or add a correction to the piece of misinformation with which Imogen and Juliette conclude their report:
When you eat non-Fairtrade chocolate, it may have come from a cocoa farm where they use slaves.
Were the authors older I would call that scaremongering. Modern chattel slavery is a phenomenon of marginal, traditional and isolated societies. It is not an issue in the more developed and cash-based African economies that produce chocolate and coffee for Western consumers. Furthermore the proportion of farmers participating in “fair trade” schemes is tiny; to suggest to children that to buy non-fair trade chocolate, i.e. the vast majority of the chocolate on sale, is to be guilty of abetting slavery is irresponsible. I don’t blame Imogen and Juliette for not knowing this. I do blame their BBC editors.
The next page I looked at in the four-page CBBC section on trade issues is called “Why do some people protest?” There isn’t a page presenting any arguments against the protestors.
I personally am not a big fan of the World Trade Organisation, or of any trans-national bureacracy. But even I wonder why this piece “What is the World Trade Organisation?” gives the first half of the page to an Orwellian-sounding description of the WTO’s supposedly awesome power, the second half to yet another list of reasons why some people protest against it, and no space at all to its defenders. Nor was there a link to the WTO website to let viewers see how the organisation itself defends its existence.
In this page, “What are transnational corporations?” we finally had half a sentence suggesting that this trade stuff might be useful sometimes:
Such companies can provide work and enrich a country’s economy – or some say they can exploit the workers with low pay and destroy the environment.
That little whisper of praise was of course instantly quashed by an anti-globo riposte.
The two links provided are to Fairtrade itself and a body affiliated to Oxfam called Make Trade Fair. As I mentioned above, there were no links to the WTO itself or to any robustly pro-trade organisation. It is a measure of how biased CBBC’s approach is that Make Trade Fair looks pro-trade in comparison. At least it acknowledges that trade can lift countries out of poverty.
Trade is basically good. Countries that trade a lot get rich. Countries that do not trade stay poor. Trade happens because both sellers and buyers want it to happen. You would never guess from the CBBC treatment of the subject that these opinions are held explicitly by most economists and politicial leaders of the democratic right and left and implicitly by the billions of people who engage in international trade.
Rather the CBBC treatment is dominated by the views of a loud and ignorant minority.