Defining fairness: the experiences of a Richard Sandbrook scholar at IIED

Guest blog by
20 September 2011

My being at IIED is rather fortuitous. I completely missed the first advertisement to apply for this position when it went round on the college mailing list, but luckily I was saved when the deadline for applications was pushed back a week to accommodate late applicants. I was one of those late applicants. In the space of a few short weeks I was notified that I had been shortlisted and that I was invited to interview for the Richard Sandbrook Scholarship. I was just thrilled to have been offered an interview so you can imagine my joy when I was told hours later that I had been selected for the position.

"Keep it under your hat", said Michael Moyo Moyo, liaison at Exeter College, Oxford. "It’s not official yet."

I replied, "Of course, but do you mind if I phone my mum?!"

And that’s really where it all began. Two months on and I’m into my fourth week at IIED. The adjustment from student life has not been hard to take at all. The people within the organisation have been absolutely fantastic in welcoming me to IIED and making me feel comfortable. I think the most stressful moments in the entire process so far have been trying to remember everyone’s names and my first day when I came in thinking I was slightly underdressed.

I soon realised that everyone at IIED is really relaxed. However, despite the laid- back approach to dress code there is certainly no relaxing taking place on the work front.
I was amazed to find that certain projects had been ear-marked for me based on earlier conversations with Steve Bass and Nick Greenwood from IIED. I was slightly unnerved by the fact that I had very little experience in the subjects that I would be working on, especially when I looked at the other interns who were all finishing dissertations in very relevant fields. The pressure was on. But after exploring my proposed project for my time at IIED I soon realised that it was not beyond me.

My terms of reference for my time at IIED outlines the work I will be doing over the next month and a half. Essentially I will be focusing on putting together a ‘State of Knowledge’ on fairness. This means providing a conceptual overview of fairness from the different perspectives of different disciplines.

Delving slightly deeper I will then look at certain policy areas:

  • agricultural value chains, a term which refers to a range of activities that are required to bring agricultural produce from its planting through the different phases of growth to delivery to consumers and its disposal after use
  • Payment for Ecosystem Services, which covers any payments to people or groups maintaining natural resources which in turn benefit others
  • REDD, which are financing mechanisms that will compensate developing countries for actions that prevent forest loss or degradation, conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of carbon stocks
  • and the trade- offs between fairness and policy objectives – trying to ensure that fairness standards are upheld while trying to achieve a high level of economic efficiency.

Fairness means different things to different people

Essentially, fairness is a term and concept that people use every day in different fields. As you might expect, the term comes to mean different things to different people in different contexts. However, academically speaking, the variation in interpretations of this concept and the terms associated with it are troubling and problematic. Which is exactly why I have been tasked with doing a review of fairness, to provide a clear summary of the different perspectives and approaches to the subject.

While this may sound quite straightforward, I have had trouble really getting to grips with what exactly is required of me. I suppose that unlike University, here I am required to formulate my own ideas and strategies for tackling research without waiting for someone to give me the direction, time line and due date. Initially the lack of boundaries caused some problems for me but more and more I am starting how to impose my own structure and strategy for getting the work done.

However, I find I am really struggling to come to grips with the theory that I meant to be deconstructing. I enjoy working things into neat patterns, especially when I am being asked to deconstruct a concept into its various components across different disciplines, so I have found it hard dealing with the nebulous concept of fairness. But it’s not all been hard work. Over the last two weeks the interns have started to mix more and more. It’s been great going for lunch and drinks after work with both staff and interns. Using a rough outline to guide my last few weeks at IIED I plan to take the following steps towards producing a strong literature review on fairness. To start, I am going to breakdown the various theories on fairness into their respective disciplines in order to compare them. Having done that I will be able to identify and reconcile the disparities between the terms used in fairness across disciplines. Equity, for example, is an important term used in fairness literature and language, yet its meaning and importance changes across disciplines.

I hope that my literature review will help me to reach the next step, which is to draw together the various fairness instruments used in different policy areas. To do this I will primarily focus on agricultural value chains, and . identifying the different approaches to fairness in three main categories related to the topic:

  • interventions to promote small holder access to agriculture value chains
  • certification of agricultural produce
  • contract farming, which refers to agricultural production carried out according to an agreement between a buyer and farmers. Typically, the farmer agrees to provide certain quantities of produce, meeting the standards and delivery schedule set by the purchaser. In turn, the buyer commits to purchase the product, often at a pre-determined price.

Fairness is often cited as a critical issue at various stages in agricultural value chains, yet I have found very little literature that focuses on evaluating fairness exclusively. Certainly, certification schemes such as fair-trade and organic farming are very much concerned with fairness, but in no argument, either for or against, do researchers define fairness standards or criteria that are practical, and, more importantly, measurable.

For example, aggressive arguments against Fairtrade’s ‘fairness’ often focus on the shortcomings of the scheme, such as whether it accomplishes of social upliftment and increased income to rural farmers., However the issue of fairness is seldom addressed, and when authors describe the failures of fairness they are describing them in economic and development terms.

Criteria to measure fairness

What I think would be beneficial would be to generate measures of fairness perceptions or sets of fairness criteria that are applicable all along the Fairtrade value chain.

Take for instance the BioTrade verification framework. One of the core principles laid out in the framework is ‘Fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from the use of biodiversity’. Like organic agriculture, this explicitly places fairness as a fundamental standard which everyone in the supply chain should be accountable to. However, what is lacking in other certification schemes are a clear set of criteria that can be applied to any supply chain in any country, indicating whether or not the standard of fairness is being reached. However, in BioTrade a set of criteria is available with minimum indicators that are easily assessed by all participants.

This could be an important next step.

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