I’ve started reading Conor Woodman’s recent book, Unfair Trade. Once finished, I’ll post a full review, however it’s already given me some food for thought.
In the first chapter, Conor explains the perils of lobster diving as practised near Bilwi, Nicaragua. The locals dive many times per day in total ignorance of the risk brought about by such frequent decompressions.
Lobster trapping would be a less hazardous alternative but for the locals, the cost of entry is out of their league (about $1,500: 50 traps at $25-30 a piece).
The hapless divers tried to strike to improve their conditions but their customer, an intermediary food processing company, stared them down. The only other lever that can be pulled are the CSR commitments of the companies at the other end of the supply chain, such as Red Lobster restaurants. Even assuming that a ban on dive-caught lobster is helpful, Conor quickly illustrates how it is impossible to know the origin of any particular lobster and no one has set up any serious form of monitoring.
Just when it seemed like a lost cause, enter microfinance.
Yes it will certainly be better if, in the medium-term, the divers can secure some enforceable right to collective bargaining however if you want to assist people get out of the poverty trap you can do so today by making a loan through Grameen Foundation, Kiva or a similar organisation. It makes the difference between the likes of Conor’s guide, Wally, having some kind of self-determination and being stuck in a vicious cycle of low wages and poor equipment.
The only criticism I’ve heard of microlending is one study which found that people who received funds easily were less inclined to take care of it. I’m not convinced that this is a widespread issue though.
You won’t see the labour movement promoting this as a solution, which is fair enough since collective bargaining would give the Miskitos the leverage to improve their lot on a widespread basis. However you have to be realistic about how attainable that is in Nicaragua in its present state of economic development. In the meantime, concerned individuals can at least “do something” to give real assistance.