Category Archives: Poverty and Wealth

Kieran Oberman – Killing and Rescuing: The Case for Revising Necessity

PTRG: 16 May 2018


Killing is justifiable if it is necessary.  If killing is unnecessary, it is unjustifiable and therefore wrong.  Then, a question is: When is killing necessary or unnecessary?  Oberman addresses this question in relation to the act of other-defence: When is killing someone necessary or unnecessary to defend others against death?  Continue reading

Prof Henry Shue – Climate Mitigation and Subsistence Protection

PTRG 13 Oct 2017

Photo: Yuki Iwaki

We are delighted to have invited Professor Henry Shue from Oxford University as the presenter for PTRG yesterday.  In the presented paper, Professor Shue critically reflects upon his earlier argument: that it is important to make a distinction between ‘subsistence emissions’ and ‘luxury emissions’, and that this distinction should be incorporated into climate policy intended to achieve mitigation.  ‘Subsistence emissions’ are emissions necessary for securing the basic right to subsistence, whereas ‘luxury emissions’ are those that exceed a minimally adequate level of emission.  According to Professor Shue, it is morally unacceptable to ask the poor to sacrifice subsistence emissions so that the affluent can maintain their luxury emissions.  Continue reading

Tim Hayward – Constituting Finance as a Global Public Good

PTRG 10 May 2017

Photo: Glenda Alvarez

Summary of the paper

The economic premises of the Western liberal democracies are unsustainable in the light of social justice and ecology.  This indicates the ‘necessity’ of conceiving of an alternative to the existing global economic institutions.  The global financial system, too, needs to be reorganised and reoriented.  But how?  Answering this question may indicate the ‘possibility’ of conceiving of alternative constitutional arrangements concerning global finance.  Continue reading

Tim Hayward – A Global Right of Water

Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 27 Jan 2016

Photo: United Nations

Photo: United Nations

This week’s PTRG saw Professor Tim Hayward present his paper ‘A Global Right of Water’.  In the paper, Tim answered several important questions such as: whether a right regarding safe and clean water is a ‘basic right’ without which no other right can be enjoyed; who has what responsibility to fulfil the material demands that this right entails; whether the traditional paradigm of thinking is appropriate to address real ecological challenges of a changing world; what political institution would be needed to realise everyone’s secure access to safe and clean water. Continue reading

Yukinori Iwaki – Temporal Debt, Ecological Debt, and the ‘Absolute’ Harm to the Disadvantaged

Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 13 Jan 2016

Photo: International Labour Organization

Photo: International Labour Organization

This week’s PTRG saw Yukinori Iwaki present his paper ‘Temporal Debt, Ecological Debt, and the “Absolute” Harm to the Disadvantaged’. In the paper, Yuki introduces two novel concepts to explain how the world’s advantaged population are complicit in absolute harm towards the disadvantaged: the accumulation of ‘temporal debt’ and ‘ecological debt’. He identifies five components of human well-being whose denial constitutes harm: continued life, bodily health, bodily integrity, practical reason, and human affiliation. Subsequently, he argues that time and space are the overarching dimensions within which a human lives her life, and therefore infringements on these two dimensions lead to harm. Crucially, the paper attempts to locate the origin of this harm. Instead of simply noting the existence of the harm, Yuki asserts that the harm to the disadvantaged stems from injustices and debts caused by the advantaged. Thus, he enters well-known debates in global justice, mostly associated with Thomas Pogge, on the relation and responsibility of global injustices but with a more comprehensive account of how and why these injustices (or harms) occur. Continue reading

How sweatshops benefit workers and why they are unjust

Photo by Rijans007

On April 21 2013, the Rana Plaza building, an eight story factory building in Greater Dhaka collapsed, killing over a thousand workers.  The factory collapsed because, quite simply, the building was not designed to be a factory.  The building had been built to house offices and shops.  When the building’s owner later converted the building, he added industrial sewing machines and the generators to power them, but not the additional supports necessary to ensure that the building could withstand the resulting vibrations.  The day before the collapse, cracks appeared in the walls of the building and workers were sent home.  But the next morning, supervisors declared the building safe and ordered workers back to work.  Those who were reluctant to enter the building were threatened with a dock in pay. Continue reading

Human rights and ethics in a crowded planet

Any renewal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has to acknowledge the fact that we live in a crowded planet – crowded in the sense that the demands placed by the world’s human population on its ecological space are such that some members do not have adequate for their health and well-being.

The growth of human numbers is clearly a major concern, but in framing that concern we need to think carefully how the naturalistic element of the problem – the size of a population in relation to its ecological support system – is affected by the social relations that distribute rights of access to it.  The connection between the ecological and the social is not always reflected on clearly, if at all, in discussions of human rights and ethics. Continue reading

Value chain development to make global trade fairer?

Smallholder farming remains a key livelihood in developing countries, yet many small-scale producers are unable to find lucrative and reliable markets for their produce. Local markets in many developing countries are increasingly flooded by cheaper, imported produce from Asia and the West, leaving local farmers struggling to compete. Poor, small-scale producers who turn to international markets are often powerless to get a fair deal.

Recognising the disadvantaged position of smallholder farmers in today’s global produce markets, NGOs and development agencies have begun to devise initiatives to help them access, and improve their positions within, international markets. Development practitioners have become business advisors, striving to make markets work for the poor (M4P), and make value chains work for development (VC4D).

Academic literature on global value chains provides useful notions of governance and power within chains. The idea of governance is that a particular actor in a chain (made up of farmers or producers, traders, processing firms, buyers and retailers) takes control of the flow of goods and information along a chain. This may be to ensure efficiency of production, processing and transactions, or may be a way for the governor to dominate other actors, setting rules and making decisions to its own benefit. It is widely acknowledged that today’s agro-commodity chains, where production often originates in smallholder farms in developing countries, chain governor roles are played by powerful global retailers, which sell processed, packaged and branded goods to consumers. These chain governing companies are referred to as lead firms.

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Having worked on a cotton value chain development project in Senegal myself, I was inspired to explore the effects of VC4D projects on power relations within global value chains from an academic perspective. Taking the idea that lead firms govern chains by setting rules and making decisions – for example about what to produce, how to process products, which codes and standards to follow, and which actors to include in a particular value chain, I have carried out a desk-based study to explore whether NGOs and development agencies can be considered to be taking on chain governance roles themselves through their VC4D interventions. Conceptualisations of such non-firm actors in value chain governance models (which tend to focus on lead firms) are currently lacking.

After exploring theoretical literature on value chain governance, I examined a dozen or so NGO and development agency practitioner manuals on how to carry out value chain development. Approaches vary, yet organisations typically select chains to support based on an analysis of the potential for improving the positions, and in turn livelihoods, of poor producers. Support (termed value chain facilitation) typically involves providing market information and technical training, facilitating the building of relationships between chain actors, assisting with product marketing, and advising on how to meet social and environmental standards such as organic and fair trade. Even in cases where organisations which do not advocate working within fair trade certification systems, aims tend to closely reflect many of the principles of the fair trade movement. For example, development organisations are aiming to establish higher (and fairer) prices for producers, transparency both up and down the value chain, long-term trading relationships including secure contracts, and ongoing capacity building.

Finally, I reviewed a broad range of recent empirical studies on VC4D projects throughout Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, in order to analyse what some of the real effects of non-firm interventions in agro-commodity chains are. Firstly, I use evidence from a number of cases to argue that NGOs and development agencies are indeed becoming value chain governors. In some cases, NGOs are seen to be setting rules, monitoring and applying sanctions. They are even deciding which actors to include or exclude from a particular chain. Some become intermediaries within the value chain itself, negotiating contracts on behalf of producers, or physically handling products as they pass from producer group to processing firm. While VC4D practitioner manuals state that interventions should be temporary, and there should always be a clear exit strategy, it seems that more often than not, value chain actors are becoming dependent on the non-firm actors’ support and guidance. However, NGOs and development agencies do not always possess sufficient business expertise to be able to justify taking on such roles that go far beyond value chain facilitation.

While NGOs and development agencies are attempting to use their new-found positions in value chains to curtail lead firm power, and empower poor producers, there is little evidence that this is being achieved. NGOs are unable to significantly change power relations between small producer cooperatives and international brands, whom they rely on for good market access and sustained demand. It seems lead firms are willing to allow NGOs to gain a certain level power in value chains, as the NGOs are relieving them of some coordination tasks, and are introducing social and environmental standards which can mean access to value-added markets for retailers. Yet lead firms still maintain the right to terminate contracts and switch suppliers if their quality and speed demands are not met.

The effects of NGO and development agency VC4D interventions on chain governance are clearly varied and complex. It is also clear that practitioners would benefit from further research and reflection on best practice for VC4D projects, taking into account the effects they are having on power relations in value chains, and also taking into account the views of different value chain actors. However, while these non-firm interventions may not yet be achieving producer empowerment goals, this does not mean their actions to tackle lead firm dominance of chains are not legitimate. Indeed it can be argued that the decline in state involvement in global trade following the introduction of neoliberal policy over the past few decades has left a governance gap, which NGOs and development agencies are attempting to fill.

If global retailer power in value chains is inevitable, it may be that NGOs and development agencies move towards finding ways to co-govern value chains, alongside these lead firms. There could be potential for power in a value chain to be shared between an efficiency and profit-driven firm, and a non-firm actor striving for greater fairness in global trade.

This research is presented and discussed in more detail in the JWI Working Paper ‘The effects of non-firm actors’ interventions in agro-commodity value chains on chain governance: the case of NGOs and development agencies’.

Liz Cooper
University of Edinburgh Fair Trade Coordinator

What can we do as procurers of goods to prevent future factory disasters in developing countries?

By Karen Bowman, University of Edinburgh Director of Procurement

A number of recent fires and factory collapses in Asia have resulted in the killing and maiming of thousands of workers. Such human abuse and horrific disaster is surely a wake-up call for improving standards for garment workers, and indeed all workers. While these disasters may not have occurred in factories that are part of our University’s supply chains, we need to find ways to use our roles as procurers of goods to prevent such tragedies in future.

In attempt to begin to address such issues, we are already tapping into a range of initiatives which focus on workers’ welfare and rights. We are a Scotland’s first Fairtrade University (and indeed Scotland has now become a Fair Trade Nation), buying fair trade products where possible. We are part of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which sends us ‘abuse’ reports about garment factories (mainly for USA college-branded goods). Our universities and colleges procurement centre of expertise, APUC Ltd, is developing a sustainable supply chain policy and code of conduct, with input from the National Union of Students (NUS), People & Planet, myself, and peers at Aberdeen University and Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC). However, we know research indicates that such ‘codes’ alone have limited effect.

WRC’s latest report on the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh says amongst other things ‘…what is needed in Bangladesh is a nationwide program of factory renovations and repairs to convert unsafe structures into buildings that are fundamentally safe for workers. This must be funded in substantial part by higher prices to factories from brands and retailers.  The WRC helped to develop a binding, enforceable fire and building safety agreement under which such a program would be carried out and we continue to urge brands and retailers to sign it.”

Signing a code or even a ‘binding agreement’ is just the start. Surely the only way to make a significant difference is to research, develop and deliver on ‘fair trade and global justice’. A research-led approach needs to identify what practices should be endorsed and implemented, monitored and audited, and we should demand at the very least our own contracted suppliers and service providers work with universities to access the latest research and best practice.

We have recently created a Fair Trade Academic Network and a Global Justice Academy here, and I would welcome their help to see if the University can shed even a little light on how best we in the rich ‘buying’ part of the globe can really make some real and lasting progress on standards for those in the poor ‘producing’ countries, so that this kind of abuse and horrific disaster becomes historic and not a recurring part of world trade and globalisation. Slavery was stopped (well almost) by political and consumer revulsion.

For more discussion or to learn about our fair trade university policy or academic network, feel free to contact, University Fair Trade Coordinator.

Should we support industrial use of prison labour?

Whether prison labour is, and whether it should be, used in university supply chains are questions that have arisen in a number of contexts in recent weeks. When asked my opinion on the use of prisoners to manufacture goods, I realised I was yet to form a strong view on the issue – immediately seeing arguments for (such as in the potential for rehabilitation and training for the outside world), and against (the potential for exploitation and profiteering of cheap labour by private firms). Seeing that this issue provoked similar confusion among colleagues, I have carried out some preliminary research in order to bring associated ethical and practical questions to the attention of students and staff. It is not clear whether prison labour (overseas or in the UK) is a feature of any of the supply chains we work with at present, as there is a lack of transparency with regards to product flows. However, it is clearly appropriate for a university such as ours, with a strong focus on fairness in trade (see and our Fair Trade Academic Network), to reflect on whether we should be actively supporting, or attempting to ban, prison labour in our supply chains.

My short desk-based study identifies motives behind making prisoners work. These include punishment, rehabilitation, and to save or make money. In the 19th century there was a shift in Western prisons from labour as punishment, to useful work, such as laundry or cooking. Prisoners were working to cover some of the costs of their incarceration. There has been a further shift in two waves – initially at the time of the industrial revolution, and again in recent decades dominated by neoliberal ideology, from cost-saving, to profit-making work. Prisoners have been forced or incentivised, depending on context, to manufacture goods for prison-owned industries and for private firms. Numerous authors argue that manufacturing in prisons has been used as a means of preparing disciplined, obedient workers, prepared to take low-paid jobs on release. In addition, private firms using prison labour have been able to benefit from low wages and reduced costs, as supervision and space are provided by the state. Questions are raised about whether manufacturing work carried out behind bars has detrimental effects on labour markets outside prisons.


In recent decades, in the UK in particular, the discourse among policy makers and prison officials has focused on work as rehabilitation. There are some examples of prisoners being trained in meaningful work, which relates to contemporary job markets, yet in many cases prisoners are found to be performing mundane, unskilled tasks. Overall there appears to be a lack of transparency regarding what work is carried out, and for whom.

Being a Fairtrade University, and one that is committed to exploring all avenues for trading fairly, I have considered to what extent prison labour could fit within a fair trade paradigm. Concepts of fair trade typically call for reasonable compensation for work carried out, decent working conditions, the right to freedom of association, and the provision of training opportunities. Whether and how much prisoners should be paid for work is complex. Currently most prisoners working around the world are paid small amounts, more as a form of pocket money to contribute to non-essential purchases. There are calls for prisoners to be paid national minimum wage levels, but most consider it fair to deduct proportions of such a salary to cover food and accommodation provided by prisons, and also for victim compensation. In terms of working conditions, evidently these vary, and prisoners are not able to join unions in order to voice concerns about conditions. As for training opportunities, as discussed above, while these are often made available in Western prisons, their relevance to potential jobs for prisoners once their sentences are over is often questioned. In addition, it is often unclear as to whether prison labour is forced or voluntary. In the UK, work is linked to an incentives scheme, but prisoners can be punished for not working. In several US states, full working weeks are overtly obligatory. Whether and how prison labour can be fair is clearly an area for further research.

My paper which deals with these issues in a little more detail and provides a list of questions to be explored further can be found here. Please share, discuss and comment on this post, in order to help stimulate the debate. We are looking into organising an event on prison labour in the coming months.

Liz Cooper
Fair Trade Coordinator