A tale of two producers

Two of our producer partners put Australian politics to shame.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship recently announced that Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder and CEO of soleRebels, has received the Foundations Social Entrepreneur of The Year Award for 2012. In announcing the award Schwab Foundation Chairman and co-founder Klaus Schwab said “Bethlehem embodies the vision and values of the global social entrepreneur community, and we are proud to honor her exemplary work in creating a highly innovative, ethical and sustainable business that continues to make a strong social impact.”

The Foundation’s board, comprised of an array of global luminaries including legendary music producer Quincy Jones, Nobel Prize laureate and father of microfinance Muhammad Yunus, Director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government David Gergen and acclaimed best-selling author Paulo Coelho, selected Bethlehem for her pioneering achievements in making soleRebels – the world’s first fair trade footwear company –  the fastest growing African footwear brand on the planet, creating award-winning products and creative employment opportunities in her community while generating equitable and sustainable growth.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder and CEO of soleRebels

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder and CEO of soleRebels

“I am truly honored that the Schwab Foundation Board has chosen to recognize me in this manner. I proudly share this recognition with every single one of the talented, industrious, committed and cultured people who everyday work alongside me to make soleRebels what it is – the coolest artisan driven footwear company on the planet,” said Bethlehem, the first Ethiopian to ever win the award.

Not bad in a country where massive endemic corruption and cronyism continues to hamper economic development for all but a few. As a relatively stable country in an unstable region, the Ethiopian government retains good relations with the West, which views it as an ally in the ‘war on terror’, and it is also benefiting from massive Chinese investment in infrastructure. But the vast majority of Ethiopians still live as subsistence farmers, struggling with frequent droughts and chronic poverty. Life for the average Ethiopian probably hasn’t improved much since feudalism, and young and innovative leaders like Bethlehem show how Fair Trade can make a real difference to their lives, even in very difficult circumstances.

Meanwhile in another of the world’s poorest countries, the fortunes of another of New Internationalist’s producer partners are not presently so rosy.

Nepali politicians have just proposed to ignore a Supreme Court deadline giving them until Sunday 27th May to draw up a new constitution, widely seen as crucial to helping end instability that has plagued Nepal since the end of a Maoist-led civil war in 2006 and the subsequent overthrow of the monarchy.

The politicians formally proposed that the Constituent Assembly, which doubles as parliament, be given three more months to try to bridge deep differences that have forced lawmakers to miss several earlier deadlines. The decision to extend the life of the assembly was made on the last day of yet another in a series of nationwide strikes that have closed thousands of schools, shuttered businesses and forced vehicles to stay off the roads. There were renewed clashes between protesters and police in Kathmandu and other towns, and protesters enforcing the strike stoned or burned vehicles whose drivers defied the strike. A vote on the proposal, expected before the weekend deadline expires, is almost certain to pass, meaning another three months of strikes, curfews and political turmoil for the ordinary Nepalese to contend with.

Mahaguthi Craft with a Conscience

Mahaguthi Craft with a Conscience

Sunil Chitrakar, CEO of Mahaguthi Crafts with a Conscience, who is trying to complete an order of new products for New Internationalist over the next couple of months, wrote to me just prior to the latest decision saying:

“I believe you are aware about the political situation of Nepal through news and through our updates. We have interim constitution in place and the new constitution should have been drafted  two years back. But, Constitution Assembly failed to do so. Another deadline for is next week i.e. May 27. But sad to say, the political situation here is getting more chaotic and fragile. Since few weeks, we have been experiencing strikes sporadically throughout the country. Almost every day, there have been strikes.

“These protests are inhuman and preventing people from getting their basic needs so as hindering businesses. We are not remain untouched. While the deadline for new constitution approaching near, more strikes by different groups and political parties are coming out hindering movement, business and lives, some of these protests are turning violent. The government has announced curfew on May 26 and 27 to prevent any possible violent protest. These strikes and curfews will definitely hinder our work so as the production and delivery dates.

We are trying our level best to be par with the schedule and trying best to meet the expectations. We will be updating you  about the situation and progress of due shipments as it unfold. Thank you for supporting and understanding us. We are in difficult situation, your understanding help us get going. Thank you very much.”

Two producer partners in the poorest countries of the world working hard to improve the lives of the poorest of their communities through Fair Trade, and fighting against incredible political difficulties to do so. Provides a bit of a reality check, juxtaposed against the constant bellowing in this country by right wing media and politicians utterly consumed by the shabby returns of realpolitik….

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About Paul Deighton

Paul is the Fair Trade specialist and merchandise manager at New Internationalist Australia. For decades he has been one of Australia's leading advocates for the practical advancement of Fair Trade, having worked previously in Oxfam's Mail Order divisions, both in Australia and New Zealand. He has also played a key role in the development of wfto.com - the World Fair Trade Organization.

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