A book review - "Fair Trade: Reform and Realities in the International Trading System" by Michael Barratt Brown, ZED Books, 1993, ISBN: 1 85649 074 2 pb

For centuries the north has bulldozed up a huge accumulated mountain of investment and technological research on its side of the playing field, first under the military superiority of colonialism and more recently under the dominance of global communications and production by transnational corporations.

In the first half of this book, Michael Barratt-Brown describes the historical and market roots of these inequalities and in the second half reviews many of the aid, trade and investment mechanisms tried since the Bretton Woods agreements of 1944 established the basic structures of international commodity trade. He provides a broad but thorough survey of the history of the GATT, the Marshall Plan, UNCTAD, commodity agreements, common funds, the centrally planned trade of COMECON and transnational corporations, the Cairnes Group, barter trade, countertrade, aid, the roots of the debt crisis and much more.

Ignoring the irony of this mountain we have accumulated, the northern industrial world, through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is demanding a "level playing field" and freedom for the private sector to use the world's resources as it sees fit, without the fetters of taxation, regulation and planning (except its own). The new name for this is "free trade", and the mechanism for its implementation is "structural adjustment". Barrett Brown's survey outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the complex yet largely unsuccessful mechanisms which have tried to "level the playing field" over the past 50 years.

For example, the author points out that authoritarian planning, not planning per se, was the downfall of the Soviet empire. He notes that eastern Europe failed to adopt decentralized, participatory planning mechanisms to replace the centralized command economy once a certain degree of industrialization and complexity had been achieved, a transition successfully mastered by transnational corporations in the past two decades.

He also describes the many controls and regulations which are applied to protect the markets and industries of North America, Europe and Japan, in a system which is tantamount to the planning so abhorred in the Third World under the IMF's structural adjustment policies. In discussing aid, he points out that, if the north had kept its 1970s promises of "contributing 0.7% of GNP as official aid, the Third World's debt would have been halved and, if they had paid one percent, the debt could have been eliminated before it accumulated to its present size."

Not content with just describing or criticizing free trade, the second half of the book deals with how trade can be made fairer, with chapters on market regulation and support, planning, parallel trading systems and alternative trade. This is a book for students of trade and international development, not for the general reader. While the main threads of his survey of trade reforms sometimes wander, the author has provided us with an invaluable summary of the complex institutions and international interests which must be unravelled if we are to ever tackle their reform in any meaningful way.

Barratt-Brown proposes concrete, original measures to begin these reforms, based on consumer awareness and the example of the growing alternative trade movement, which offers a means of linking producers and consumers in relations of respect and justice. He goes beyond the concept of fair trade represented by ATO craft and coffee sales, which are important in raising consumer awareness, to propose alternative trade networks which support producers with an alternative trade clearing union, technical, financial and marketing support, fair trade labelling, producer and consumer unions and the model of a decentralized economy which democratizes economic as well as political decisions.

The author joins with many thoughtful voices which are seldom heard in the north, to show that careful planning, honest equitable negotiations between producers and consumers, and the tapping of modern communications and information technology to link producers and consumers could result in a sharing of resources which might lead to sustainable development. This book is a valuable contribution to the discussion of trade reform and a helpful resource for planners, students and activists involved in this challenging campaign.

Bob Thomson,
Information Service Co-ordinator
International Federation for Alternative Trade (IFAT)

September 1993