Joe Ware is Church & Campaigns Journalist at Christian Aid

Last Saturday in these pages Christian Aid was criticised for preaching a gospel of anti-capitalism and calling for an end to free trade. This charge was based on an old promotional poster from more than 20 years ago linked to a campaign to stop poor farmers losing out from heavily subsidised foreign food imports.  Like much in the intervening two decades, things have changed. Some NGOs may still be seen as hotbeds of socialist plotting but Christian Aid is one of the leading champions of the power of the market in transforming the lives of people living in poverty.

The developing world is bursting with enterprising would-be business owners keen to trade their way out of poverty.  But for the very poorest getting access to the benefits of the market is not always easy.

In Ghana smallholder farmers often lose out because of a lack of market information which hampers their ability to negotiate a good price with traders.  Thanks to the explosion of cheap mobile phone technology across Africa Christian Aid’s partner organisation is able to send the latest price information direct to farmers by text message.   Armed with this they can not only drive a harder bargain and shop around for the best deal, they can also study price trends and grow crops with bigger profit margins.

Trade also has the power to help tackle gender inequality. Global poverty is acutely sexist in that it affects women more severely than men. Accessing fair markets can provide women not only with more money but it can also help change stereotyped views of women and rebalance gender relations.

In parts of Ethiopia women who traditionally are seen as subservient to men have been given seed capital – in the form of cows – by Christian Aid to start their own businesses. Rather than doing low paid labouring jobs they now own their own livestock which provide milk and butter which they can sell for profit.  Not only does this improve their finances it also brings status and greater input into how their society is run. One of the women, Adi, 46, is now hoping to save up enough to open her own shop.

It’s also not only small holders at the beginning of the market chain that are important.  Christian Aid is understandably most concerned with the poorest producers getting what they can from the market but we will work across the whole process in order to make the market thrive.

For example in Malawi Christian Aid’s partner has brought together a number of market stakeholders including farmers, but also mill owners, export companies and agricultural experts to create the National Rice Development Platform. This group is then able to better address problems which affect the rice industry as a whole, improving its efficiency and making everyone more profitable.  It also means stakeholders can speak to Government and call for policy changes with a unified voice.

And it’s not just encouraging entrepreneurship and markets in the developing world. Christian Aid also works closely with the private sector in the UK and elsewhere. We’re active in fora such as Business Fights Poverty where companies and NGOs share experience and ideas to address problems which affect the poor.  As part of The Climate Coalition we’re building a movement which collaborates with business in highlighting the threat climate change poses to the economic prosperity of people worldwide.  Christian Aid wants to see good businesses thrive; the positive impacts are obvious from more decent jobs to tax receipts that pay for essential services.

That’s why we’ve called for companies not to dodge the taxes they owe in developing countries, something David Cameron outlined in his 2013 speech at Davos.

He said:

“Let’s be clear: speaking out on these things is not anti-capitalism, it is not anti-business. If you want to keep tax rates low you’ve got to keep taxes coming in.”

He added:

“When some businesses aren’t seen to pay their taxes, that is corrosive to the public trust. When shadowy companies don’t play by the rules, that drives more box ticking, more regulation, more interference and that makes life harder for other businesses to turn a profit.”

Christian Aid, like any organisation willing to speak truth to power, reserves the right to criticise publicly where appropriate but NGOs have become much more sophisticated and nuanced in their approach to business and how they work to help the world’s poorest people.

As Adi, the labourer-turned-small business owner in Ethiopia, said: “In the beginning I was identified as the poorest of the poor. Now it’s the same people who are asking to borrow money from me. Imagine how far I have come up the ladder.”

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