Center for Fair & Alternative Trade

Colorado State University

"When do INGOs Address Global Inequalities in their own Ranks? Fair Trade and the Balance of Power Between North and South" Elizabeth A. Bennett

Presented by Elizabeth A. Bennett, Brown University Political Science PhD Candidate and CFAT Visiting Research Associate


On Friday, November 02, 2012 Elizabeth A. Bennett (Brown University Political Science PhD Candidate and CFAT Visiting Research Associate) presented When do INGOs Address Global Inequalities in their own Ranks? Fair Trade and the Balance of Power Between North and South.” This presentation extended Fair Trade research to the global level of analysis, examining the governance structure of Fairtrade International, the world’s most widely recognized fair trade label.

Bennett began by contextualizing her research within broader empirical trends. She demonstrated that international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) are more powerful than ever before: there are more of them; they control increasingly greater resources; and they are beginning to participate regularly in the decision-making bodies of the important international organizations. Within this burgeoning and influential INGO sector, two trends are pronounced: First, serving the growing LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) industry, in particular, meeting the demand for “ethically sourced” products; and second, using standards and verification schemes (labeling) as a tool for marketing these products.

The rise of INGO power in international affairs raises a new question about an old debate in the subfield of international relation. If the perennial issue is how to address the “democratic deficit” in global politics, then the new question is how an increased presence of INGOs influences democracy in global governance. On one hand, INGOs bring new voices, fresh ideas, and perspectives that may be marginalized by traditional global governors. On the other hand, INGOs typically lack democratic decision making practices and governing bodies that would be needed to represent the masses. The concern emerging from this debate is: If INGOs do not address traditional inequalities in their own ranks, how can they be a democratizing force in global governance?

Bennett’s research identifies the conditions under which INGOs address global inequalities in their own ranks. Specifically, she is studying when development INGOs using labeling to market to the LOHAS industry address North/South inequality in their governance structure, standard decision making processes, and actual key decisions. Bennett conducted an in-depth case study of Fairtrade International, from the establishment of its founding members in 1988 to present. Triangulating evidence from nearly 20,000 archival documents, over 150 interviews, and travel to 8 countries, Bennett compiled three historical narratives: on governance, on standard operating procedures for pricing, and on key decisions in coffee pricing.

Bennett’s narratives about North/South relations within Fairtrade International will capture both formal and informal dimensions of power sharing. The formal aspects include producer membership in leadership bodies, the voting procedures for those bodies, and the typical process for making decisions about pricing. The informal aspects include customs, norms, and unwritten rules governing producer influence in the organization. Each narrative will chart how producers have been included and excluded over time. For example, the history of governance spans five eras, beginning with the 1988-1997’s “division of labor” era and ending with the era of “producer as power player” in 2011-2012. Bennett’s narratives will thereby describe changes in Fairtrade’s board of directors, membership organizations, and leadership bodies over time. By tracing the conditions under which producers were included and excluded in each of these three areas, Bennett will identify when the organization consolidated power in the North, and when power was shared with producers from the South.

Bennett will be completing this project in the coming year during her tenure as a Visiting Research Associate at CFAT. She wishes to acknowledge the generous support for fieldwork that was provided by the American Council on Germany, German Academic Exchange,Tinker Foundation, and Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown. Bennett has published the initial results of this research in The Practices and Processes of Fair Trade (Routledge 2012), Patterns in Social Entrepreneurship Research (Edward Elgar 2012), and the peer-reviewed journal Globalizations. She can be contacted at

Photo courtesy of Dieter Overath, TransFair Germany.