Making markets work for people: the importance of dignity in the economic arena

Our organization, MICAIA, works in different parts of Mozambique to help people achieve local prosperity. PSJP’s recent paper on ‘Dignity and Development’ looked at the concept of dignity in development and philanthropy and this occasioned me to reflect on our own approach to our work. MICAIA has chosen to build its theory of change, and our practices, around a theory of social justice based on the capabilities approach because dignity is at its heart. In Sen’s original work, including the well-known Development as Freedom, dignity is more of an assumed requirement. Julia Nussbaum, whose work we find more practicable, incorporates dignity in constructing her theory of social justice based on the capabilities approach.

However, while dignity is important as a lens, I worry that focusing specifically on this slippery and intuitive concept can undermine the anger and determination needed to challenge the root causes of oppression and to overturn the systems of ownership and control that perpetually disempower the majority of people. Empathy, respect, decency, honesty, responsiveness, fairness – all are key elements in recognizing and treating people with the dignity they deserve. But what really matters is understanding and challenging the systemic and structural causes of this injustice and poverty.

Without going into the detail of the capabilities approach, I want to frame my comments on dignity within our understanding of capabilities and then apply that to some of our work on economic development and developing value chains with some of the poorest people in Mozambique. In the literature on dignity, the vast majority of references relate to the social sphere – care, service, aid, etc. Perhaps rightly so. However, a very large proportion of national aid budgets now goes through contractors rather than traditional NGOs on ‘impact investment’ and other value chain-focused schemes. Applying the dignity lens in this area of work would reveal the sad reality of the continuing disempowerment of workers, farmers and other suppliers.

Dignity as part of the capabilities approach

The capabilities approach (horribly simplified) asks the question, what is each person able to do and to be? It is focused on choice and freedom. The interaction of individual capabilities (which can be nurtured or trained) and the political, social, economic and familial environment determines the extent to which anyone is truly free to act or to be (described in the theory as ‘functioning’). The reason that MICAIA works with the capabilities approach is that it not only provides a framework for the assessment of individual well-being, it also serves as a basis for evaluating and assessing social arrangements, and this leads to the design and promotion of policies and proposals focused on societal change. By focusing on capabilities rather than functioning (the different ways in which people choose to deploy their capabilities), the approach avoids privileging one account of the ‘good life’ over another. This is critical in our work. At community level, we find that people define their ‘good life’ in complex ways that incorporate elements of environmental security (and access to natural resources), culture and tradition, respect, health, social relations and, yes, earning money. The balance between these (and other) elements varies from one person to another, as will the analysis of how capable each person is to work towards that ‘good life’. What matters to MICAIA is that the people we work with have the capabilities to make informed choices about their own well-being.

The capabilities approach is focused primarily on ends rather than means – after all, people differ in their ability to utilize means and create opportunities to enhance their well-being. So the capabilities approach asks, for instance, if people are able to be healthy – and whether or not the essential resources necessary for that capability are in place (clean water, good sanitation, access to medical services, knowledge of nutrition, etc). While investing in the means is important it does not guarantee well-being. Increasing food availability does not prevent people starving if they have no means to buy that food.

And so to dignity. As Nussbaum writes, ‘the basic idea is that some living conditions deliver to people a life that is worthy of the human dignity they possess and others do not … In a wide range of areas, a focus on dignity will dictate policy choices that protect and support agency rather than choices that infantilize people and treat them as passive recipients and beneficiaries.[1] Many of the examples presented in the PSJP paper support this view.

Dignity in the economic arena

Moving towards the economic arena, the centrality of dignity in the capabilities approach is particularly important but rarely applied in practice. If dignity is an end and not a means (mirroring Kant’s distinction between price – linked to meeting human needs – and dignity, the inner value on which morality is based[2]), then the operation of markets should not be allowed to subordinate human beings to the status of mere means of capital accumulation. Yet this is exactly the situation in Mozambique, from the colonial era taxes on migrant labour to the powerlessness engendered by the contract farming and outgrower schemes of the modern neo-liberal aid world.

So how do we ‘make markets work for the poor’ – to use a statement that framed a central shift in the development world a few years ago and that has morphed into impact investments (the search for the ‘holy grail’ of serious financial return, high-level social impact, and positive environmental impact)? And, more specifically, how do we ensure that people are treated with dignity within a market situation?

Applying a dignity lens to MICAIA’s work in Mozambique

In our work on natural product value chains, we focus on ‘inclusive’ business models. The notion of inclusivity has gained traction in recent years, though it has often focused on including the poor as consumers (through ‘bottom of the pyramid’ marketing) more than on transforming the ownership and control of the means of production. Somewhere between the wet dream of rampant capitalism and the delayed gratification of the Marxist utopia lies fertile ground for restructuring economic relations in such a way that the dignity of producers and suppliers, as well as workers, is paramount.

Respecting the dignity of women baobab suppliers

One of our enterprises buys baobab fruit and produces high-grade (organic-certified) powder and oil. We established the company after two years of listening to and interacting with the women baobab collectors through which we learned of their exploitation by informal traders, many from across the border in Malawi. We came to realize that the women had little or no understanding of the value chain or of the many and varied uses of the finished products or of the high prices that the products command in international markets. We helped them understand how the complex value chain in baobab works and -how value is added and prices rise. Building understanding of a market is a critical element in acknowledging the dignity of actors in that market.

Another element is respecting the dignity in simple labour. The women collect fruit as it falls from the mighty baobab trees and, traditionally, they crack the fruit while sitting under the tree, then haul a large sack of the pulp and seed back to their homes and wait for a trader. We changed all that. In the quest for greater quality control, we needed the fruit to be collected and stored off ground until it is properly dry and then it is cracked in controlled conditions. These additional steps added labour and we had to reflect that in the price of course. We also had to explain to the women the rationale for these additional steps. And we had to be sensitive. In communities with little water, simply stating that hands must be washed and clean clothes worn when cracking fruit would be offensive. Instead, we explained the importance of avoiding contamination (securing a top price by meeting tough quality standards in the international market) and then invited open discussion on how best to achieve the standards. The result was to set up ‘cracking stations’ – supervised and with a water point on hand.

Creating the opportunities for people to invest in their lives

Our ambition goes beyond enabling the baobab collectors to earn more money from the wild harvested fruit. We want to create the opportunities for people – especially the women – to use additional income from baobab sales to invest in their lives and livelihoods. So we run a programme of ‘capabilities’ sessions – facilitated open discussion and learning on a range of topics including challenging social issues (domestic violence, premature marriage, etc), personal health and welfare matters, and practical issues such as developing a micro-enterprise. We are constantly learning about how the evolving value chain is affecting household gender dynamics. Our capabilities approach is critical here, for in a patriarchal and often polygamous culture it takes time and sensitivity to shift the power so that the women who earn the money from baobab have the capability to benefit from it. A woman’s inherent dignity is not respected by her holding the contract with our company if, when she returns home, her husband simply takes the money away and uses it without involving her in the decision-making process (even if – false consciousness or otherwise – she may respect that social arrangement).

Demonstrating that inclusive business models can achieve business objectives

We also want to use the baobab company to demonstrate that it is possible to achieve business objectives, including profit, while doing more than pay lip-service to inclusivity. A fifth of the shares in the company are to be assigned to an association of all collectors holding contracts to supply the company. Fine, but meaningless if the women have no capability to act on their shareholding. Tokenism disregards the dignity that people have. So we are under way with what will be a long process of generating the knowledge, confidence and skills required (a) for the association to function as a representative structure and (b) for representatives to contribute in powerful and influential ways to the management and decision-making of the business.

Negotiating the complications

As ever, things go wrong. Markets are complicated and small businesses such as ours get tossed around like rowing boats in a stormy sea. Take the current baobab season for example. We opened up a new supply chain for non-certified organic product, responding to a new market opportunity. We built the supply chain but by harvest time the customer had dramatically reduced the size of his order. We still went ahead and honoured a commitment to buy a large volume of fruit pulp. But this season there was a huge harvest and our high price paid per kilogram, coupled with an overly enthusiastic field officer mobilizing communities, led to a massive over-supply. We simply couldn’t buy all the produce offered. As the buying campaign ended, we faced a lot of criticism from community leaders as well as government officers. As one woman said, ‘we have fruit to sell, why don’t you buy?’

The knee-jerk response – because we can’t; because markets don’t function like that – is not an option for us. These women who supply the baobab live in areas with an average annual per capita income of less than $30 (yes, I did say annual) so the fact that we pay double or three times the informal market price for baobab makes a big difference. We cannot simply offer some trite response; and if we did, we’d be easy prey for activist NGOs keen to beat up (often with reason) the profit-driven private sector actor. But it’s not respecting people’s dignity to blindly and patronizingly pretend to be on the side of ‘the people’ (before returning to a fine supper and an air-conditioned hotel room) without giving them a realistic understanding of the constraints within which a company operates. Treating people with respect means helping them understand the realities of the value chain they are in. In this case we visited all supplier communities and explained the limits of our current market and how we tried to spread our buying to ensure as many people as possible could gain at least some benefit. It means discussing openly and honestly how we can communicate better in future so that as the buying campaign goes on people know how much more fruit we can buy. And when these visits are over, it means investing again and again in helping people build the knowledge and confidence to engage, negotiate and communicate not as a powerless supplier, but as the critical link in the chain.

Baobab may not make our suppliers rich, but this baobab company at least is determined to ensure that each supplier’s innate dignity is recognized and placed at the very heart of its commercial success. More than that, though, what we are really trying to do is reorganize a value chain to prevent the systematic exploitation of economically poor and politically weak people. By building capabilities for some of the suppliers at least to participate powerfully and meaningfully in our business, we are changing the structure of ownership and placing a measure of control in the hands of the people without whom our business could not exist.

[1] Martha C Nussbaum (2011) Creating Capabilities: The human development approach, Harvard University Press, p 30.

[2] What is related to general human inclinations and needs has a market price ; but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative value, that is, a price, but an inner value, that is, dignity .. Morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity – Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 4: 434-435, quoted in ‘Kant’s Concept of Human Dignity as a Resource for Bioethics’, Susan M. Shell, 2008

Andrew is the co-founder of MICAIA Foundation and Eco-MICAIA Ltd, and leads the social enterprise work of MICAIA in Mozambique, focusing in particular on inclusive business development in natural produce value chains.