‘The Fast That I Desire’ – Trade, Aid, Food: 5 Feb 2017

In this week’s prayer email:

  • “The fast that I desire”

This second part of our email ties into the Old Testament passage in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. Isaiah 58’s call to honour God by living justly is a constant source of inspiration: here are three reflections on phrases from verses 6 and 7.

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‘The fast that I desire’

To loose the bonds of injustice …

There are many forms of injustice in our world. But this week, as we’re coming up to Fairtrade Fortnight, we’ll focus on just one – the injustices in trade that concentrate power in the hands of wealthier countries and companies and leave small producers of commodities and manufactured goods unable to negotiate fair prices and working conditions.

For many years, the Trade Justice Movement’s logo has been an uneven balance, symbol of the way trade is often tilted against the poor. For Christians, this may bring to mind the prophet Amos, who raged against people who sought to profit unjustly by falsifying balances (Amos 8:5). At the small scale, such falsifications – and the fight against them – can still be a live issue in trade.  A few years ago, in a conversation with local Fairtrade supporters, one Ghanaian producer talked about how her cooperative was helping its members to ensure that the balances purchasers used to weigh products were accurately read, so that the producers got what they were owed. It felt quite Biblical!

On a larger scale, the Fair Trade movement’s standards help to ‘tip the balance’ back towards fairness overall by, for example, requiring companies that purchase Fairtrade goods to pay a price that covers or moves towards covering the costs of sustainable production. Fair Trade can also involve increasing producers’ negotiating power in other ways: when a Fairtrade producer group  was being given unhelpful terms by the government body that controlled trade in their product (and through whom they had to sell), the Fairtrade Foundation ensured that the producer group’s manager received training that enabled him to negotiate a fairer deal.

But Fair Trade is only part of the picture. There are wider questions about the rules of trade. For example, how, while enabling the flow of goods and services, do – or don’t – trade rules  protect workers’ rights, encourage small producers and low-income countries to grow and flourish, and address issues related to the concentration of economic power?

These are questions which are going to become ever more important for us in Britain. We’ll be setting a new trade policy at a time when trade issues are becoming more and more complex, in a world where many major countries explicitly state their intent to pursue national interests above all. How will we respond?  Will the UK, for example, commit to keeping EU rules that allow the poorest countries to export to us without facing tariffs and quotas? Will we negotiate new trade agreements in ways that take into account the good of the weak as well as the power of the strong … both domestically and internationally? (Check out this information from Traidcraft for a discussion of some of the issues)

As Christians seeking to live out the ‘fast’ that God desires, pray:

  • for all who are affected by trade injustice globally – that they may see the day when their mourning is turned to joy
  • for all who are working to tackle injustices in trade, that they may be given wisdom, courage and vision in their work
  • that those undertaking the UK’s – and other countries’ – trade negotiations in the days and years to come will have wisdom and godly vision
  • that we may be mindful of the need to love those neighbours – near and far – who make the goods we use each day.
  • that we will live out our love in daily, small-scale choices that favour justice … and that we’ll support larger-scale choices that favour justice, too.

To undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke

International Justice Mission works to free people from slavery, including such forms of slavery as bonded labour. If you haven’t encountered their work, we’d suggest looking at some of the case studies they’ve recently posted about their activities helping people trapped in bonded labour in India. They’ve joined with local authorities to free people who had been trafficked into bonded labour and to pursue justice in the courts, gaining convictions of those who enslaved and tortured workers. They also offer after-care programmes for those who are released from slavery.

It’s estimated that there are tens of millions of people around the world who are enslaved. In the UK, it’s estimated that there may be up to 13,000 people living in slavery, many of them trafficked.

At a local level, the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, has called on all of us to keep our eyes and ears open for the signs that people might be trafficked:

“To understand where each and every one of us can make a difference and how we can play our part, we must first fully acknowledge this as a criminal phenomenon that can unwittingly interact in our daily lives. We must become intolerant to the presence of modern slavery by making a moral choice – let’s stop using substandard car washes, let’s question the price of our products, let’s look twice at the rough sleeper begging on the street…

Let’s choose to open our eyes to see whether those on farms and construction sites are wearing appropriate clothing and using appropriate gear. Let’s choose to think carefully when we notice a worker who appears injured or malnourished. Let’s choose to stop what we are doing when we see residential homes with curtains constantly closed and countless clients visiting the premises night after night. Let’s choose to give attention to who takes our cash at nail salons and whether the technicians doing the work are open to conversation. Let’s choose to notice when numerous people are being transported from a single home to work in fields for hours on end.”

There’s also the broader question of slavery in supply chains. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act (2015) requires companies with a turnover of more than £36 million to “engage in meaningful due diligence to find risks and produce robust statements detailing the steps they have taken that year to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from their operations and supply chains. These statements must be approved by the company boards and signed by a company director (or equivalent), and be available from the homepage of the company’s website.” There’s still a long way to go, though, until this is as effective as the proponents of the legislation had hoped. Analysis of companies’ reports, and public engagement with that analysis, are part of the process of making the legislation effective. Organisations such as the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and ECCR, Stop the Traffik and USPG have scrutinised the reports that leading companies have provided, and the latter coalition has provided a series of questions that people can ask any companies in which they have investments. But we need more analysis – and more people need to ask questions, both as investors and as users of the goods and services that companies provide.

As Christians seeking to live out the fast that God desires, pray:

  • for all who are suffering because they or those they care about are enslaved.
  • that we can keep our eyes open for the signs of slavery in our communities and alert local authorities, so that they can free those who are enslaved and bring perpetrators of trafficking to justice.
  • that we can advocate for victims of trafficking to be treated with compassion and justice
  • that we can support those who are working to end slavery in other contexts, and
  • that we can be part of a movement to scrutinise the actions of companies, wherever they are, and to bring greater transparency and justice into supply chains.

Action Points: Could you take a look at Stop the Traffik’s materials on fighting trafficking? They have everything from practical guides giving the signs that someone might be trafficked to guidance for businesses in particular sectors to prayer materials for churches. Could you use the ECCR/Stop the Traffick/USPG questions for businesses?

To share your bread with the hungry

A few years ago, I (Maranda) visited a tiny pre-school housed in a church in a remote settlement near the South African border with Botswana. It was winter, and freezing cold  outside – there had been frost on the ground earlier. And it was cold inside as well: the church had no heating, and the chill came in through the thin windows and the cracks and holes in the metal roof. The children, bundled up in sweaters, fleeces, or – if they were fortunate – parkas, sat on tiny plastic chairs and worked on colouring and other projects. The school couldn’t offer them much in the way of resources – but it offered safety, a sense of order, what enrichment it could on limited resources … and food.

It offered the food despite the fact that the government often wasn’t paying the costs of doing so. Indeed, when I visited, the government was at times failing to pay any of the costs associated with running the pre-school: the women working there hadn’t received a salary in over a year. And yet, they continued working. And the leader told me that when the government money to provide food for the children didn’t come in, the women themselves, despite not being paid, often took food from their own houses so that they could offer the children meals.

As Christians seeking to live out the ‘fast’ that God desires, please pray:

  • for all who are suffering from hunger and malnutrition
  • for all who give sacrificially of their own food so that others may have something to eat
  • for organisations that are working to provide food to people caught up in humanitarian crises
  • for organisations that are working to secure sustainable and equitable access to food for all people in the long term
  • that we, as Christians, may share our bread – literally and figuratively – with those who are hungry

Action Point: If you don’t already, could you share locally? Or with people farther afield? The UN and development agencies presently support millions of people displaced from their food supplies by conflict and natural disaster. News reports indicate that the World Food Programme has just had to halve the rations of 1.4 million displaced Iraqis; in December, they were forced to cut rations for people in Kenya’s refugee camps. Could you donate to the World Food Programme, or to another agency, such as CAFOD, Christian Aid, or Tearfund, which offers humanitarian relief? Could you write to your MP to express thanks for the UK’s contributions – like this one – to helping provide humanitarian relief, so that MPs know there’s a constituency that supports such aid?