TV4’s recent report examines allegations that H&M, the popular Swedish clothing company, has purchased cotton from regions in Ethiopia where land-grabbing and forced displacement have occurred.[i] According to the Oakland Institute, an independent think tank that seeks to “increase public participation and promote fair debate on critical social, economic and environmental issues in both national and international forums,”[ii] such practices by H&M are, if true, “shameful.”[iii] Upon viewing the report, two items stand out (among others) – development and corporate social responsibility.
Regarding the former, the report raises the question of the costs of development. Since the 1990s, development has come to be understood as encompassing more than just economic growth. Handley et al. (2009) outline that, although essential, economic growth is not always wholly sufficient to reduce poverty or inequality. Rather, an assortment of measures must be undertaken to ensure that poorer strata of society are incorporated into national economic growth.[iv] As well, development has been linked to individual, group, and environmental rights, as well as social justice. Increasingly, it has become nearly impossible to consider or discuss development without noting its implications for a variety of rights.[v]
Within that framework, TV4’s report leads to serious questions about the ramifications of Ethiopia’s growth and development. Nestled in the turbulent Horn of Africa (HOA) region, Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent modern nation-state and second most populous.[vi] The second poorest country in the world according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Multidimensional Poverty Index,[vii] Ethiopia consistently ranks extremely low upon a variety of socioeconomic, development, and human rights indicators.[viii] Recently, Ethiopia has experienced economic growth – making it among “Africa’s best performing economies.”[ix] However, dramatic inequities in education and employment – and broad discrimination – along rural-urban, gender, and ethno-religious lines remain starkly apparent.[x] Further, the country’s land and agricultural strategies, underlying much of Ethiopia’s growth, are problematic.
Land-grabbing and the forcible “villagization” program entail the relocation of millions of people from locations reserved for industrial plantations.[xi] Issues arising from the program have led to greater food insecurity, a destruction of livelihoods, and the loss of cultural heritage. Additionally, the program, which frequently utilizes forced evictions, has been plagued by a plethora of human rights violations. A variety of human rights groups have documented beatings, killings, rapes, imprisonment, intimidation, and political coercion by the government and authorities.[xii] In this context, although Ethiopia has generated economic investment and growth, an important question remains: “but, at what cost?”
A second item for consideration in TV4’s video is corporate social responsibility (CSR), which simply refers to “companies taking responsibility for their impact on society.”[xiii] In recent years, CSR has become an important concern, particularly for companies doing work in the developing world. For example, over several decades, diamonds helped to sustain devastating wars throughout Africa, destroying millions of lives. Conflict diamonds (also known as blood diamonds) were sold in order to fund conflict and war, with profits from the rogue trade in conflict diamonds, worth billions of dollars, utilized by an array of groups to purchase arms several wars in Africa.[xiv]
However, after a global campaign and negotiations involving individuals, NGOs, governments, and private industry, an international certification scheme for diamonds was developed. Specifically, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), which came into force in 2003, sets out the requirements for controlling diamond production and trade. Countries and companies, such as De Beers, became responsible for certifying that the diamonds they traded were “conflict-free,” and thus not negatively affecting the populations or regions from which they were sourced.[xv] In this context, H&M must develop (or more effectively and transparently enforce) mechanisms to ensure that the cotton it purchases is not tainted with blood.
F. Bieri on blood diamonds: http://www.franziskabieri.com/diamonds/
[iv] Handley, G., K. Higgins, B. Sharma, K. Bird, and D. Cammack. 2009. “Poverty and
Poverty Reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Overview of Key Issues.” Overseas
Development Institute. Working Paper 299: 1-82.
[viii] Kloos, H., D. Haile Mariam, and B. Lindtjorn. 2007. “The AIDS Epidemic in a Low-Income Country: Ethiopia.” Human Ecology Review. 14 (1): 1-17.
2 USGOV. 2011. “Ethiopia: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011.” United States Department of State. Retrieved: www.state.gov/documents/organization/186406.pdf
3 UNESCO. 2012. “UNESCO Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education – One Year On.” UNESCO. Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/