I write this as I sit in a coffee shop sipping a cappuccino. The coffee beans were grown in Kenya. They had to be irrigated, harvested, packed into bags, imported, roasted, packaged again, transported, marketed, and brewed. The milk was likely farmed in the United States. It was taken from the cow, pasteurized, homogenized, packaged, transported, marketed, steamed, and finally aesthetically mixed into my cappuccino. Remarkably the whole thing cost me only $4.25! I say ‘only’ because, just think about all the people involved, all the families that this product influences. Still I tend to wonder: Who benefited most? And was anyone exploited?
This is the topic of Bruce Wydick’s novel about coffee production and consumption in today’s world. Yes, that’s right, a novel. An empirically minded development economist has written a story (with a setting, a plot, complications, a crisis, a climax, and denouncement). And, I’m not kidding, it is quite a page turner. This is a unique quality of a book with the topic of globalization and agricultural value chains. Not only does the book present the nuances of poverty and globalization, it includes themes of love, life, joy, and lament.
‘The Taste of Many Mountains‘ follows four graduate students – Angela, Alex, Rich, and Sofia – on a summer of fieldwork in Guatemala where they are charged with the task of calculating the value added and profits at each link in the global coffee supply chain. A primary research objective being: is fair trade coffee better for poor farmers than free trade coffee? The answer, of course, is nuanced and rather technical, but this book explains the concept as well as I’ve ever read.
What sets this book apart from other books is it is both a story that doesn’t loose sight of the evidence and a research report that doesn’t loose sight of the story. The story is based on actual research that has recently published in The Review of Economics and Statistics. Additionally the book is filled with impassioned discussions about the core tenants of international trade economics and the sometimes visceral (perhaps spiritual) call to help the poor and vulnerable. These conversations engage a tension anyone who has spent time in a developing country has likely considered. For example, After Angela’s first day in Guatemala, she has the following conversation with Sofia:
“Sofia, about what we saw today… why? I know I’m probably being too persistent, but why is there so much poverty in places like this?”
“Again, I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question.”
“Try me. I just might be satisfied.”
Sofia turned out her own light and lay in a sleeping bag that she had thrown on her bed. She gazed upward where some lights from the town illuminated the pine boards that made up the ceiling. “Well, it seems to be related to a couple of basic things, one being how people in society organize themselves.”
“You mean institutions? That always sounded king of boring.”
“Trust me, it’s not boring. Understanding them is something people win Nobel prizes for.”
“I guess I don’t really get it,” said Angela.
“The rules of the game that society makes for itself. Institutions either encourage people to make a living by creating or doing things that benefit other people, or by siphoning off what other people have earned doing just that. In rich countries it’s mainly the former, and in poor countries it’s more of the later. When people learn that the rewards of creativity and hard work are mostly confiscated, they don’t bother. So a lot of people say that it’s all about institutions.”
Sofia stopped. Angela figured that Sofia wanted to go to sleep, but she’d had a cup of coffee after dinner, her bed was hard, and she was surprisingly wired even though it had been a long day. So my relatives are poor because their rules of the game aren’t any good, she thought.
“So what’s the other part of it?” Angela asked. There was another pause.
Sofia turned her head on the pillow back to face her. “Well, probably another part of it has to do with things like the aspirations people have for their lives and their identity. Sometimes it’s hard for, say, the son of a peasant to see himself as capable of being anything other than a peasant. But if your dad was a doctor or an engineer, then you might have higher aspirations.”
Angela thought about herself for a moment. “My dad was a doctor, at least my American dad. I have plenty of aspirations, but I think also plenty of identity issues.”
The book is stuffed with engaging yet informative dialogues like this one. Discussing cutting edge topics in development economics such as institutions and aspirations to debating the merits and demerits of International Trade Theory vs. World Systems Theory.
It is a really enjoyable read and is applicable for almost anyone interested in helping others across national borders. If I ever get the chance to teach an introduction to development economics class at an undergraduate level, I would seriously consider crafting a curriculum around this book. For those interested, the book also includes a list of references to the papers that inform the various dialogues throughout the book.
And (SPOILER ALERT) Bruce recently wrote about The Flaw in Fair Trade on his blog. But I suggest reading the book.