Solidaridad looks back on 50 years of working towards social justice and sustainable value chains

2019 is a special year for Solidaridad: it is 50 years since our foundation in 1969. This year, we celebrate and look back on the past five decades, in which Solidaridad has travelled an extraordinary journey. It had started out as an organization dedicated to promoting social justice for the poor and oppressed in Latin America. From then onwards, Solidaridad has frequently stood at the cradle of socio-economic developments and innovation in the field of sustainable development.

In the past 50 years, Solidaridad has thus reinvented itself twice. The first transition was from providing social support to the oppressed in Latin America in the 1970s to promoting fair trade and economic development in the 1980s. The second reinvention came in 2011, when Solidaridad made the transition from being a Dutch organization to becoming a global network, co-owned with partners on five continents.

A time of change

Solidaridad was established in 1969 by Catholic bishops in the Netherlands through an Advent campaign to provide development aid to Latin America. ‘Solidaridad’ means ‘solidarity’ in Spanish. Thus an organization was born which would largely dedicate itself to promoting social justice for the poor and oppressed in Latin and South American countries throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. In many ways, the activist nature of Solidaridad in this period mirrored the social developments in the wider world: this was a time of change and of ensuing social protests which were starting to tear down the old, traditional political structures.

Supporting the oppressed

Solidaridad has launched a variety of often high-profile campaigns in the 1970s, expressing solidarity with the poor and marginalized in Latin America. These notions of activism and protest were much inspired by the ideas put forward in the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire, as well as other writers and philosophers of this period.

This 1970s poster reflects well the activist nature of Solidaridad from that time. It portrays a famished Latin American child with ‘Fighting for Food’ written in Dutch at the top, and protesting people holding up a sign which says in Spanish: ‘Against injustice’

In 1979, Solidaridad launched the campaign ‘Uit het slop!’ in the Netherlands, which literally means ‘Out of the slum!’. With this campaign, Solidaridad aimed to create a connection between the residents of poor neighbourhoods in Brazil with people living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the Netherlands.

The ‘Out of the slum!’ campaign from 1979

Brave voices of Latin America

This period was also marked by widespread oppression by various Latin American governments, among which Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Solidaridad stood by those brave enough to raise their voices in protest, such as Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador (in El Salvador). Romero was outspoken against the military oppression during the bloody civil war in his country.

In the winter of 1980, he wrote a letter to Solidaridad, in which he expressed his gratitude to the organization for support in buying radio equipment so he could broadcast to a wider audience. He also wrote about how hard it had become to keep doing this work.

Archbishop Oscar Romero broadcasting on the radio

Tragically, Romero paid a terrible price for letting his voice of dissent with the authorities be heard by the masses. On 24 March 1980, just four days after writing the letter to Solidaridad, he was shot in the heart during Sunday Mass in San Salvador. The loss of brave people such as Romero, among others, remains a painful wound in the history of Solidaridad.

Visit from Rigoberta Menchú

Another brave voice from Latin America belongs to the Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú. In 1981, she held her first public speech – ‘Peace with all the violence?’ – at an event organized by Solidaridad in Woerden, a small town in the Netherlands. Shortly before that, Rigoberta had fled Guatemala. When she gave her speech in the Netherlands, her hair was cut very short to prevent being recognized upon fleeing her country.

Rigoberta Menchú with Jan Zijerveld, Chairman of Solidaridad, in 1981

Solidaridad has supported Rigoberta’s work in human rights for many years. In 1992, Rigoberta received the Nobel Prize for Peace. When she was subsequently invited to the Netherlands by Queen Beatrix, Rigoberta’s hair was long once again.

Promoting socio-economic development

The idealistic and revolutionary activism of the 1970s had gradually made way for a more economy-centred political debate in the 1980s. Along with the changing socio-economic discussion, Solidaridad realized that social rights are rooted in economic development. The organization thus underwent a considerable change – its first reinvention as organization – during the mid-1980s.

Solidaridad hereby turned its attention to promoting a better economic situation for poor producers in developing countries and gradually also to advocating higher consumer awareness in Europe about these issues.

The Mexican farmer portrayed in this photo inspired the original Max Havelaar coffee logo and packaging. The line in Dutch at the bottom reads: ‘Caring for the third world’

Sparking a global fairtrade movement

The concept of fairtrade was subsequently born in the mid-1980s, which resulted in the establishment of the Max Havelaar Foundation by Solidaridad in 1988. The world’s first fairtrade label for sustainable coffee was thus launched on the Dutch market, followed by the European market two years later. Its success in the Netherlands helped to spark the global fairtrade movement for coffee as well as other commodities, such as tea and cocoa.

Max Havelaar coffee and tea in the 1990s

Towards certification, CSR and roundtable initiatives

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) increasingly became a driver for strategic company choices concerning sustainable production and consumption.  Solidaridad worked on developing and promoting new certification strategies, hereby targeting responsible corporate behaviour of regular businesses.

In 1995, Solidaridad established AgroFair, a company importing and distributing bananas and co-owned by banana producers in Africa and Latin America. This led to the successful introduction of fairtrade OKÉ and organic EKO OKÉ bananas into the European market.

OKÉ bananas from Ecuador are made ready for shipping to Rotterdam

Solidaridad thus continued its work in the area of certification schemes towards more sustainable production and consumption of commodities such as coffee, cocoa, fruit and textiles until around 2010. Other examples of Solidaridad-led or helped initiatives in the early 2000s are the fashion brand Kuyichi (2001), certification label Utz Certified (2002) and Made-By Foundation (2004), an alliance of fashion brands committed to more sustainable production.

Solidaridad’s Dutch textile campaign from around
the turn of the century calls for a ‘new pattern in the clothing industry’

Moreover, in 2006 Solidaridad began to actively participate in and initiate commodity roundtables for policy development and cooperation in various commodities, including sugar, palm oil, cotton and soy. These global roundtable initiatives still form part of Solidaridad’s core intervention strategies today.

Becoming a global network

In 2007, Solidaridad began on its gradual transition from its positioning as a Dutch NGO to an international network organization, accompanied by a decentralization to six regional offices worldwide (anno 2019, there are eight regional offices). This was the second time Solidaridad had reinvented itself as organization. Solidaridad Network was officially established in 2010 and after 34 years, the organization’s formal ecumenical cooperation with churches had come to an end.

Towards a sector-wide approach

The newly formed Solidaridad Network continued its international work in a variety of commodity sectors as well as through several global roundtables. The organization also gradually began to realize that certification does not fully solve all the root problems of unsustainable production. Good government policies and an enabling economic structure are important preconditions for this.

Solidaridad thus embraced a ‘post certification’ strategy, hereby developing more sector-wide approaches to tackling the challenges of unsustainable production and consumption.

Speed & Scale towards sustainable and inclusive development

In 2016, Solidaridad Network embarked upon its four-year strategic plan towards sustainable and inclusive development. The organization’s ‘Ambition 2020’ includes five innovation themes which Solidaridad is working on next to the commodity supply chains: climate & landscape  innovations, gender inclusivity, impact investment and digitalization.

This innovation agenda currently gives guidance to Solidaridad’s continuing efforts in working on future-proof, sustainable value chains which put the priorities of the farmers and workers first.

Participants of Solidaridad’s MASO-Academy: young cocoa farmers receiving professional training in Ghana. This is one of Solidaridad’s current major programmes  

In 2019, Solidaridad operates worldwide and is based in eight regional offices spanning across five continents. The organization has the ambition to keep on working towards fostering and accelerating global sustainable and inclusive development. And as we look forward, we also strive to learn from the lessons learnt in the course of our 50-year long history and experience.