Reframing Success in Tackling Child Labor

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Author Kristy Leissle

Scholar of Cocoa and Chocolate
Photo by Lucy O'Bryan, Absolute Options LLC

When I was teaching university courses in African Studies in Seattle, I often handed my students a blank map of Africa on the first day of class and asked them to fill in countries, capitals, and geographical features. Unless a student had lived in Africa, they usually found this a challenge, and often expressed frustration or embarrassment at their mostly blank maps.

Once the students had labeled everything they could, I asked them to make a list of images or ideas they associated with Africa. This, it turned out, was much easier. Virtually every student—from those born on the continent to those who had never stepped foot there—had something to say about what life was like in Africa, and typically the offerings were about negative things. Over the ensuing months, we would examine evidence that challenged the stereotypical thinking that so frequently dominated their ideas lists.

In my research, teaching, and public scholarship on Africa over twenty years, I have seen many discussions follow a similar pattern: people start with a preconceived idea about what life is like here (today, I live in Ghana), and don’t necessarily have access to evidence that broadens their thinking beyond stereotypes. Discussions about child labor are among these. The term seems to evoke in the mind’s eye an image of work gangs of illegally conscripted children toiling on plantations in a constant state of danger. When this notion of child labor prevails (as it often does), the solution seems clear: arrest the law-breakers who created this scenario and return the children to the safe havens in which they lived before.

Though there are cases of trafficked children working in cocoa, this image of child labor is not predominant in reality. Most children involved in hazardous activities are working on their family’s land, and they undertake that work for many reasons that can change over time. There is no one set of circumstances that will always force a child into hazardous work, nor keep her or him out of it. As the case studies in this report and related media show, children’s farm labor is complex, specific, shifting, and vulnerable to forces beyond their or their family’s control.

The importance of language

Even using the term “child labor” poses a challenge. It forces us into a binary way of thinking, whereby a child is either clearly a laborer or not. Such thinking suggests that children can move “out of” labor into a permanent state of non-labor, for which a proxy term is often “in school.” Over the course of this report’s production, the team had an ongoing conversation about the language we were using, so that it would best reflect the realities of children’s lives based on learnings from our respective research and field studies.

What is the best language to describe, for example, a child who is not, in the current moment, working in any danger, but who has done so in the past and whose circumstances may lead her back into potential harm? How do we categorize the 70% of children who are involved in hazardous work, but who also attend school? To take an example from my own fieldwork, how should I write about the young teenage boy from a caring family, well-nourished and educated, who walked with me and his father to the family plot, carrying a bucket of liquid pesticide that a professional sprayer then applied to the trees? Is he, or is he not, a “child laborer”?

I raise this point about language because the terms we use to describe and define child labor impact how we measure success in reducing it. If we rely solely upon a binary classification of “permanent child laborer” or “never child laborer,” it will seem as if little progress has been made. One of the important contributions of the current report is to make visible the complex circumstances surrounding children’s labor through sensitive, honest case studies.

In the course of my fieldwork in Ivory Coast and Ghana, farmers have repeatedly told me that they wish people outside of West Africa would not rush to assume that they are deliberately inflicting harm. To paraphrase a comment that an Ivorian farmer recently made to me, not without frustration, “We are also parents. We don’t want children to be in danger either.”

West African perspectives

People along the cocoa supply chain, from farm to port, have with great patience and clarity helped me to see what child labor looks like from their points of view, embedded within the rural realities that define their lives and livelihoods.

When we are discussing its economic importance, farmers often tell me that cocoa enables life improvements that would otherwise not be possible. Foremost among these is children’s education. Many farmers have a story to tell about how cocoa earnings paid not only for the costs associated with primary or secondary schooling, but for an older child to attend trade school or other professional training. These achievements can improve circumstances for not only the child, but also for parents, siblings, and, eventually, the educated child’s own children.

When children become involved in farming activities, it is sometimes because the family sees cocoa as an opportunity for the household as a whole to prosper. One way that farmers have helped me to understand why child labor continues is that people—children included—sometimes measure what they perceive as difficult work in the short term against long-term possibilities for advancement, for themselves and generations to come.

Farmers are also keen to convey how much labor is involved in growing cocoa. While certain mechanized technologies exist for weeding, spraying trees, and breaking open pods, they are highly variable in efficacy. For the most part, humans do a better job than machines at cocoa farm labor. Smallholders in Ivory Coast and Ghana routinely hire workers, particularly during harvest or when replanting. Because sociocultural norms in both countries designate certain farm work as inappropriate for them, women in particular need to hire laborers. But cash is not always available to pay for enough help, and some farmers do not have the means to pay for hired labor at all.

As in agricultural systems the world over, when there is farm work to be done, and no money to pay for assistance with it, household members contribute. There may be no other option but for children to help produce sellable cocoa. Hence, possibilities arise for harm.

The role of infrastructure

Finally, almost no conversation goes by without discussing the lack of infrastructure in West Africa’s cocoa-growing areas. Poverty is often cited as the driver behind child labor, but based on how farmers describe poverty to me, it is as much about infrastructure as it is about income. Farmers routinely talk about having to walk a long way to fetch water and wood for fuel. They describe the challenges of meeting basic needs when there is no plumbing, few sanitation facilities, and unreliable power sources. Much of this daily labor falls to women, whose children often do chores to help.

Stephen Ashia manages a cocoa cooperative in Ghana’s Eastern region, where his work involves overseeing child protection programs. When visitors ask Ashia about the persistence of child labor, he asks them to consider how basic needs are met in much of rural Africa, compared to North America or Europe.

“Now there,” he explained, “open your tap, and the water flows. Your gas—open it, and then there’s … a fire and then you can cook. Sometimes even you don’t cook. You go … buy food and you eat. But in Africa, it’s not so. We don’t have these gases. We don’t have this water. You have to go and fetch! So, if a child goes and fetches water for a bath, from a stream, or from a well, or from a borehole … do you want the old woman to go and carry the water? Because it’s a family thing we are doing.… While the parent is preparing your food for the morning, you have to go and fetch the water to support. So it’s not that the parents are sitting down doing nothing and say, ‘Go and fetch water.’” Ashia was adamant that no child should be asked to perform a task that was beyond her or his capacity.

Reframing success

But in his experience, child labor interventions must reflect and respond to these rural realities. My discussions with Ashia, as well as others working in remediation, have helped me to understand that progress may be incremental, indirect, or even unseen. Harm reduction may look very different from village to village, family to family, child to child.

This does not mean that we should give up on measuring success. It does mean that we must reject a binary notion of success, in which only children who have demonstrably moved permanently out of any labor scenario are “counted.”  While there is much left to be learned, the constellation of family circumstances, local infrastructure, and farming realities that make it more or less likely that a child will be involved in harmful labor are broadly understood. When a program or intervention addresses even one of these circumstances, then that is progress.

A useful example from the Nestlé Cocoa Plan is the maternal literacy program. When a mother learns to read and write, she can invest in herself and her family in ways that correlate with a reduction in child labor. While women’s literacy alone will not move all children permanently out of labor, it likely reduces the probability of that labor for some children. That is success.

Harmful child labor will not be eradicated overnight. But as farmers have explained to me, and as this report demonstrates, reducing its incidence is not only possible, it is happening right now. With humility, sensitivity, and ongoing investment, a more secure future lies within reach for children working in cocoa.

This blog was original published on Nestlé Cocoa Plan