Child Labor in West Africa: Roads not taken – Part 1

This is the first of two posts that address what could have been done regarding child labor in West Africa. The first covers the efforts of the International Labor Organization’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour. 

In 1999, the ILO convention on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour helped focus attention on those aspects of child labor that were most abhorrent. Shortly thereafter the first reports about child labor in the West African cocoa sector emerged. No wonder then, that IPEC has something to say about the problem. Its director, Frans Roselaers, even witnessed the Harkin-Engel Protocol with his signature. 

In 2002, IPEC began its Programme to Combat Hazardous and Exploitative Child Labour in Cocoa/Commercial Agriculture in West Africa (WACAP) with $5 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Labor and $1 million from the International Confectionary Association. By its end in 2005, WACAP had created working pilot programs in Cameroon, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Guinea. Let’s look at the Ghanian program, one of the more successful ones.

The Child Labor Monitoring System in Ghana was implemented in fifty-two communities, chosen from five districts of Ghana in which cocoa represented a significant part of the local economy. From the very beginning, the local community played a key role on the implementation of the system. Since child labor is often considered acceptable by local community standards, WACAP rightly emphasized that overcoming this cultural acceptance required local institutions advocating for change. 

At the core of the system was the local child labor committee made up of local officials, traditional rulers/chiefs, farmers, parents, teachers and organizations in civil society. This committee served as a voluntary community watchdog. It employed one or two paid monitors and a supervisor who was trained in data collection and collation. It’s final responsibility was to withdraw children from dangerous work situations and place them with social protection agencies.

The monitors were drawn from professions that would come into contact with working children: teachers, agricultural extension workers, members of sprayer gangs (people hired by the Cocoa Board to do the cocoa spraying) or religious leaders. The task of the monitors was to collect data on the extent of child labor though interviews with child workers, children at social protection agencies, employers and farmers and schools. The local supervisor then collated the information collected and forwarded it to the child labor committee which, in turn, sent the information to the district level.

A district child labor committee in collaboration with the district level governmental agencies collated the community reports and used the data to implement necessary solutions in collaboration with the district social welfare office and district labor office. The committe also conducted spot checks on questionnaires to ensure that the information was correct and not made up by local monitors. Finally, it forwarded the collated district reports to the national Ministry of Manpower, Youth and Employment, specifically its child labor unit. 

The advantage of this monitoring system based on monthly reports lay in its ability to track changes over time in all communities. These changes, in turn, allowed both governmental, non-profit and private actors to allocate the necessary resources to remediation. Furthermore, WACAP used existing structures as much as possible, increased local capacity for monitoring and remediation while firmly situating responsibility for remediation at the local level as well. 

There were, of course, also challenges. A significant problem was the lack of alternative options for children withdrawn from dangerous work.

Those monitoring child labourers must be able to immediately get the children into schools, vocational training, or skills training, and to link with social services, police and other institutions for special needs. The danger of not having well-coordinated child labour monitoring and social protection systems is that children withdrawn from child labour are left with neither income nor developmentally sound alternative activities. (Report #4, p. 38)

The flip side of this problem, however, was the possibility of diversifying the local economy through the creation of such alternatives. In the end, however, financial resources were the biggest constraint. The system needed funds to pay the monitors, to collect and input data, to purchase means of transport for monitors (mostly bicycles). In 2005, the program came to an end, but not because it was flawed: 

IPEC experience with WACAP shows that child labour monitoring systems that are initiated at the behest of private sector entities often have a clear purpose to verify the status of child labour in their production and to monitor compliance of established criteria or standards by their supplying entities. The financial resources provided for such systems make it possible to establish and sustain relatively more elaborate child labour monitoring systems than those that could be established and sustained by solely public financing. (p. 36)

WACAP was convinced that the program could be scaled up from its pilot stage without any decrease in effectivness, but  it was “difficult to predict how sustainable the WACAP child labour monitoring system would be in West Africa because the project ended. The cocoa industry eventually did not commit to the system and was exploring other options of gathering information on child labour in the cocoa sector in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.” (p. 39)

The last comment intrigued me and I tried to follow up. I contacted Sherin Khan, the lead author of the four reports that covered the WACAP experience to ask about the decision of industry to end the funding of the project. She replied that the resons were not clear then and are not clear now. She assumed that the industry was interested in moving to a statistical sampling approach instead and concluded: “Based on the information available at the time, the ILO believed such a model would not serve the purpose, rather the purposes, that child labour monitoring did.  Cost may have been a factor.”

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