The Harkin-Engel Protocol – Part 3

In yesterday’s post, I outlined how the industry has adopted a definition of certification that flies in the face of the common sense meaning of the term. Certification, as I understand it, involves developing a standard and then measuring the production processes against that standard. If processes do not meet that standard, the product cannot be certified.

In the case of cocoa this would mean developing an appropriate level of child participation in cocoa farming. Cocoa can be certified to meet that standard if it is verified that children’s involvement did not rise above the levels specified. To achieve that certification, industry would use its resources to help bring child labor down to acceptable levels.

But let’s look at what the industry envisions. The image below captures the process quite well. It is taken from the World Cocoa Foundation’s web site.

Industry schema for certification (source:World Cocoa Foundation)

The process begins with data collection to determine the extent of the problem of child labor. The information collected is then disseminated in reports. The pilot studies I mentioned in the previous posts are presumable examples of the data collection and publication envisioned by the industry. In response to such reports, certain remediation efforts are then proposed and, presumably implemented. What does the industry envision when it speaks of remediation efforts? The response comes again from the World Cocoa Foundation website:

  • Ongoing work to sensitize community leaders, family members and/or farm caretakers to the worst forms of child labor and hazardous work
  • Building community awareness of the importance of school attendance for children; expanding access to quality, relevant education
  • Training and empowerment of cocoa farming families to identify specific community needs and achieve solutions
  • Helping cocoa farming families earn more for their crop, through improved productivity, group selling and other activities
  • Identification of resources for rescue, rehabilitation and repatriation of children and adults found to be in unacceptable labor situations

All of these efforts are then verified by an independent verification board which was established in December 2007.

At first glance, this process seems indeed to represent a comprehensive approach to the problem of child labor. The language contains all the buzzwords of the current development talk – empowerment, stakeholders, sensitivity, community, sustainability. But behind all the lingo there is precious little substance. Most importantly, the process does not certify that the cocoa was produced without the worst forms of child labor. It only certifies how much child labor persists and that remediation takes place where it does.

Not surprisingly, there is no commitment by the industry to pay for any of these steps. The data collection and report publication are undertaken by the governments of Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire. It is not clear who pays for the verification board and, most importantly, the responsibilities of the industry for remediation are not spelled out. The first three remediation tasks are vague and presumable involve local and international NGOs that are doing this work already.

The fourth remediation task is the crucial one. Getting more money into the pocket of the farmers so that they don’t have to resort to child labor. But here, the industry only suggests increased productivity. That work that is already being done by the Sustainable Tree Crops Program and many other organizations. It is not at all clear how much money the industry plans on putting into these efforts.

But increased productivity is not the answer at all. We see here the common mistake of focusing on the individual farmer while ignoring the collective impact. At the moment, about one third of the cocoa harvest is lost due to pests, diseases and other weather related problems. From the perspective of a single farmer, it make sense to limit that loss. Increasing one’s output by 33% seems to be a great way to improve income. But Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire produce almost 60% of the world cocoa output. So if all farmers there were to increase their production by 33%, world production would increase over 700,000 tons. It does not take much imagination to realize the impact this will have on cocoa prices. Despite greater productivity, prices will go down or remain low.

In August 2007, the industry hired Verité, a Massachusetts based organization that specializes in labor condition verification, to set up its verification system. Although Verité has a great record in dealing with factory level verification, it appears they have bought into this system. Its “road map,” published on the verification board’s web site replicates the entire scheme in detail, but it also gives some candid insights into its shortcomings.

For example, when discussing the remediation issue, Verité stresses that “industry must go beyond this [the vague objectives] and clearly articulate what remediation they are, and are not, accountable for.” Verité also acknowledges that the system developed by industry is essentially reactive and does nothing to actively improve the income of farmers. But Verité seems to assume that the child labor and the poverty that fosters it is more of a public relations issue than a poverty issue. The following paragraph is instructive:

Verité urges the GIG [global industry group] and producer countries to refine their responses to inevitable questions about the root causes of WFCL [worst forms of child labor] and poverty because, at present, the industry view can be seen as being out of step with many governments, some NGOs and academics. Being essentially alone on this issue ensures that industry will continue to be the source of stakeholder frustration and concern on this issue. Further, were industry to acknowledge that poverty is one of the root causes of WFCL, but that responsibility for poverty is a shared one, it would help diffuse NGO criticism. (p. 16)

Sadly, the last sentence seems to capture the broader industry position with regard to child labor in the cocoa sector: design a certification process that diffuses criticisms and thus reduces the public relations problem while avoiding as much as possible to do something substative to reduce the worst forms of child labor.

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