Dr Amanda Berlan is an anthropologist specialising in cocoa production. Since 2000, she has worked extensively on issues relating to children's rights, community development and global value chains. She has undertaken fieldwork in West Africa, India and the Caribbean and she has a keen interest in promoting an evidence-based approach to tackling sustainability problems.
As a young PhD researcher working on child labor in cocoa before the issue ever featured in mainstream news, I was once told by a chocolate industry executive that this subject was inconsequential both to the industry and its consumers, and he questioned whether the practice even occurred at all. Almost 20 years later, this is a completely unrecognisable landscape characterised by enormous corporate investments, multi-stakeholder partnerships, sustained media interest, certification initiatives, company protocols and high levels of consumer pressure. Reflecting on this journey, it is clear that much progress has been made. However, it is also clear that significant problems remain and that this is an area where there is a need for innovation and fresh thinking. This opinion piece argues in favour of a greater focus on child and community participation in order to achieve change.
Many observers express frustration that children are still toiling in the cocoa fields and that the sector-wide objective of eliminating child labor, or at least the commitment to reduce it by 70% by 2020, will not be met. This is indicative of the vast and ongoing disparity between the lives of local communities and Western-based expectations which, in spite of what has been achieved in the last two decades, still needs to be resolved. From an academic perspective, such timelines are problematic because they are not only at odds with the realities on the ground but also because they fuel the expectation that change can occur fast. My own experience of working with cocoa farmers, their children and wider communities does not support the view that deadlines, especially those set by outsiders in different continents and with different worldviews, are going to be easily implementable.
This is because the root causes of child labor in cocoa are varied and complex; in my own fieldwork in Ghana I saw the enormous practical hurdles that need to be overcome to solve the problem as well as the significant cultural sensitivities around the subject. For example, malnutrition is a common problem in cocoa communities. Many of the children I interviewed worked because they were hungry; farm work offered them access to water and fruit whereas the school environment offered boredom and possibly corporal punishment to children who were too tired and hungry to concentrate, especially when taught in English, which many children did not understand. Many children felt shame at wearing torn and dirty school uniforms. However, they did not have the means to replace them or to keep them clean, especially as they were often required by the school to undertake farming duties which involved clearing undergrowth in the dust and searing heat with a machete. Children expressed horror in our discussions about the use of machetes, questioning why Westerners would not want them to use them on cocoa farms because they used them in many other areas of their life and because machetes offered invaluable protection against snakes and scorpions. The lack of toilet facilities in most rural schools and the possibility of sexual harassment was a deterrent for girls to be in education. Both sexes were at risk of labor exploitation as a result of broken marriages following which single mothers could not afford education for their children, or mothers remarried and stepfathers refused to pay for their stepchildren’s upkeep. The lack of early years childcare facilities or of other childcare alternatives in rural communities also meant that the caregiver(s) simply had no choice but to take children to farm with them. This provided the children with an early and unfortunate exposure to farm work and normalised their involvement in the eyes of their communities in a way not easily reconciled with Western notions of childhood.
The significance of this is to illustrate that child labor does not operate within a single causal framework and as a result, it cannot be rectified easily or within a specifiable timeframe. A holistic approach based on community remediation programs is necessary but crucially, this takes time to be implemented and of course to gain traction and deliver benefits in the communities involved. Based on the extensive needs of child workers in West Africa, it is also clear that we need to broaden our attention from the narrow focus on child labor to a wider commitment to improve child welfare and children’s rights. Such a broad goal is not within the amenable reach of individual governments, let alone of the operations of multinational corporations.
Giving children a voice
Even multi-stakeholder partnerships, now a trademark of the chocolate industry’s broader campaign to promote the sustainability of cocoa production, may unfortunately not hold the answer to these problems either. This is because the answer lies with the children themselves. However, in the quest to rid the cocoa chain of child labor, their voices and lived experiences, and to a large extent the views of their caregivers and wider communities, have been neglected in favour of top-down approaches designed to alter current practices based on external perceptions of needs and solutions. Unfortunately, until all interested parties recognise the complex social matrix in which child labor is embedded and engage with the reality of child laborers’ lives on their own terms, the trajectory towards positive change will remain slow and fraught with difficulty.
While adopting a child-centric approach may seem a lofty aspiration, in practical terms, this is an achievable change of paradigm. As a starting point, it involves using a different set of methodologies with children, young people and adults to gain a better understanding of the issues critical to unlocking change in the area of child labor. Until now, industry-commissioned research has relied heavily on the use of surveys with some limited use of qualitative research methods such as focus groups. However, as I have argued at length in the course of the last two decades, and as much research on child rights has also illustrated, survey-based data collection can, at best, only provide the most rudimentary clues as to how to address the causes of child labour in any given context.
Depending on the age of respondents, using a participatory approach based on a range of tools such as open interviews, life stories, drawings, photography or analysis games (to name a few) and supplementing these with focus groups, would provide much more revealing insights into the root causes of child labor and point towards practical ways in which it can be addressed. For example, a clear link between child labor and chronic hunger/malnutrition emerged in my own fieldwork with cocoa communities using such methods, and this showed that an effective school feeding programme would have a real impact on child labor in this context. Similarly, the use of participatory methods showed that a child’s biological age (which is typically a cornerstone of external interventions on child labor) was not a helpful frame of reference in these communities and provided insights into alternative ways to engage with them constructively to overcome this barrier.
In the eyes of cocoa communities, visits from NGOS, journalists and researchers have long lost their novelty, especially as farmers battle other significant challenges such as climate change and low incomes and know not to expect anything in return for their participation in often lengthy questionnaires. Using participatory methods is a way of promoting engagement and learning from the ground up. It involves communities in the generation of knowledge and solutions; it is empowering and flexible and helps bring to light often overlooked possibilities for moving policy and practice forward. In the case of child labor in cocoa it is concerning that much of the research undertaken to ‘map’ or ‘understand’ child labor has not included any direct engagement with children, let alone engagement using appropriate and participatory methods.
The need to include child voices does not only make for better policymaking; it also brings businesses into line with UN recommendations on the rights of working children. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child agreed in 2009 that working children:
“have to be heard in child-sensitive settings in order to understand their views of the situation and their best interests. They should be included in the search for a solution, which respects the economic and socio-structural constraints as well as the cultural context under which these children work. Children should also be heard when policies are developed to eliminate the root causes of child labour, in particular regarding education.”
In 2013, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child stated that children have a specific right ‘to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child’ which includes
“mechanisms of conciliation and arbitration that concern abuses of children’s rights caused or contributed to by business enterprises. (…) [C]hildren should be allowed to voluntarily participate in such proceedings and be provided the opportunity to be heard directly or indirectly through the assistance of a representative or appropriate body”
Providing a greater voice to cocoa communities and to children in particular flies in the face of much accepted wisdom. In the cocoa sector, the need for child participation has not percolated into practice to any significant extent and both the chocolate industry and its critics focus on macro-level system changes to alter community behaviour. For example, industry critics often cite low prices as the reason for child labor. While there is of course a link between poverty and child labor, as the factors previously outlined show, the issue is much more complex and raising the cocoa price alone would sadly not end child labor.
Towards a better future
To conclude this piece, it is clear that the investments made have resulted in many positive changes in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire where there are now high levels of awareness – if not compliance – on the issue of child labor in cocoa. While figures are not always encouraging, as the evidence contained in this report attests, there are many success stories. We can say with confidence that we have moved on from, and will never return to, the state of ignorance we were in regarding the involvement of children in cocoa production in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Publications such as this one also illustrate that holistic perspectives have become a more accepted modus operandi in the chocolate industry; in an article I published in 2004 I drew attention to the need to ensure that children in cocoa communities received a quality education. However, the feedback I received from industry at the time was that their focus was on addressing child labor and that issues such as education, hunger etc. were beyond their remit (‘We are not the government’ was a frequent response). There is now more recognition of the need to tackle a broad range of issues though many issues are only grasped in relatively superficial ways. Unless child and community participation are strengthened considerably this will unfortunately not change. However, given the unrelenting media interest in stories of child labor in chocolate, and the ongoing criticisms from external observers, there is an urgency to redefining the prevailing discourses on child labor. We cannot wait decades for the industry to adopt more inclusive paradigms for intervention; a long-term child-focused approach encompassing pragmatic considerations and a genuine commitment to child rights (as they are broadly conceived in UN policies and recommendations) must form the bedrock of action going forward. I commend the approach of the Nestlé Cocoa Plan and the conceptual and practical shifts that have characterised interventions in recent years. But real change still lies ahead of us and this is what we must now focus on.