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A partial approach to child labor in West Africa is almost worse than doing nothing

Part 2 on why the U.S. should not ban cocoa imports from Ivory Coast

· Africa

In a July 2, 2019 article, the Washington Post reported that the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana recently announced plans to hike cocoa prices as a way to, among other things, boost farmer incomes. This would and protect them and their families (including their children) from fluctuations in cocoa prices and lead to a reduction in use of child labor.

In their July 2, 2019 letter to Honorable Kevin McAleenan, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, U.S. senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon)

single out Ivory Coast in their call for a crackdown on cocoa made with child labor by imposing a ban on cocoa imports. They “urge” Homeland Security to “work with CBP to quickly issue a WRO (withhold release order) against cocoa products from Ivory Coast that are not demonstrated to be from sources free of child labor”.

As I wrote in a previous article, this call “is a selectively miscalculated, discriminatory trade barrier that badly misjudges the consequences”. It also evidences poor judgment, based on limited subject matter knowledge and a consequent tilt toward confirmation bias.

Understanding the concept of child labor

The thought of “child labor” makes me cringe as I imagine 6-7 year olds doing repetitive and sometimes dangerous work or, even worse, as domestic slaves for rich people. But not all work done by children is bad or targeted for elimination. It’s important to differentiate between child work, child labor and forced child labor.

The U.S. Department of Labor differentiates between three types of children’s work: working children, child labor and hazardous child labor: 218 million children work; 152 million are children in child labor, down from 245 million in 2000; 73 million children are engaged in hazardous child labor, the majority in agriculture, but also in mining, domestic labor, and other sectors.

The ILO defines “child labor” as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. The worst forms of child labor involve children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age.

The data indicates that 70% work in agriculture, 48% of global estimates on child labor and forced labor are below the age of 12 and that 58% are boys. But neither the U.S report, based on data from the ILO, nor the ILO distinguish between number of child laborers and number of children in forced labor. So it’s understandable that, based on preconceived notions, the two U.S. senators consider all African children who work in the family to be exploited. This, of course, assumes Africans are “underdeveloped” and need to follow American cultural norms.

It’s important to recognize that our understanding of what might be “harmful to the physical and mental development of children” is heavily influenced by our culture and specifically – in the western world – by our affluence and the way this has fundamentally altered our worldview. Children in America are expected to be in school, and, if they work, it’s in addition to their schooling, not in place of it.

Yet, if we make an effort to test the generally accepted hypothesis that American children are “better off” than African children, we will gain insights into how the growing tendency to keep them safe by protecting them from responsibility is hampering our children’s mental and physical development. There is no disputing that childhood obesity, diabetes and psychological and behavioral disorders in the U.S. are on the rise. Many of our kids, whether poor or rich, grow up in hazardous social environments, while middle and high schools are becoming battle grounds where they have to fight for their lives.

Not all work done by children is forced child labor

Not all work done by children in Africa, or anywhere else in the world, is child labor to be targeted for elimination. Work that children do to help the family on the farm, around the home (unfortunately, gender-biased statistics on child labor routinely under-report girl’s domestic work) or assisting in a family business contribute to children’s development and to the welfare of their families. They provide them with skills and experience and help to prepare them to be productive members of society during their adult life.

Poverty and “forced child labor” (in American parlance, this means not attending school) should not be confused nor should relevant statistics used irresponsibly. With below living wages, a many Ivorian parents can’t afford to send their children to school (no money to pay school fees, books and uniforms). Only 62% of Ivorian children can attend school. Instead, they help out on the farm to contribute to household income for survival.

Assisting parents on cocoa farms is common practice in Cote d’Ivoire, as in other African countries. It is seen as an integral part of the process of socializing children and a way for parents to teach their children farm work and transfer their knowledge to the younger generation. Many African farmers see apprenticeship in the production of cocoa as essential to guarantee the future livelihoods of their children, who will likely work in the agricultural sector when they become adults.

Because laboring on a farm comes at the expense of formal education, UNICEF and the Government of Ivory Coast have been working together since 2010 to bring education, health and protection in their outreach to farming communities and support to help farmers overcome the challenges of paying for education. Today, the farming families who benefitted from the outreach and support accept for children to assist on the farms as long as their work doesn’t interfere with their education and they don’t have to perform tasks that could harm them.

What is also little known but easy to learn about through a cursory internet search on the subject, is that many Ivory Coast teens are taking care of classmates’ kids so they can stay in school; young mothers continue their education thanks to their sisters and friends.

Cultural bias leads to poor judgement

The import ban demanded by senators Brown and Wyden is not just an unequivocal ban that confuses the different types of work children do. It not only shows disrespect for African cultures by imposing an American mindset and forces a culturally biased understanding of the economic role of children.

It would be much more sensible to “develop and support processes, through appropriate investments, that enable African communities to analyze and reflect on their children’s best interests in relation to the work that they do, the education they receive, the future that awaits them and the options and resources available to them.” Empowering people to influence decisions that concern their well-being and that of their families and communities is the strongest catalyst for the development of a democracy by and for the people, including children. This translates into targeted, evolving foreign aid approaches that duly contextually consider the actual outcomes of implemented measures.

In reference to indentured child labor mentioned by the senators in their letter, this seems to be based solely on the firsthand and photographic evidence provided in the Washington Post’s report “Cocoa’s child laborers." The firsthand interviews in the report are not to be disputed. But when making such a categorical call for an extreme trade barrier, it is best practice to do your background research, consult more than one source and think critically. Relying on just one source of information and/or analysis is completely unreliable and demonstrates both a limited understanding of West Africa and a tilt toward confirmation bias.

In the West African context, child mobility is linked to a number of factors that need to be properly understood before designing any type of intervention or, in this case, trade barrier. West African nations have a long tradition of young people moving south within and from the countries of the Sahel to look for work. Although it is unfortunately true that traffickers exploit and profit from this throughout the region, “it cannot be assumed that all children on the move are victims of trafficking. Treating them as such can result in increased risk and the violation of their rights.”

It is also common, as part of the African extended family, for rural children to be sent and lodged with relatives to access education or vocational training or better livelihood opportunities. While this can and does result in exploitation, once again, it cannot be automatically classified as trafficking. This criminalizes the child’s family and support systems that are key resources for sustainable change.

Support African free trade and industry, not trade barriers

Human trafficking and exploitation of adults or children through forced labor, domestic servitude or sex slavery is undoubtedly the most insidious of crimes. An industry worth around $150 billion a year, it profits from human misery. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 40.3 million individuals are trapped in sex slavery, forced or bonded labor, or forced marriage; 1 in 4 victims, or 25%, of modern slavery are children (below the age of 18). Asia and the Pacific region is host to by far the largest absolute number of victims (62% of victims), followed by Africa (23% of victims). But Ivory Coast is not on the list of the countries with the highest rates of modern slavery or human trafficking. It is one of the 17 countries whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.

Funds gained from human trafficking cross borders through shell companies, badly governed banking systems and lax anti-money laundering laws. African countries recognize the problem and have taken many steps to address this pressing issue, at national and regional level, as well as being a part of international conventions. They have also recognized that effective anti-human trafficking responses require strengthening coordination and cooperation between nations and achieving a unified response.

On May 30, 2019, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA ) officially went into force, signed by all but three of Africa’s fifty-five nations. This historic agreement establishes the largest free trade area in the world since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995. With free trade under attack in much of the developed world, the AfCFTA is an especially praiseworthy and signature African demonstration that African countries can and will work together to unlock the continent’s economic potential of over $3 trillion in combined GDP in benefit of the region’s more than 1.2 billion people.

Although this groundbreaking agreement still faces an uphill battle for implementation, it will unquestionably facilitate not only regional collaboration to secure sustainable economic growth by shifting away from the volatility associated with extractive exports towards industrialized goods.

A shift from resource dependence to industrial production is critically important in the fight against illicit trade in Africa. A 2016 University of Mississippi student thesis convincingly argues that economic linkage between resource dependent states and industrial states is positively associated with human trafficking rates for both destination and source countries.

By using the principle and practice of free trade to promote African industrialization and the advancement of its manufacturing sector, the AfCFTA will not only provide more employment opportunities for the continent’s booming youth population. It will also facilitate the development and implementation of new monitoring techniques to detect illicit trade, including human trafficking; better legal, operation and regulatory measures necessary to strengthen the regional governance and compliance framework in order to address human trafficking much more aggressively; and better political collaboration, technology sharing and regional links between police forces and intelligence agencies required to give teeth those laws and regulations teeth. Indeed, the AfCFTA will play a critical role in helping create an environment where exploitative child labor is no longer an option.

If U.S senators Brown and Wyden truly want to effect measures that will improve the fight against child trafficking and forced labor in Ivory Coast’s cocoa fields, they should be calling for U.S policies that nourish free trade and focus on strengthening U.S. relationships with African regional and nascent continental organizations.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, UpBoost LLC

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