The call by U.S. senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) to ban cocoa imports from Ivory Coast is a selectively miscalculated, discriminatory trade barrier that badly misjudges the consequences. In their July 12, 2019 letter, to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Honorable Kevin McAleenan, the two U.S. senators call for a crackdown on West African cocoa made with child labor. Furthermore, they single out Ivory Coast as the country meriting the import ban. They even make a point of emphasizing that “Forced child labor is too ingrained in that country’s industry to attempt to single out specific cocoa farms or producers as bad actors” (emphasis added).
Their call begs the question not only of what the senators’ starting hypothesis was, but also if their hypothesis was open-minded or, on the contrary, tilted toward a confirmation bias. Did they approach the information provided by the Washington Post’s investigative report “Cocoa’s child laborers”, which in their letter they say “appears to verify…that the West African cocoa supply chain is reliant on indentured child labor”, from a fox’s broad-minded viewpoint, or from a hedge-hog’s narrow-minded viewpoint?
As David Epstein rightly argues in his July 21, 2019 editorial, “We aren’t as open-minded as we think”. Indeed, both liberals and conservatives are similarly “adamant about avoiding contrary opinions”. In their letter, the two democratic senators express their “concern that imports of cocoa made with forced child labor, continue to enter the U.S”. They then urge the Acting Secretary “to instruct Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to use its authority under 19 USC 1307 to investigate and block cocoa made with forced labor from entering the U.S. market…” They then point specifically at the “prevalence of forced child labor in the Ivory Coast’s cocoa sector”, using the Post’s investigative report as verified proof.
Considering the gravity of the trade barrier called for – an import ban -, the crucial question here is whether senators Brown and Wyden approached the issue of child labor in West Africa, and in Ivory Coast specifically, by open-mindedly seeking new evidence or counterarguments, or by closed-mindedly seeking confirmation that confirms what they think they know.
Did they actually do the research and look for contrary evidence or new evidence regarding Ivory Coast’s cocoa sector child labor situation and the drivers behind it? Or did they just accept the Post’s investigative report at face value and (perhaps) hunt for information that aligned with their already existing beliefs? If they thought they knew enough, then their call is dangerously tilted toward confirmation bias. In this case, they made a call for an import ban based on limited information, by cherry-picking details to fit preconceived notions and based on poor judgement. If, on the contrary, they sought to expand what they knew and gain subject matter knowledge, then they need to continue the hunt for information far beyond the bounds of the problem they think they understand and in search of a broader range of clues.
This article, as well as the six subsequent ones I will be posting on the subject, is written in the spirit proposed by David Epstein in his editorial: that of contributing to a more broad-minded, fox-like approach to the issue, in an effort to help senators Brown and Wyden imagine their views as “hypotheses in need of testing”. The aim is not to bring them, or anyone else, around to a particular perspective. The aim is rather to encourage them, and if applicable, you, to be more actively open-minded in order to help them (and you) disprove what they (and you) already believe.
The call for an import ban is naïve and misguided and will have unintended consequences
Blocking cocoa imports from Ivory Coast to the U.S. does not solve the problem with child labor in the supply chain. However, the trade barrier does punish farmers and, ultimately, the very children the senators seek to help.
Abusive or forced child labor has no place in any production chain. But punishing a government that is trying to improve the livelihoods of its farmers by raising the price of a commodity is not the way to eradicate it. Restricting imports of cocoa from Ivory Coast into the U.S. will most likely result in just the opposite: an increase in child labor, abusive or not, forced or not.
As Benjamin Powell argues in “A case against child labor prohibitions”, in a 2014 Cato Institute Economic Development Bulletin, “all too often, people’s emotional reaction lead them to advocate policies that will harm the very children they intend to help.” Passing a trade sanction against Ivory Coast may be intended as indirect punishment of the big multinationals that deal in cocoa beans and other related products. But it translates into direct punishment not only for the farmer living in poverty, but also for the family’s children who help out on the farm.
We would all like to see an end to abusive child labor. From a normative perspective, we can all agree it is reprehensible and should be banned, particularly in its worst forms. But, if child labor is largely a phenomenon of poverty, any attempt to eradicate it by banning imports from the sector that is the heart of Ivory Coast’s economy will be counterproductive.
Not only will it worsen impediments to Ivory Coast’s development efforts and in turn increase farmer poverty. By punishing families who take the option of their children working on the farm, because the meager addition to family income is necessary for survival, the import ban will lead to more children working in less-desirable alternatives, such as prostitution or soldiering.
The call for an import ban is a policy initiative that is based on a lack of understanding of the social, historical, cultural, ethnographic context impacting child labor. Child labor in the cocoa industry is the outcome of a complex myriad of micro-level factors. So any policy initiative needs to address the problem based on a qualified understanding of the macro, meso and micro-level dynamics impacting child rights in cocoa-producing communities and the plurality of factors underlying them. It also needs to be contextually-grounded and gender-sensitive in relation to the household, village and regional dimensions of poor labor practices.
If senators Brown and Wyden truly want to achieve better results in the fight against abusive child labor, child-trafficking and child-slavery tied to cocoa farming, “it has to come through a process that generates better opportunities for the children—not from legislative mandates that prevent children and their families from taking the best option available to them.”
Partially rationalized policy proposals take disturbing forms
There’s really nothing more harmful and damaging than a partial view of the world, in both senses of the word: incomplete (i.e. limited) and biased (i.e. one-sided). Paraphrasing Michael Gerson (Washington Post, July 19, 2019), although “We can’t reconsider our whole view of the world with every new piece of information”, we can’t take the easy or tendentious way out either by “accepting evidence that supports our predispositions and filter[in]g out evidence that does not.”
I don’t condone abusive or forced child labor anywhere in the world. But I certainly don’t condone naïve, misguided, partial, knee-jerk trade blockages either. Ivory Coast’s cocoa farmers have a right to a bigger piece of chocolate profits… and the Ivorian government has a right to hike cocoa prices, as long as it truly does so to address poverty by encouraging, facilitating and channeling social and economic progress for all.