The International Cocoa Initiative pointed to rising number of children attending school

The International Cocoa Initiative pointed to rising number of children attending school

The report from Tulane University into the use of child labour in cocoa production in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, published last week, revealed a 21% rise in the number of child labourers over the past five years and a 15.5% increase in the prevalence of child labour in cocoa-growing areas. Ben Cooper examines the report which, despite the alarming headline aggregate growth, reflects some underlying progress.

Last week was a significant one in the long and ongoing battle to eradicate child labour from the west African cocoa supply chain, with the publication of a major survey of progress during the past five years. Sadly, the report from Tulane University shows progress has been slower than might have been hoped.

The final report on Tulane's survey research reveals the number of child labourers in cocoa production across both countries actually rose by 21% between the baseline year of 2008/2009 and 2013/2014 to 2.12m, with the number rising by 49% in Côte d'Ivoire to 1.2m and falling by 3% in Ghana to 918,543.

The prevalence - the rate of child labour relative to the estimated child population in cocoa-growing areas - rose by 15.5% to 35.6% across both countries, rising by 41.3% to 32.2% in Côte d'Ivoire and falling by 6.4% to 41.1% in Ghana. Meanwhile, the number of children working in hazardous child labour, which includes activities such as carrying heavy loads, working with agro-chemicals and using sharp tools, increased by 18% across both countries.

While the survey suggests Ghana is making faster progress than Côte d'Ivoire, the study notes the prevalence of child labour and hazardous child labour among children in Ghana's cocoa-growing areas remain higher than in Côte d'Ivoire.

The report therefore clearly contains some grim findings. However, some underlying trends also give cause for optimism.

This is very much the message in the synthesis and review of the Tulane report, produced by the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), a multi-stakeholder organisation set up in 2002 as part of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which emphasises the demographic and market context of the Tulane figures.

ICI highlights the 80% increase in the number of households growing cocoa and the 42.8% increase in the number of children living in those households from the baseline year. It also points to Tulane's subsidiary finding relative to the increase in the cocoa-growing population, there has been a 14% decrease in the prevalence of child labour in cocoa-growing households across both countries and a 16% decrease in the worst forms of child labour. It also points out the baseline year selected represented a low comparison point.

ICI also notes the "impressive increase" in the percentage of children in cocoa-growing areas in both countries attending school. This rose by from 58% to 67% in Côte d'Ivoire and from 89% to 94% in Ghana.

In addition, there has been a "significant decrease" in the average number of child labourers per metric tonne of cocoa produced across both countries, from 0.93 child labourers per metric tonne in 2008/9 to 0.8 child labourers per metric tonne in 2013/2014.

ICI executive director Nick Weatherill takes the relative improvements as a sign efforts to address the child labour issue are beginning to work. "The report confirms cocoa-growing households are slowly moving away from child labour," he tells just-food, "but the number of households producing cocoa is ever more numerous and the amount of cocoa being produced compared to the baseline year is significantly greater, and so the challenge grows even though our progress in tackling the challenge is encouraging."

The link with attempts to boost capacity in cocoa cultivation in the two countries is underlined by the fact child labour in other agricultural commodities has fallen in the same period "in reasonable proportion" to the increases seen in cocoa, as farmers have switched to cocoa production.

Given demand for cocoa is set to increase further, the market dynamics that have contributed to the rise in child labour seen between 2008/2009 and 2013/14 will continue during the coming five years, placing a huge onus on scaling up efforts to raise farmer livelihoods and improve access to school education for children.

Notwithstanding the lack of headline progress in the last five years, Weatherill is upbeat about what ICI, in the first year of a new five-year strategy and better funded thanks to the addition of new members and higher fees, and CocoaAction, the industry platform launched last year under the auspices of the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), can achieve in tandem.

If initiatives that have resulted in progress can be applied "on a much bigger scale than we have to date," Weatherill says, "then I think we can be confident that the next survey in 2018/2019 will show a decreasing absolute number as well as decreasing relative to the populations growing cocoa".

That optimism is shared by WCF president Bill Guyton. "We had hoped that more progress would have been found out during the survey but at the same time we do feel that there is some great work that has gone on on the ground and now we have the opportunity through CocoaAction and through our partnerships with others to really scale up what we're doing and make a significant impact in the coming years."

CocoaAction represents a total investment of some US$500m but the change in approach the new programme represents is also extremely significant, Guyton explains. He is in good position to judge how industry engagement has developed as he began working in the cocoa sector in 2000, the year before the Harkin-Engel Protocol was signed.

"What makes CocoaAction different is that it's a supply chain approach with companies directly investing back in their supply chains," says Guyton. Crucially, work will cover both community investment and initiatives to boost productivity and farmer incomes, Guyton explains, with companies working directly with farmer organisations. CocoaAction is not just a corporate social responsibility initiative, he adds, but a "business training approach helping improve farmer livelihoods".

The closer the aims around child labour are tied in with the core objectives of making cocoa farming economically viable for smallholders and ensuring a sustainable cocoa supply chain for food companies, the greater the chance of success.

This enhanced industry engagement will be critical if the coming five years are to show greater progress than last week's report. Specifically, the goal of reducing the worst forms of child labour by 70%, set out in the 2010 Framework of Action to Support Implementation of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, is acknowledged by all stakeholders to be an extremely ambitious target. Based on today's numbers, according to the Tulane report, it would equate to removing around 1.5m children from hazardous work.

It has been noted it took the Asian subcontinent some 62 years, from 1950 to 2012, to reduce child labour by 74% from a similar level to that currently seen in west Africa.

On the other hand, Vietnam managed to reduce agricultural child labour by 73% in four years from 1993 to 1997, on the back of economic growth, foreign investment, donor assistance, industrialisation and social policies.

However, Nick Weatherill points out, "the reality is that, notwithstanding current positive trends, west Africa has a long way to go before it emulates those unique Vietnamese conditions."

This is undoubtedly true but bold targets have an aspirational and motivational role to play. As Weatherill says: "It is a very high target indeed, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't set it as a marker and strive all out for it."