This month marks an important stage in efforts by the international cocoa industry to tackle child and forced labour in its supply chain. Ben Cooper reports on the progress towards meeting undertakings made under the Harkin-Engel Protocol and the work of the International Cocoa Initiative, a multi-stakeholder partnership initiated under the Protocol and working on the ground in Ghana and Ivory Coast.

This month marks a major milestone in efforts by the chocolate industry in the US and Europe to combat the worst forms of child and forced adult labour in West African cocoa cultivation.

Under the terms of the so-called "Harkin-Engel Protocol", a raft of measures was due to be in place by 1 July. Last month, a coalition of industry organisations, including the National Confectioners Association in the US (NCA) and the EU Association of the Chocolate, Biscuit & Confectionery Industries (CAOBISCO), announced that nearly all the stipulations would be in place by the deadline, extended from its original date of 1 July, 2005.

The Protocol stipulated that by 1 July, Ivory Coast and Ghana would have certification data collection processes in place across an area producing at least 50% of their cocoa, and that both countries would have released reports providing a detailed assessment of labour conditions in cocoa cultivation. These reports have now been published.

Industry had also undertaken to exceed "substantially" the US$15m financial commitment it made in 2005 to fund a range of programmes to help cocoa farmers and support the implementation of certification.

However, industry representatives say the independent verification system also included in the Protocol will not be fully operational until the end of the year. But progress has been made here. The International Cocoa Verification Board (ICVB), a multi-stakeholder body including representatives from NGOs, academia, trade unions and industry, was set up in December 2007. It has now selected the organisations to be charged with verifying the certification of labour conditions in both countries.

One of the key elements in the Protocol, which dates back to 2001, was the setting-up of the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), a partnership between NGOs, labour unions, cocoa processors and chocolate companies, which runs programmes in both Ghana and Ivory Coast to tackle child and forced adult labour. The ICI was officially incorporated in 2002 and has been active on the ground since 2004.

Its stated objectives are to build awareness of the need to eliminate abusive labour practices; actively support community-based initiatives to change long-standing practices; build local capacity to support change; work with organisations that provide services to, or have commercial relationships with, cocoa-growing communities to foster positive change; ensure social protection services for cases of abuse and forced labour; channel information, report on progress and provide a new model for development; and encourage partnerships between industry, activists and governments.

While more than 90% of the ICI's funding - the budget for 2008 was US$2.8m - comes from industry, executive director Peter McAllister is at pains to point out that it works as an independent organisation. Indeed, he stresses that the value of the ICI to industry lies in its independence. There are currently 15 board members, including representatives from major chocolate brands, processors and two industry associations, but these are balanced by six members from civil society, including trade unions and NGOs.

McAllister, who comes from an NGO background, having previously worked for CARE International, stresses that the ICI's work should not be seen as a vehicle for the cocoa industry to demonstrate its social responsibility. While he agrees that some industry-funded not-for-profit foundations are viewed sceptically by the campaign community, he believes the ICI can claim to be making a real difference in the producer countries.

"A lot of CSR is not much more than a superficial smile and a shake of hands," he says. "Some of that may develop beyond that but it takes time and I think a lot of corporate communications try to tell a good story; that's completely natural. What we have tried to focus on is real work on the ground. So we spend most of our efforts supporting governments to get policies in place, and partners to develop their skills. We are now in over 250 communities, we've trained over 1,000 people, reaching a population base of half a million."

However, notwithstanding the importance of its operational independence from industry, McAllister believes the relationship the ICI has with the corporate sector sets it apart in a positive way from NGOs.

Indeed, rather than being a weakness of the ICI as a force for change, McAllister sees its relationship with industry as a benefit. "We're not just happy to have industry on board," he says. "If we are really to change the way cocoa is grown you have to have industry as part of the solution."

McAllister says the fact that the ICI can bring together experts in the development field with the companies "who are the major clients of this commodity" means the organisation has been taken seriously at the highest government level. "There is no doubt in my mind of the value of that collaboration," he adds. "What we have been able to do is use industry's influence at the highest level in producer countries so that we've had meetings with presidents, prime ministers, senior ministers and so forth, because industry is involved and engaged."

Meanwhile, the direct link back to industry provides the best opportunity to influence corporate behaviour. "You can see more companies trying to think about how they can support initiatives, do their own projects, and grow their support for us," McAllister says, adding: "The biggest compliment is that they will come to us for advice as they start to develop their own initiatives. And I think that's exactly where we should be; they should feel comfortable coming to us knowing that they can trust us."

He also believes that pressure for change is coming from the market, as shown by the growing sales of Fairtrade chocolate. While he believes the structure of cocoa farming in West Africa ultimately means the Fairtrade model could not be applied to more than 12% to 15% of cocoa cultivation, he acknowledges the role the Fairtrade movement has made in changing consumer perceptions. "I think it's limited if you look at the percentage of market and so forth but the fact that it's inspired people to think about supply chains differently, and consider fairness in supply chains, it's played a fantastic role in changing the debate."

Regarding the achievements made by the 1 July deadline, McAllister says he prefers to see this as a milestone in a journey to eliminate child and forced adult labour, rather than an endpoint. "The Protocol is a living thing," he says. "It's not a five-year or a three-year horizon; it's a 15- or 20-year horizon."