On hearing the ambitious goals the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), a multi-stakeholder organisation principally funded by food companies, has set on the issue of child labour in west African cocoa production, some rolling of the eyes would be understandable.

It is 19 years since the signatories of the Harkin-Engel Protocol pledged to eradicate the worst forms of child labour from cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, and a further decade since food companies signed the 2010 Framework of Action reaffirming the Protocol’s objectives.

Last week, ICI unveiled its 2021-26 strategy, which sets out to drive the extension of systems that “effectively and sustainably prevent and remediate child labour” to cover 100% of the supply chain in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana by 2025. As ICI estimates only between 10% and 20% of the supply chain is covered by such programmes, the scale of ambition is clear.

However, as the Harkin-Engel Protocol testifies, a lack of ambition has never been the issue in trying to address child labour in cocoa. Rather, the ambition having been identified, there was, from the outset, insufficient attention paid to what needed to be done to make that achievement possible.

The ICI strategy may be ambitious but, as executive director Nick Weatherill explains, it is based on tangible results, particularly over the past five years, which have “crystallised the interventions and actions that really do have impact”.

“Catalytic” role

Weatherill characterises the organisation as a “catalytic entity”, providing a “roadmap of how the sector can get to where it needs to get to”. He believes ICI’s community development approaches to reducing child labour and, in particular, the Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation Systems (CLMRS) methodology it has refined during the past five years, offer companies a proven model on which programmes to address child labour in their own supply chains can be based.

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Already being used in a number of major company programmes, CLMRS has developed over the past five years from “a pilot level of implementation” to cover between 10% and 20% of the supply chain, Weatherill continues. “That’s already considerable, but when you put that against what we feel needs to be done, there’s obviously a long way to go.”

In total, ICI expects to reach 1.7m children who are at risk from child labour by 2025, with 425,000 (25%) covered by its own direct actions and 1.275m (75%) reached through its influence on other actors. ICI may be defining the ambition, he says, but “it’s going to have to be the companies and industry who actually make the commitments”.

However, as the strategy has been approved by ICI’s industry partners, all of which are major buyers of cocoa, it can arguably be seen as not just a roadmap but a renewed statement of intent. “The adoption of the ICI strategy is evidence of appetite and a real intention for the sector to embrace a step change. We will need to see the specific commitments of all the actors and then ICI’s role will be to help turn those commitments into action,” Weatherill says.

Transparency, traceability and cooperation

Additional statements of support from members are a positive sign. “We very much support its 2021-26 strategy which was developed in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, and look forward to continue to working with them,” a Nestlé spokesperson states.

“It’s certainly ambitious but it’s definitely realistic or we wouldn’t have signed up to it, and it’s also very much in line with the targets we have set ourselves,” a spokesperson for major cocoa supplier Barry Callebaut tells just-food.

In fact, Barry Callebaut underscored its commitment by making a significant announcement regarding the transparency and traceability of its cocoa supply chain only days after ICI launched its new strategy.

Disclosing its direct cocoa suppliers in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Cameroon marks a “new milestone” in the company’s plan to build a sustainable cocoa supply chain, Barry Callebaut said. The increased traceability and transparency, particularly as it combines geographical information with data on the household composition and income of thousands of cocoa farmers and their farms, will also support the company’s efforts to address child labour in its supply chain, the Barry Callebaut spokesperson explained.

Weatherill stresses transparency among cocoa-sourcing companies regarding their supply chains is key to scaling up CLMRS in the most efficient and cost-effective way. In reference to the Barry Callebaut announcement and similar declarations by other members, he says: “That level of transparency is the prerequisite for the coordination we need. Unless the supply chain is fully mapped, we’re not going to be able to find efficiencies, there’s going to be lots of overlap and we won’t know where the gaps are.”

Another key pillar on which ICI says its new strategy will depend is coordination between companies and non-industry actors. Richard Scobey, president of the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), a trade body comprising the world’s most significant buyers of cocoa, agrees. “This ambitious target is achievable if we mobilise a wide range of allies to tackle child labour in cocoa, including industry, governments of cocoa-importing countries, financial and technical partners, civil society organisations, farmer and community groups and other key partners.”

According to the WCF, last year industry invested around US$65m in a range of social development activities to address child labour, covering child protection, education, community development, income diversification for vulnerable households and other child survival activities. This was six-times higher than the average annual expenditure between 2001 and 2018.

Sounding a serious note of caution, however, William Bertrand, professor of public health at Tulane University in New Orleans, sees the target of 100% coverage of the supply chains as “highly unrealistic”. Nevertheless, Prof. Bertrand, who worked on two official progress reports following the launch of the 2010 Framework of Action, says the industry is making progress on the child labour issue, particularly in relation to the worst forms of child labour. “I’m very positive about it continuing to move in the right direction but I think the speed at which it will move is somewhat overestimated.”

Enabling environment

The ICI strategy outlines the need for a supportive, enabling environment to support efforts to address child labour, including human rights due diligence legislation in cocoa-consuming countries and policies to advance the access to quality education and social protection in the producing nations. Encouragingly, Prof. Bertrand identifies the increased engagement by the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana on child labour in cocoa as a crucial development, differentiating the challenge companies face today from that which faced them in 2001. “It’s a very different environment in that sense,” he says.

The national action plans of both governments focus on four areas: achieving an adequate standard of living for cocoa farmers; full coverage of child protection systems to monitor and remediate child labour; expanded access to quality education; and increased support for child development, including health, nutrition, and water and sanitation. WCF member companies, Scobey says, can build on the foundation these national plans offer.

“We have seen impressive public sector engagement on combating child labour, with leadership at the highest levels of government, and early results,” Scobey says. WCF cites the increase in school attendance in both countries as a positive indicator. School attendance among five- to 17-year-olds increased from 67% to 90% in Côte d’Ivoire between 2013 and 2018, and from 81% to 86% in Ghana between 2011 and 2019.

“Today, we have a better understanding of the root causes of child labour and we know more about what works,” Scobey says. “Now is the time to scale up successful interventions, catalyse increased investment and accelerate government and industry implementation for national impact.”

Weatherill, meanwhile, sees the expansion of the ICI membership itself as a further important component in the scaling up agenda. “I’m really hoping that this new strategy will make the penny drop for those companies that haven’t invested in ICI,” he says. “They’ve already benefited from what we do and ultimately they should really start paying their way, and most of my member companies would agree with that. We have a sector-wide ambition. You need sector-wide engagement.”

Scobey adds: “Our goal is to mobilise as many WCF members as possible to support ICI’s actions and outcomes. We want to bring together the whole supply chain in partnership to eliminate child labour.”

History suggests the odds of stretching targets on child labour in cocoa being achieved are not good, but thankfully this has not deterred ICI from setting ambitious goals. Indeed, the immediate and considerable challenges of Covid-19 notwithstanding, there appears to be more justification for bold ambition today than in 2001 when companies arguably committed themselves to an objective they had little idea how to achieve.

It is a sobering thought that the child labourers whose plight brought the Harkin-Engel Protocol into being are, as children at least, now beyond help. Those whom the International Cocoa Initiative and its partners are helping today, and will hopefully reach over the coming five years, need not be.