First Lady of Ivory Coast: ‘We Are on Track to Eliminate Child Labor’

March 1, 2016, 11:30 AM UTC
The first lady of the Cote d'Ivoire, Madame Dominique Ouattara
Photograph Courtesy of Madame Dominique Outtara

When Alassane Ouattara was elected president of Ivory Coast in 2010, he knew that one of his top priorities would be addressing his country’s child labor image problem. So he chose his most high-profile and trusted advisor to lead the effort: His wife, Dominique Ouattara.

Ivory Coast is the world’s leading producer of cocoa—the raw ingredient in chocolate—and grows about 40% of the global supply. Cocoa has long been an important cash generator for the Ivorian economy. But it has brought the nation under international scrutiny as well.

A decade and a half ago, media reports about child labor abuses and trafficking in the onetime French colony helped lead to an historic agreement called the Harkin-Engel protocol, in which the chocolate industry pledged to end child labor in West Africa cocoa farming by 2005. Progress, however, was slow. In 2010, the chocolate industry committed to a new agreement to reduce child labor 70% by 2020.

When Ouattara took office in 2011—after a brief civil conflict due to his successor’s unwillingness to concede defeat—he wasted little time taking practical steps. He organized a new council to manage the cocoa industry in his country. And he asked the First Lady to coordinate efforts between the Ivorian government and the chocolate companies to ensure that cocoa is grown more ethically and sustainably. She has made eliminating child labor in cocoa her “primary commitment” as First Lady and earns praise from both non-profit watchdogs and chocolate companies for her leadership.

But that doesn’t mean the problems have vanished. When the results of the most recent U.S. Department of Labor-funded survey of child labor in West Africa, conducted by Tulane University, were released last summer, many were shocked that the number of children working in child labor had actually increased from five years earlier. Some 2.1 million children were estimated to be engaged in objectionable practices.

In December, I traveled to the Ivory Coast and its cocoa-producing neighbor, Ghana, on a reporting trip to learn firsthand why eliminating child labor from cocoa farming has proven to be such an intractable challenge. (To read the full story, click here.)

I interviewed First Lady Ouattara, with the help of a translator, at the president’s private residence in the leafy Abidjan neighborhood of Cocody, and incorporated that discussion in my article. The First Lady also presented me with written answers to questions that I had sent to her in advance, at her request, so that she could prepare for our in-person interview. Below, the written answers she gave me:

Fortune: In 2011, your husband put you in charge of a committee overseeing efforts to fight trafficking, exploitation, and child labor. What was your assessment of the child labor problem in Ivory Coast at that time? Did you face any resistance? More than four years later, how is the situation different?

First Lady Ouattara: As you certainly know, Ivory Coast is world’s leading cocoa producer, and as such, our country is faced with the problem of child labor in cocoa fields for decades. Upon acceding to the highest office of our country in 2011, the president of the republic, made the fight against child labor a national priority. He officially recognized the existence of this scourge, and created two national committees to better fight against it. One is the Inter-ministerial Committee (CIM), which is in charge of government action on this issue, and the other is the National Oversight Committee (CNS), which is in charge of supervision, monitoring and evaluation of all actions against child labor.

Knowing that everything that relates to children’s well-being touches me deeply, the President asked me to get involved personally and to preside the second committee called CNS on a voluntary basis. I would like to remind you that at that time, in 2011, Ivorian cocoa was threatened with an international embargo because of child labor.

Regarding the second point of your question, I would like to say that the cocoa industry is collaborating with us in an effective way. There is no resistance from them. Previously, cocoa manufacturers were taking isolated initiatives without coordination among themselves or with the Ivorian government. Today, everything is coordinated by the National Oversight Committee (CNS) which gives them its approval for the desired projects. Since, the situation has greatly improved.

When you took that leadership role, Ivory Coast had just gone through a period of civil crisis. Does the increased stability in the country now makes it easier to address child labor issues?

Yes, I think that the return to peace allowed us to address the problem of child labor more calmly. In this context, we have launched a National Action Plan, which allowed us to work in synergy with other organizations including NGOs and many partners in the cocoa industry, to put into place concrete measures to combat this phenomenon.

By implementing the 2012-2014 National Action Plan, we have, among other things, contributed to the strengthening of the legal and regulatory framework to combat this scourge; trained the players involved at different levels in the issue; raised public awareness as well as awareness among farmers and communities; we have also invested in the construction of schools, elementary, and high school classrooms; and we have signed agreements with neighboring countries to fight together cross-border trafficking. All these actions were made possible thanks to investments by the Ivorian government totaling the amount of $14 million, but also thanks to the investments made by our partners involved in our endeavors.

Our ongoing efforts since 2011 in this struggle have paid off because attitudes and habits are changing, and we are on track to eradicate child labor. The threats of embargo from the international community that weighed on Ivorian cocoa have been lifted. Our efforts have allowed Ivory Coast in its fight against child labor to be reclassified by the U.S. State Department at a far more positive level, which is the category of countries that are making significant efforts to eliminate child labor. Of course, much remains to be done, but we are determined to continue until [we achieve] the total elimination of this scourge.

You have several years of child advocacy experience through the foundation “Children of Africa.” How do you apply that experience to understanding and eliminating child labor in cocoa?

When, in 1998, I created the foundation “Children of Africa,” I wanted to get children off the streets in major capital cities. Over time, I realized how huge the need was, how poor families were, and how much distress existed among them. And the main victims of this poverty were children, these vulnerable and defenseless beings, whatever their situation. At this level, the slightest gesture of solidarity is likely to bring joy, comfort, and hope to those who need it most.

With the foundation, I have decided not to remain insensitive, and to undertake concrete actions for the well-being of children and their families. Also, we have decided to intervene in the areas of education, health, and social work. I have realized that all actions were of importance and that it was possible to change things. So, naturally, I was committed to the fight against child labor from the beginning. Therefore, I have made the struggle against child labor my primary commitment as First Lady.

Cocoa is typically grown on small farms. Does the fact of having so many farmers make it more difficult to identify the “worst forms of child labor” and recognize where children are exploited?

You know, as soon as CNS was put into place, I requested a child labor mapping because we had no figures at all on the issue. The SOSTECI (Child Labor Observation and Monitoring System in Côte d’Ivoire) set up in 2013 by the government, with support from the International Labor Office (ILO) and UNICEF, is developing a database that allows us to have more precise data on the issue. This is very important because we will, over time, be able to identify the number of children involved and the geographical areas concerned, throughout the entire Ivorian territory.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol was adopted in 2001 and helped raise awareness of the problems with child labor. Through the World Cocoa Foundation, the chocolate industry has created the Cocoa Action program to coordinate its efforts. How can food companies work effectively with NGOs and the Ivorian government to improve the situation?

First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Senator Harkin who in 2012 helped me to better understand the child labor issue. I then met Congressman Engel whom I also thank for his support to our struggle. Both will remain in history to have pinpointed the thorny problem of child labor in cocoa production. And thanks to their intervention, chocolate manufacturers have gotten more involved in this fight.

Today, with the CNS and the CIM in place, our partners in the cocoa industry participate in the fight against child labor. As such, our experts work closely with private and public partners such as Nestle (NESN), Olam, Mars, Cargill, World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), Save the Children, USDOL, the ILO, UNICEF, Conseil Café-Cacao (the National Coffee and Cocoa Board) and many other partners. Since the adoption of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, multiple awareness-raising campaigns together with the rehabilitation of classrooms and the construction of schools in the cocoa producing areas, contributed to the progress made on our way towards the elimination of the worst forms of child labor,

The CocoaAction program, developed in consultation with the Ivorian government, since 2014 aims to reduce child labor, namely through education and women empowerment. Thus, thanks to these joint efforts, the school enrollment rate among children working in cocoa has significantly increased. Moreover, the living conditions of producers and their families have significantly improved, thanks to the combined efforts and investments from the government of Ivory Coast and all partners who stand at our side in the fight against child labor.

There has been improvement in some areas. But the recent Tulane University survey found that the percentage of children involved in hazardous work in cocoa production has increased from 22% to 30.9%. How can this be improved?

First of all, I want to point out my disagreement with some figures of the Tulane survey. Those figures are biased, since many children of farmers occasionally accompany their parents in the fields after school hours to learn to appreciate their parents’ occupations. The survey did not make any distinction between children who are exploited, who are actually victims of trafficking, and those who are living with their parents and who occasionally assist their parents in the cocoa fields after school hours. This distinction is very important and should be taken into account by all stakeholders in the fight against trafficking, exploitation, and child labor.

To answer your question, our priority today is to raise awareness among farmers on hazardous activities which their children should not be exposed to. Therefore, we conduct broader awareness campaigns focused on explaining to parents the light work that their children are allowed to perform, and which constitute a form of socializing education of their child.

You have led an effort to build more schools and your husband made compulsory schooling for children under 16 years. How are schools changing conditions in farming communities?

Education is the most effective response to combat the worst forms of child labor in a sustainable way. Until 2014, we could not make education compulsory because of a real lack of schools in the country. But we have been able to fill the gap by building 17,000 school classes and 155 [secondary schools] all over the country. This was thanks to important investments made by the Ivorian government and with the support of our partners. This major step forward made it possible to make education compulsory. Thanks to this measure, the percentage of school enrollment increased significantly in Côte d’Ivoire.

You recently backed a six-month collaboration between Interpol and the International Office for Migration to take on child trafficking. One operation in June rescued 48 children. Were you pleased with the results of this collaboration? Do you think that the number of children being trafficked to work in the cocoa harvest is declining?

I am very happy that this operation was successful. It is a strong signal to traffickers. These operations should be continued and intensified with the involvement of our police forces. We have contributed to capacity building of the national police, which is conducting field operations in particular with Interpol. We have also signed bilateral agreements with Mali and Burkina Faso to fight against cross-border trafficking. Thanks to a strict application of the law, many traffickers have been arrested and children have been rescued and taken care of. This type of collaboration allows interventions at various levels to eradicate the phenomenon.

You’ve created a fund to provide micro-financing to women. How will empowering women help address the child labor issue in cocoa farming?

Women are key players for economic and social development of their community in Ivory Coast. They are essential to family stability. By granting them micro-credit, we offer them the opportunity to start an income generating activity, enabling them to help their families. Today, over 100,000 women across Ivory Coast have benefited from the Fund to Support Women of Côte d’Ivoire (FAFCI). This project initiated in 2012, allowed these women to become autonomous, and in many cases, to enroll their children in school. Indirectly, it contributes to fight child labor with efficacy.