What the hell is it with journos, NGOs and child slavery?

Years ago, I did a piece on the supposed existence of “child slavery” on the cocoa plantations in specifically Côte d’Ivoire. It was a response to a media campaign by Dutch campaign journalist Teun van der Keuken, whose supposedly hard-hitting campaign documentary on Côte d’Ivoire misfired from the first minute, when Abidjan miraculously became once again the country’s “capital”.

All this was to promote the idea that West Africa was somehow a haven for child-slavery. Note the emotive mutually reinforcing terminology: child! Ooooh! slave! Aaaah!

It was also to promote his own supposedly child-slave-free chocolate. You see? child! Ooooh! slave! Aaaah! FREE! Well the orgasm can’t be far off, then…

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Ivorian colleagues, doing some very serious research into the gargantuan amounts of fraud that bedevil the more than one billion dollar cocoa industry have qualified campaigns against “child slavery” as economic sabotage of their country.

But it’s working. In a time that Côte d’Ivoire is trying to get its stuttering economy into first gear after a disastrous political crisis, the European Parliament adopted (on March 14th) a resolution agreeing with the renewal of the International Cocoa Agreement, which now contains bans on child labour. Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading cocoa producer. A lot of the stuff finds its way to Amsterdam, gateway to one of the world’s leading chocolate industries.

The European Parliament writes a few facts into its press release, mentioning that cocoa is mostly grown on privately-owned smallholders. It then, disingenuously in my view, inserts the ILO statistic of 215 million child labourers, without linking them to the cocoa industry specifically.

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Actually, the ILO did report on the cocoa industry in Côte d’Ivoire ten years ago. It said that there were some 600,000 children working on the plantations. The ILO helpfully added that in 97 per cent of these cases the children were working on the plantations that belonged…to their parents. That was the bit that Teun van der Keuken omitted from his website.

That figure has since been removed from said website but he continues to claim that West Africa is a “notorious haven for chocolate slavery, most often taking the form of child labour abuse.’

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For Ivorians, the date of September 19th carries great significance. They will not fail to see the irony of the fact that on that day in 2001, a protocol was signed drawn up by two equally misguided American senators, Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel. They had decided to strangle the Ivorian economy a little more by proclaiming that child slavery (Ooooh! Aaaah!) was rife in Côte d’Ivoire and that it should be stamped out.

One year later to the day, Côte d’Ivoire was plunged into the worst political crisis in its history, from which is slowly recovering. As far as van der Keuken, Harkin and Engel and now the European Parliament are concerned, Côte d’Ivoire’s recovery can wait. There are child-slaves to be saved!

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Now, what the hell is it with these people? In this decade, apart from this pile of steaming horse manure about child slavery on the cocoa plantations, we’ve had stories about ships touring the West African coast full of trafficked children, we’ve had the endless and ongoing fascination with child soldiers who must have their War Child-mandated trauma before being admitted back into their real world and so on and so forth. Someone please explain to me this endless journo-NGO fascination with suffering children in West Africa. Preferably a psychologist.

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To end:

There is serious child labour happening. Check the streets of every capital in this region. Very little gets done about that. It’s a searing issue that will not be solved by the moral crisis of the next bleeding heart that comes along and wants to tell a story or sell a bar of chocolate. If the locals don’t get angry about it nothing will change. There are signs that in Senegal embarrassment about the huge problem of child begging is leading to some citizen action. Good.

The Ivorian cocoa industry is rife with problems, the most important ones being that farmers get paid sh!te for their produce and that there is massive fraud and theft going on all the way from the fields to the ports. Journalists who have delved into these issues have paid for their work with their lives. Journalists still alive and knowledgeable about this fiendishly complicated, opaque and unaccountable industry have all dismissed the child-slave story. Gives you something to think about.

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Want to help Côte d’Ivoire? Buy a bar of chocolate today. Read the reports (among others on the website of FAIR, Forum for African Investigative Reporters, fairreporters.net) by those who have been going after the b*st*rds that sell the farmers short. The problem is with the buyers, the bureaucrats and the multinationals that are circumventing and undercutting official cocoa buying channels. Not with parents who work the cocoa plantations, with their own kids.

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2 Responses to “What the hell is it with journos, NGOs and child slavery?”

  1. Sebastiaan Says:

    Good story! I am really looking forward to Teun van der Keuken’s reply to this!

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