Combating Child Labor – Some Lessons from West Africa

By Dr. Dr Martina Nicolls
The United States Department of Labor (USDOL) funded a $6m four-year (2005-2009) Countering Youth and Child Labor through Education (CYCLE) program in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Its decision to do so was highly appropriate, given the vulnerability of the youth in both countries and the impetus of the governments towards reforms in education and exploitative child labor.

The impact of the project has to be seen in the context of Liberia’s and Sierra Leone’s emergence from one of the most protracted and violent conflicts in Africa’s recent history. In initiating the initiative, USDOL provided the only program in both countries that specifically addressed child labor.

The program was designed around a community-driven multi-faceted approach in which the implementing agency provided a solid foundation for child labor awareness raising, sensitization and dialogue. The methodology to support children, withdrawn and prevented from child labor, to access relevant educational services and counseling, and multi-pronged referral and student tracking systems were contributors to the success of the program.

Interventions, based upon participatory and inclusive decision-making philosophies, were “leverages for change” directly responsible for engendering a cultural shift and thinking amongst communities. Essential for continuing the paradigm shift were on-going sustainable processes at all levels – students, parents, schools, communities, line ministries at the community level, and at the national level.

An interesting finding was the perception by stakeholders of the benefits of the program. In Liberia, stakeholders perceived the benefits in terms of education, particularly for students and parents. The “healing power of education” permeated not just the classroom, but into the homes of students and parents. Students in Liberia discussed benefits such as being “more peaceful”. Parents indicated that they were “more free of financial burdens” and “more able to talk to other parents about the hardships and problems in the family”.

In Sierra Leone, students, parents, line ministries, and community groups perceived the benefits of the program in terms of community benefits. They included benefits such as the reduction of child labor, child crime, teenage pregnancies, worst forms of school discipline, hardship, financial pressures, bad language, and drug and alcohol abuse. They were expressed in terms of reducing poverty, crime, and conflict within the community. The community spirit and cohesion is therefore the strength of the program in Sierra Leone, and an example of best practice in community development, community pride, and community ownership.

The following lessons were gleaned from my visits to communities in both Liberia and Sierra Leone:

• Effective leadership of community members is a powerful tool towards gaining community respect, motivating communities into participating in common projects and interventions, and promoting a sense of “oneness”;
• Economic empowerment through training in best practice business skills and effective implementation mobilizes communities towards self-sufficiency and sustainability if followed-up and continually encouraged;
• Child labor awareness raising and sensitization are major catalysts for social change within communities;
• Basic functional literacy skills enables community members, particularly youth and women, to converse, write their name, record measurements (i.e. carpentry and tailoring), and document simple requests;
• Basic numeracy skills enables community members, particularly youth and women, to prepare budgets, keep account of income and expenditure, and manage finances;
• The capacity of communities was greatly increased through training in child labor, education, healing classroom practices, health, economic development and community development;
• Multiple trainings that are repeated continuously over the life of the program, in order for the messages to be fully absorbed and applied, are preferred to one-off training sessions;
• The creation of Community Welfare Committees is a major catalyst in bringing communities together;
• The more remote a community, the more it was focused and committed to self-sustainability and community cohesion;
• Building the capacity of local NGO partners greatly improves their ability to implement their mandate within the program and is critical to the success of child labor awareness raising; and
• The concept of empowering local NGO partners through joint and collaborative activities improves motivation, makes them appreciate “equal” partnering, and leads to improved performances.

Targeting select counties and communities for support and developing quality relationships and partnerships at the community level was a key factor in the success of a combating child labour in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Interventions that provided discrete short-term, repeated capacity building to ministries or government agencies were the most effective. The most effective activities had the following characteristics:

• Activities and support that were synergistic and coordinated, providing monitoring and follow-on, such as referral systems (including support by field staff, social workers and education officers);
• Awareness raising campaigns that amplified the messages of child labor; and
• Activities that embedded a lasting memory or impact within the public consciousness – such as skills and vocational training, cross-border conferences, and training in healing classroom practices.

Hence, fewer interventions with synergies and follow-on activities were preferable to a multitude of randomly scattered interventions. The introduction of income generation activities was highly praised by stakeholders who requested further IGAs for their communities. However, IGAs must be closely monitored to observe whether they produce significant outputs and impacts.

Dr Martina Nicolls is an evaluator of child labour programs for the United States Department of Labour and International Labour Organisation. She is also the author of The Sudan Curse.


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