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February 22, 2009

Gates Foundation grant to cocoa farmers in child labour controversy

by Kristi Heim

When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation granted $48 million last week to help West African cocoa and cashew farmers, it stepped into an industry that has a bitter history with child-labor problems. Its $23 million grant to a cocoa-industry group is raising questions about labor rights.

The foundation said it will give $23 million to the World Cocoa Foundation and $25 million to a German development agency, Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit, to help farmers in West Africa improve production and obtain higher prices for their products.

The nonprofit World Cocoa Foundation represents 70 chocolate companies, and many have not lived up to an agreement they signed to stop the worst forms of child labor in their cocoa-supply chains, the International Labor Rights Forum contends.

West African farmers, including young children, supply 70 percent of the world's cocoa, earning just $30 to $110 a year, according to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

Almost eight years after the major chocolate companies signed an agreement called the Harkin-Engel Protocol, they have not instituted programs to ensure that they are complying with international labor standards, says Tim Newman, the labor forum's campaigns assistant in Washington, D.C.

Richard Rogers, the Gates Foundation's program officer in agricultural development, said commercial involvement is necessary for the project to succeed. By having the private sector directly involved, farmers can have a clear understanding of what the market demands. Companies will contribute technical and managerial skills and resources to help farmers develop better seed varieties and plants and post-harvest handling methods, he said.

Rogers said he chose the World Cocoa Foundation for the grant because "they have the best network of connections with governments, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and corporate partners we feel are critical to this project."

Bill Guyton, president of the World Cocoa Foundation, said farmers lack "practical knowledge and organizational support needed to grow this unique crop profitably and sustainably."

With the new Gates partnership, "we will be able to dramatically expand our efforts to reach these farmers in West Africa and to promote economic and social development, as well as environmental conservation in cocoa-growing communities."

Historically, the cocoa companies have worked "in silos," Rogers said, but the Gates Foundation has tried to play a role in bringing them together for the first time, "getting all these companies to share their best practices and technical innovations to have maximum impact."

Hershey, Kraft Foods and Mars, along with Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, were among those contributing $42 million in cash and in-kind donations to the Gates project. Starbucks was also one of the corporate sponsors. Those contributions "enable our dollars to go twice as far," Rogers said.

The goal is to drive up income for the 2 million small farmers in the region who earn a living through cocoa production. By addressing the root cause of child labor — low income — "that will be a huge benefit and help solve this problem."

The project aims to help about 200,000 cocoa farmers in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Liberia double their incomes by 2013.

"When families are very poor and struggling to get food on the table every day, they need the whole family to chip in and work on farms to feed themselves," he said. "One of first things farmers do when incomes improve is send their kids to school."

Others say unfair trade policies lie at the root of the problem.

Stephanie Celt, director of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, said she agrees with the message the Gates Foundation is sending that "current free-trade policy is not bringing promised benefits to many family farmers and agricultural workers around the world."

However, she added, "we hope that the foundation will also recognize that programs such as this one only have a chance of creating long-term benefits if they are partnered with more comprehensive reforms to the trade policies that are keeping many agricultural workers in poverty."

The Cocoa Foundation will re-grant virtually all the Gates funds to three nonprofits working in Africa, Rogers said, after taking a small amount to cover the cost of hiring a project director, coordinator and finance specialist.

Most of the companies have signed on to the International Cocoa Initiative and are working on its goal to end the worst forms of child labor, Rogers said.

"Certain groups will always feel there could be more done," he said. "As long as companies are abiding by their commitments and putting effort toward ending child labor, we feel satisfied with that."

Seattle Times

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