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Effectively tackling child labour: The Brazilian approach?

The United Nations (UN) is gearing up for a concerted campaign to eliminate the world’s 190 million child labourers. According to a new report, the UN believes that the number of working children must be tackled as a matter of urgency over the next eight years.

If this doesn’t happen, targets for children enrolled at school will never be met. Even worse, researchers at the UN predict that the number of child labourers is bound to rise. In sub-Saharan Africa for example, there are currently an estimated 15 million child labourers. If nothing is done, by 2020 this figure could be as high as 65 million children. Sectors where youngsters are frequently deployed include agriculture and mining, where it is not uncommon for children as young as six to help with digging work or the crushing of rocks.

Child labour not only affects the health and well-being of children, it also has a direct impact on a child’s chance of gaining an education. In this area, the UN is especially critical of multinational companies who have not done enough to tackle the problem. For example, in the cocoa-growing countries of West Africa, the food industry has made past commitments that all children in cocoa farming areas would be educated. This would cost the industry around 75 million dollars, which equates to just 0.1% of annual sales. But only around 20 million dollars has been spent over the past eight years. This means just 4% of out-of-school children in cocoa-growing parts of the Ivory Coast have been reached and just 30% in Ghana’s cocoa communities.

Overall, the UN would like to see more countries adopting the approach which has worked so well in Brazil, where the poorest families are paid a monthly allowance which is conditional on their children attending school. To extend such a cash incentive scheme to countries where it’s needed would cost around 13 billion dollars. Such programmes have been shown to significantly reduce the number of out-of-school children. The UN warns that on average a child worker will suffer from a 17% gap in literacy and maths achievements compared with non-working children.

Speaking to The Guardian, the UN’s special envoy on education, Gordon Brown (the former British prime minister), said that children working today were part of a new kind of “slavery”. In a foreword to the UN report, Mr Brown also speaks of “inertia, indifference and an indefensible willingness on the part of too many governments, international agencies and aid donors” to combat child labour. However, with a new roadmap to tackle child labour, UN officials hope that such inertia can be overcome and the world will no longer fail its children.

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