How can MDBs address increasing child labor in Uganda?

The loss of jobs for millions of families, increased poverty, and prolonged school closures resulting from COVID-19 have exacerbated the problem of child labor in Uganda. Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) can help reduce the pressures forcing children into the workforce by prioritizing marginalized families, child-headed households, and orphans in cash transfer programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated impacts including prolonged school closures, the loss of jobs and income for millions of families, and the loss of caregivers due to death and illness have forced many Ugandan children into the workforce to help their families survive. While the World Bank and African Development Bank have invested in public health measures to address the COVID-19 crisis, actions to address the pandemic’s economic and social impacts on children have been inadequate, contributing to dramatic increases in child labor. In order to achieve an inclusive and enduring recovery from COVID-19, Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) need to act to mitigate the push-pull factors of child labor in Uganda. Before the pandemic began, economic pressures in Uganda forced 45 percent of children from households living below the poverty line, approximately 2 million children, out of school and into the workforce to supplement their parents’ income. With the contraction of Uganda’s economy during the pandemic, an estimated 2.6 million more Ugandans will fall into poverty — increasing pressures on children to enter the workforce. A recent Human Rights Watch report found the loss of families’ income has increasingly forced children into precarious and exploitative working conditions so that families could afford to eat. Many of the children interviewed were working up to 16 hours a day, some seven days a week, receiving low and unpredictable wages. 

Although the World Bank provided budget support through a development policy loan to the Government of Uganda for cash transfers to the elderly and a “temporary cash-for-work program for vulnerable families,” it failed to include measures targeted at preventing child labor. Moreover, reports indicate that the Government of Uganda has yet to implement the cash-for-work program, meaning marginalized families have not received this crucial financial support. Given that family poverty is a key driver of child labor, the delay in financial support will likely result in increasing numbers of children forced into child labor to support their families. The use of the development policy loan as a lending instrument in this case also presents concerns, as the Bank cannot continue to positively influence the project past the final disbursement, which has already occurred.

To help address the push-pull factors of child labor in Uganda, MDB-financed cash transfer programs should prioritize child-headed households, and children living below the poverty line or at risk of falling below the poverty line. MDBs also need to sufficiently supervise these programs so that the Borrower disburses the funds in a manner that effectively addresses child protection needs and reduces child labor. This means utilizing investment lending projects, rather than development policy lending. When designing and funding cash transfer programs, MDBs should employ sustained cash transfers rather than one time cash transfers because one time cash transfers have been insufficient in protecting children from entering exploitive work. Sustained cash transfers that are commensurate with current costs of food, water, and other essential items will enable families and children to maintain an adequate standard of living without resorting to child labor and may help facilitate children’s return to school. 

Addressing the push-pull factors of child labor in Uganda will require a multi-faceted approach with a range of stakeholders from the government, international organizations, civil society, and local communities. MDBs can play an important role in this effort and help fulfill children’s basic needs by prioritizing marginalized families and children in the cash transfer programs they finance.

Photo: Calvink255, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons