How can the World Bank truly be a game changer in eradicating child labor?

“Be a bit of a game changer” was the call the World Bank made for itself during the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor. But what does this mean in practice? We offer four key recommendations and opportunities for the Bank to turn rhetoric into reality by addressing the push-pull factors that lead to child labor and using its lending to catalyze systematic reform.

From May 15 to 20, 2022, the Government of South Africa hosted the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor to share good practices and push for accelerated action.  The resulting Durban Call to Action is clear: more needs to be done to achieve significant change. According to UNICEF and the ILO, global trends on child labor continue to be alarming with more than 160 million children engaged in child labor, 70 percent of them in agriculture. The Call to Action includes 49 immediate and effective measures governments should take to end child labor with an emphasis on agriculture around 6 main commitments: 1) decent work for adults; 2) end child labor in agriculture; 3) data driven and survivor-informed policy and programmatic responses; 4) realize access to education; 5) universal social protection; and 6) increase financing and international cooperation.

In the session on financing the elimination of child labor a high-level representative of the World Bank said the Bank should do everything it can to eliminate and reduce child labor and “be a bit of a game changer.” The following day, in the child labor in agriculture session, the Bank highlighted the importance of having an Environmental and Social Standard (ESS) on labor issues (ESS2), the lessons learned from Uzbekistan, and the commitments to address child labor in their projects in Ivory Coast and Ghana.

For the Bank to use its comparative advantage to help implement the Durban Call to Action, the Bank should: 

  1. Use its investments and technical support to address the push pull factors that lead to child labor. Implementing all of the measures set forth in ESS2 to prevent the use of all forms of forced labor and child labor in Bank-financed projects is critical. In particular, monitoring in Nepal demonstrates a need for the Bank to improve its processes for age verification. However, to avoid contributing directly or indirectly to the causes and circumstances that enable child labor, the Bank needs to go beyond simply eradicating child labor on its project sites and supporting access to education. It should prioritize investing time, technical support, and money in social protection to address child labor pull-push factors such as household poverty, lack of access to health and social services, food insecurity, limited access to markets and job insecurity, as well as other industry/sector and country/context related factors. If families do better, children will do better. Additionally, the Bank needs to include a gender perspective in its efforts to prevent child labor to address its differentiated causes and consequences. Risk assessments should also be completed on an ongoing basis throughout the project cycle to allow for tailored and timely action. 
  2. Catalyze systemic reform to eradicate child labor. The Bank has 564 active projects in the agriculture, fishing, and forestry sector in 120 countries and 8,290 locations, with $27.36 billion in committed financing. Considering that agriculture is the industry with the highest rates of child labor, the World Bank should prioritize supporting its clients to use Bank-funded agriculture projects as a tool to eradicate child labor in the sector. In doing so, the Bank should also use its leverage to put in place policies to eradicate child labor, for example by providing technical and financial support to the development of national action plans to eradicate child labor and including components in relevant projects to strengthen labor inspection agencies. It should also use its influence to address structural corruption, promote policy coherence, and directly address people's needs at grassroot levels. 
  3. Proactively engage with children and civil society organizations (CSOs) around child labor. More child participation is needed during the Bank's project cycle. Children will continue to be left behind and child labor can never be eradicated if the decision makers do not hear directly from children and understand their views on how to tackle the issue. The Bank’s engagement with CSOs working closely with project-affected communities, including CSOs with expertise on child labor, child protection, and children’s rights, and verification that Borrowers also consult with them is critical. This will enable the Bank and its Borrowers to collect information around child labor issues in particular regions and/or sectors, develop targetted measures to prevent contributing to child labor through its projects, and have a conduit to local organizations that may be able to alert the Bank and Borrower should child labor arise on or around a project. The Bank's commitment to engage with CSOs in its Ivory Coast Cocoa project is promising and, if implemented well, can serve as a best practice for future projects.  

The Bank has the mandate, expertise, and tools necessary to make a real impact as part of the global effort to eliminate child labor. We hope the Bank will step up to the task and lead the way for peer institutions to follow suit.