As challenges caused by COVID-19 continue with no clear end, major news sources and international organisations raise global awareness on the realities faced by children and families. Collaborative action is needed to ensure that rural communities are supported sustainably.
“Everything changed in one instant,” explained 15 year-old Oliver. “My dad lost his job, they suspended school and all the activities we planned with friends were canceled.” Oliver is continuing his studies online with support of ECLT’s project in his hometown, San José La Maquina, Guatemala, but many children are not.
In farming communities with high rates of poverty, children are at risk to be among the estimated 24 million students who will never go back to school after the COVID closures. When parents struggle to make ends meet, sending out-of-school children to work often seems like the only option.
The New York times draws global attention to these harsh realities driving millions of children into hazardous child labour in developing nations. Urgent and sustained investment to keep these children in education and build families’ capacities to get back on their feet is crucial. Without it, the economic and social effects of COVID closures will continue to erode decades of progress against poverty and child labour.
“This is a time for coordinated investment and strategic action focused on education, building local capacities and reigniting economic opportunities in farming communities” stated ECLT Foundation President, Mike Ligon. “As a Foundation, we are taking essential steps in the countries where we work and seeing results. Collaboration is needed more than ever to scale-up efforts and promote sustainability, now and in the coming years.”
Building resilience against economic fallout
The economic fallout of the COVID crisis is particularly acute in rural communities in developing nations, where global poverty rates are highest. ILO child labour estimates confirm that over 70% of all child labour is in agriculture, mostly alongside parents on family farms. Supporting farmers to increase their incomes and access markets plays a critical role in keeping rural children in school.
For Simão, a parent and a farmer in northern Mozambique, new skills and covid-safe support have allowed him to meet his family’s needs and even increase his revenue by 50% from March to May, despite the pandemic. Simão is a Farm Business Advisor, trained by iDE Mozambique through ECLT’s project in the Angonia district.
The training gave Simão new farming techniques, business strategies, and connected him to microfinance, which allowed him to build a tunnel greenhouse. “This assistance changed my life a lot,” said Simão. “…I can say that my finances improved.”
Project staff have adjusted to the realities of the pandemic, providing community members, including Farm Business Advisors, with phone credit. Now regular support calls safely take the place of visits.
The Farm Business Advisor model has a multiplier effect in farming communities, helping to build local resilience so farmers and families can better manage incomes during times of crisis. Simão has already paid back his first microloan and set up a cooperative system with other smallholder farmers in his area, allowing all of them to ensure they can get their crops to market. Since April, Simão has also trained over 60 farmers on how to set up and use a tunnel greenhouse, increasing local knowledge in an area where farmers depend on a mix of cash crops, like tobacco, and local products, like vegetables.
A way forward for rural communities
As UNICEF now estimates that there are 150 million children “plunged into poverty” due to the COVID closures, we must answer the question “What is the way forward to support this generation of children and youth?” Strategic multi-stakeholder partnerships focused on education, skills training, and decent work can forge a path not only to slow and reverse the damage caused by covid, but also to create lasting positive impact.
In line with our strategic plan, the ECLT Foundation has prioritised collaborative efforts during the COVID crisis. In Malawi we are reaching out through TAMA Farmers Trust to raise awareness on social distancing and provide handwashing materials for public health, especially as schools reopen. In Uganda we have launched a tri-partite partnership for rapid research to understand the on-going effects of COVID and how we can better engage with unions, workers, government and private sector for more comprehensive solutions. In Guatemala this has meant working with local government to provide families with extra seeds for food crops and support to grow them, as our implementing partners, DCI Costa Rica, keep Oliver and his classmates connected to their classes virtually.
“As the ECLT Foundation navigates these challenging times,” said Ligon, “we reconfirm our commitment to promote leadership and coordinated action of all stakeholders, including the private sector, to fight child labour and advance the 2030 SDG agenda.”