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Out of the Cocoa Fields

In Côte d’Ivoire and Malawi, many children don’t attend school because they have to work on cocoa plantations or are married off at an early age. UZH economist Guilherme Lichand is using innovative experiments to explore solutions to this problem.
Text by Roger Nickl; English translation by Philip Isler
School in Malawi
Child labor and underage marriage are among the main reasons why many children in Africa drop out of school. Pictured: A school in Malawi.


Some 260 million children around the world don’t go to school. About 400 million 11-year-olds can barely read, write or do basic math, while 840 million children leave school with no professional or vocational qualifications whatsoever. These numbers, presented by former UK prime minister and UN special envoy for education Gordon Brown at the UN’s education summit in New York last year, are alarming. “Education was in crisis even before the pandemic hit,” says UZH professor Guilherme Lichand, “but Covid has made things worse.” Schools were closed, and many children all over the world fell behind in their education as classes were held online.

Brazilian-born economist Guilherme Lichand heads up the UZH Center for Child Well-Being and Development, where he explores issues related to education and social inequality. His professorship is supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “Social inequality is closely linked to unequal opportunities in education,” says the economist, who is currently focusing on projects in Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire and Malawi.

Breaking the vicious circle

Guilherme Lichand describes himself as a problem solver. The epithet “research meets social innovation” features prominently on his website, where he describes his work as measuring complex social phenomena and repurposing technologies for social good. One of the problems he wants to solve is the high number of children who don’t go to school or drop out early. Elevated school absenteeism and dropout rates, which contribute to the global crisis in education, are widespread in many developing and emerging countries.

There are many different reasons why children stay away from the classroom. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, one of the main causes of school absenteeism is child labor. Thirty percent of children under 17 in the West African nation – one of the world’s major cocoa producers, along with Ghana – work in the country’s cocoa fields to support their families financially.

Work on cocoa plantations is hard labor and gets in the way of both boys and girls attending school. Many children get frustrated and drop out of school altogether because, exhausted from working in the fields, they are unable to perform in the classroom. In many cases this means they’re following in their parents’ footsteps, who are also likely to have abandoned their education for the same reasons. “It’s a vicious circle,” Guilherme Lichand says. “Children of poor parents can’t fulfill their potential, and this affects all areas of their lives.” To break this vicious circle, the economist thus believes that policy-makers, the tech industry and scientists must work hand in hand. “Education plays a key role here,” says Lichand. And since he is a scientist by trade, he has decided to tackle the problem using the tools that he is most familiar with.

Nudging by text message

The UZH economist carried out a large-scale behavioral experiment in Côte d’Ivoire with the aim of getting kids back in schools. The experiment, which was supported by the local government, included some 5,000 parents of kids in close to 100 schools. Lichand used an approach called nudging, which he had already successfully applied in a previous research project in Brazil, in which text messages were used to remind parents to send their children to school. The text messages came twice a week over a period of one and a half years and included messages such as, “Encourage your child to go to school. Their future depends on it!” or “Most children who work in the fields aren’t good at school.  Protect your child’s education!”

These text message nudges may not seem like a big deal, but they had an astonishing effect. After 18 months, the researchers observed a 50% decrease in school dropout rates and a one-third reduction in the number of school children who had to repeat sixth grade. Lichand’s nudging project was so successful that the government decided to keep it going. “While it doesn’t solve any of the underlying issues, the experiment shows that small well-designed interventions can have a positive effect on children’s education,” he says.

Babies instead of books

Child labor isn’t the only thing keeping kids out of schools – the widespread practice of underage marriage is also to blame. In Malawi, for example, almost half of all daughters in the country are married off before they’re 18. “That’s why 30 to 40% of schoolgirls drop out of school when they’re 14 or 15,” says the economist, “and many have their first child within a year of getting married.” This inevitably marks the end of the young mothers’ school careers – if they were still attending school at all, that is.

As widespread as underage marriage is in the southern African country, many parents are actually opposed to the custom, a survey carried out by Lichand and his team revealed. Most parents in the survey, which covered about 400 villages, believed young women shouldn’t get married before they turn 18. But the survey also highlighted the tremendous social image concerns families in Malawi are facing. Speaking out and taking action against child marriage puts a family’s credibility and social reputation at risk. This led Guilherme Lichand to think about how families could retain their positive image and show they care about community, even though they didn’t support child marriage and were thus breaking with tradition.

Alternative social signals

Guilherme Lichand and his team decided to conduct an innovative field experiment focusing on social signals. Those taking part in the experiment were prompted to donate maize, which would then be distributed among the poorest in the village. The people who donated received a red rubber bracelet in return, which they could wear to signal that they cared about the community and could be counted on.

Among the people who regularly donated maize and received the bracelet were many parents of underage daughters. “Child marriage was never mentioned during the experiment,” Guilherme Lichand emphasizes. And yet, this is precisely where the positive effects were observed. One and a half years later, the researchers found that child marriage rates had dropped by 30% in the villages taking part in the experiment. As a result, school dropout rates and teenage pregnancies had also decreased significantly. This confirmed Lichand’s hypothesis that giving away maize and wearing the bracelets enabled the families to signal to others that they cared about the village community, even if they didn’t support the practice of child marriage. “Our experiment illustrates the complexity of social expectations and motivations,” says the UZH professor, “but also that it’s possible to roll out interventions that get to the heart of the issue.”

New ideas for education policy-makers

Through his research in Africa and South America, Guilherme Lichand wants to raise awareness of problematic social and economic relationships and dynamics. And he hopes to develop new policy ideas to break the vicious circle that so many children in developing countries find themselves in – and improve their educational opportunities. The economist has no illusions about the difficulties facing him, however. “The path from science to policy is often long and arduous. It can be frustrating, but you mustn’t give up. You simply have to keep on researching,” says Guilherme Lichand. This, he adds, is what it means to be a scientist committed to society.

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