18 June 2014

A world without chocolate

Certainly not a world I want to live in! But I say that as a chocolate lover with a borderline addiction issue. 

As I was preparing for my trip to the Solomons, I did what anyone with internet access does - google relevant practical information. I packed some chocolate just in case I needed a fix while I was on the plane. So this well-prepared traveller arrives in Honiara and is all set for the place... or so she thinks! 

Three weeks without any glitches, I celebrated with my last bar of chocolate. Well, it was time to get more. This country produces and exports cocoa so they must have remarkable chocolate. More than eight shops, no luck! It had turned into a chocolate-finding mission.

Dejected and shocked, I ask my local friends where I can find chocolate in Honiara. They tell me chocolate is not easily available here and just one or two shops “may” have some. Naturally, my next question was, “Hang on! How do you guys bribe your kids to behave then?” Clearly, not with chocolate. And then it struck me, children in the Solomon Islands ARE living in a world without chocolate.

Apparently, chocolate is too expensive for the locals to afford but that did not make any sense. This country grows cocoa - the most expensive ingredient in chocolate. Why aren't they capitalising on it, turning it into premium cocoa products and selling it to the world? Local production, job creation and better returns with greater mark-up on the final product - it makes sense! 

I realise my approach is simplistic but it isn't ingenious by any measure. Many countries have implemented this model and, of course, they face challenges in executing it. With the unreasonably high unemployment rate in the Solomon Islands, overcoming the challenges seem not just imperative but almost non-negotiable. 

The domino effect of the high unemployment is most evident in the schools and the streets of the country. Families have an average of five children. As the size of the family grows and the school fees increase with each grade, parents have to make a choice between feeding their family or paying school fees. They choose the former for obvious reasons. And in pursuit of survival, children are not in schools and are instead on the streets selling fruits, betel nut or, as in the case of Diana, babysitting.

12-year old Diana babysitting instead of schooling.
© UNICEF Pacific/2014/Thakkar
Diana is 12-years old and she is the oldest of five children. She babysits 2-year old Elton who lives in the neighborhood. In return, Elton’s parents feed and clothe Diana. I asked Diana if she would like to go to school. Initially she didn't have an opinion but she thought about it again and changed her response to yes. When I asked her why, she said most children in her village don’t go to school but some who do seem to enjoy it. 

Like most people in the Solomon Islands, Diana’s parents are formally unemployed, they built their own home and they survive on subsistence farming. Anything beyond what the family consumes is sold. They use that money to buy clothes. So the basic necessities - food, shelter, clothing - are sorted. Since Diana is “old enough” to look after herself, she started babysitting.

Samples of shell money in the 
Solomon Islands. © UNICEF Pacific/
The concept of ‘Solomon dollars’ is just one generation old i.e. Diana’s grandparents survived on barter system or the local shell money, which is still prevalent in some remote parts of the country. Diana’s parents’ generation is the first to use Solomon dollars but without work, schooling is a luxury they cannot afford for their kids.

Breaking the cycle of poverty requires Diana’s generation to get an education and formal employment. Will this issue be solved in one generation? UNICEF and its partners are working to ensure that happens. It is an uphill task but not an impossible one. 

By the way, if my initial question in this blog is still haunting you - parents here bribe their kids with lollipop and candy. Chocolate or not, it is the same tricks around the world.

Neha Thakkar
Communications Officer

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