Strengthening local organizations to stop child labor in Colombia’s gold mining communities: Lessons from the Pilares project

March 1, 2022
Members of the Pilares Solidarity Network El Bagre prepare for a conference on child labor prevention. Credit: Maximiliano Arrieta/Diseñart.

When we started the Pilares project, we knew one thing for certain: Child labor and other unacceptable working conditions are an intractable problem in Colombia’s gold mining communities.

Our mission under Pilares – a four-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and implemented by Pact and the Alliance for Responsible Mining – was to make a sustainable difference in the Bajo Cauca and South Bolivar regions, where gold mining is a critical livelihood and where communities experience high rates of poverty, illegal economies and armed conflict. Although there are Colombian laws about gold mining, the artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector is not well regulated, and ASGM tends to take place in hard-to-reach areas plagued by armed groups and conflict. There is little presence among government institutions, education is poor, leading to school desertion, and opportunities for children are very limited. So youth begin working in the sector that is known to them – gold mining. 

This complicated context is why it was so important to build the capacity of local civil society organizations to better understand and address child labor and promote acceptable working conditions in ASGM. This was our strategy under Pilares; local organizations – with our support – are the only ones who will be able to see this fight through with sustainable success.   

Rather than simply strengthening individual organizations, however, we used a Collective Impact approach. This methodology seeks to convene strategic civil society actors at the local and departmental levels in order to align their scopes, capacities and inherent strategies to address a common agenda, in this case Pilares’s main intended outcomes:

  • Identify and document accurate, independent and objective information on the nature and scope of child labor and on violations of acceptable conditions of work, with a focus on the ASGM sector. 
  • Raise awareness for the protection of workers from child labor and from violations of acceptable conditions of work.
  • Implement initiatives to address child labor and violations of acceptable conditions of work, including access to grievance mechanisms for victims of labor exploitation.
A community leader from Puerto López learns about child labor. Credit: Jadín Samit Vergara/Pact.

We worked with a range of civil society groups from organized and formal to fairly informal, with a range of capacity to finance and manage activities. But they all had the capacity to build their skills in management and leadership needed for addressing child labor and other unacceptable working conditions. They also had the capacity to work together and with local governments, making them essential in representing their communities.

We grouped CSOs into three Solidarity Networks, and each of those into three working groups, with each group coalescing around one of the three Pilares objectives noted above. This in itself was our fourth objective – to build and improve the performance of these Solidarity Networks to address child labor and other unacceptable working conditions.  

The Collective Impact approach was selected for a clear reason: There is more impact when working together. CSOs used to work independently and thus had not had much influence in local government decisions or in representing their communities. By working together, under specific methodological parameters such as a common agenda, they had better influence and participation in local government plans and activities. At the same time, they could build the capacity of communities to understand the issues of child labor and other unacceptable working conditions. This is community development run by community organizations, which is key for lasting change. 

As Pilares winds down, coming to a close later this year, I am delighted to be able to say that our approach has been successful. A final evaluation completed by an independent evaluator found that Pilares surpassed our expected level of performance, scoring high in effectiveness, efficiency, monitoring and evaluation and sustainability. In terms of results, civil society organizations, through the Solidarity Networks, have built their capacity to address child labor and other unacceptable working conditions. They participate in local government decision making and planning. They can run projects successfully and leverage this to acquire further funding. They represent the community and are well respected by them. They developed their own sustainability plans and communications and are implementing them with a strong component of creating alliances.

“For a project with such a small budget, they have been so effective. Often projects with larger budgets don’t have as much impact.”

Feedback from our funder

Through an alliance with Cartagena University, the Solidarity Networks from Sur de Bolívar sought IT solutions to meet local needs. Credit: Lina Giraldo León/Pact.

I am confident that the reason for our success is that Pilares was community-led by local civil society organizations. Indeed, they developed their strengthening plans, attended and built on the capacity support provided by several stakeholders, and applied the capacity gained through managing their own subawards, designed and implemented by them. 

And of course, they worked together through now strong networks.

“Pilares has been one of the most impactful because they promoted alliances with other CSOs,” a Solidarity Network member from South Bolivar told evaluators. “So instead of a few people from one organization, we have an entire network. We have created alliances with public and private partners.”

We overcame many challenges during the life of Pilares, and we learned many lessons. These are detailed with best practices in our evaluation report, which I hope will be of use to other capacity development practitioners. But I will offer a few key takeaways here: Always center efforts at the local level. Work with the community from the start of the project, discuss matters openly, plan and build together, and hold participants accountable. Never think or assume that they do not have the capacity and build on their strengths. Be open to learning at all times.

Build leadership and never lose sight of sustainability. From the start, Pilares focused on the autonomy of the networks, crucial for sustainability. International development organizations may come and go, but local organizations stay as leaders in their communities. It is a long way before child labor can be eradicated from the areas where Pilares worked, but these organizations are opening that path. 

Read Pilares’s full final report here, and a report brief here.