How CNN reported on ‘child slaves’ who were not really enslaved

Despite what a recent CNN documentary claims, there is no pervasive child slavery problem in Ghana’s Lake Volta region.

CNN film
CNN's documentary "Troubled Waters: Inside the child slavery trade" is part of its Freedom Project [still from video/Youtube]

On March 1, CNN aired a video report titled, Freeing the child slaves of Lake Volta, which followed a succession of similar “docufictions” and publications alleging the existence of pervasive child trafficking and child slavery in fishing communities along the Lake Volta in Ghana.

We (two academics who have studied this issue critically and carried out extensive interviews with members of Lake Volta communities and a member of parliament whose constituents overwhelmingly live on and around the lake) deem it critical to set the record straight as this is a complex social issue which needs careful analysis rather than melodrama and sensationalism.

The allegations of child trafficking and child slavery, which are mostly made by Western-based or funded journalists and NGOs with the help of local affiliates, reflect a limited understanding of the lived realities on islands and communities along the lake. Fishing is one of the few guaranteed avenues of subsistence for islanders and residents of riverine communities along the Lake Volta, and children are rightly taught fishing skills by their parents.

The lake also serves many important functions for these communities. Virtually all economic and social activities take place on or around it. It is not only the main source of employment, but it is also the highway which connects islands, a playground for children, a marketplace, etc. It is, therefore, not unusual to find children fishing, commuting by boat to other islands or simply playing with their peers and siblings on the Lake Volta. Outsiders or those unfamiliar with this fundamental social set-up can wrongly translate the sight of a child in a boat with an adult as a child being exploited or forced to work.


We acknowledge that not all children on the islands and riverine live or work with their biological parents. However, this is not because of rampant sale or trafficking of children, as CNN and others have suggested.

The extended family system is still highly valued in Ghana as it remains integral to the social welfare system. It is, therefore, entirely normal to find children living with non-biological parents or guardians who can offer them educational, apprenticeship and other developmental opportunities.

Additionally, due to expertise and knowledge in fishing on the islands and riverine areas of the Lake Volta, it is similarly not unusual to find children from coastal and other fishing areas of the country (such as Winneba) in apprenticeships and tutelage agreements with fishermen who are not their blood relatives.

A largely ignored aspect of this practice in the CNN and other reportage of this issue is that many children and youth become self-sufficient fishermen in adulthood through these arrangements and, in turn, also train other children and youth. For sure, this form of fosterage and tutelage can be fraught with complications, particularly surrounding the mode of remuneration for child apprentices.

Some fishermen give the agreed wages for the child upfront to their parents, in cases where the child’s family is in dire need of money. That children do not get direct access to the income generated from their labour is problematic, but the transfer of money from fishermen to child apprentices’ parents does not constitute “sale” of the child.

The cases of child abuse and exploitation in apprenticeship and fosterage arrangements in areas on and around the Lake Volta are the exception rather than the norm. Also, such unfortunate outcomes from well-intentioned child upbringing practices are not unique to this part of the world.

In 2017, for example, 674,000 children in state care in the United States were abused. We cite this number not to point the finger to other countries, but to challenge the tendency by journalists, NGOs and other commentators to resort to pejorative portrayals and characterisations when reporting on such issues in the Global South. The language employed by NGOs and journalists when reporting on child rights problems in rich powerful nations is usually more tempered or considerate.

They do not describe as “child enslavement”, for example, the blatant curtailment of the freedoms of children who are cruelly caged in immigration detention as a matter of state policy in the US, the UK, Australia and other countries. We only ask for the same nuance and considered examination in recounting similar problems in Ghana and elsewhere in the Global South.

We challenge CNN, the International Justice Mission (IJM), Free the Slaves and any other actor alleging “widespread” or “pervasive” child trafficking and child slavery in communities along the Lake Volta to provide independent evidence to corroborate these claims. The fact is, cases that should be described or defined at best as “child labour” are deliberately being distorted to tell fantastic stories of “child slavery” and “child trafficking”, feeding into stereotypes of supposed primitiveness and backwardness of African communities.

The available statistics suggesting widespread child trafficking or child enslavement on the Volta Lake have been largely produced by anti-trafficking organisations and self-styled “contemporary slavery abolitionists” with vested interests in making such claims, such as fundraising efforts, a desire to boost individual and organisational profiles and so on.

The only semi-independent large scale study of children’s involvement in work on the Volta Lake, which was conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2013, is emphatic that the claims of child enslavement are exaggerated. The ILO study confirms, as we also acknowledge, that aspects of children’s work on the lake take place under dangerous and exploitative conditions. This is clearly a problem that has to be addressed. However, the study did not find any evidence of children involved in servitude or enslavement, contrary to the persistent claims by some NGOs and journalists.

The media and journalists have a responsibility to provide a balanced account to their audience. It is, therefore, unfortunate that the views of community residents and leaders are often excluded from these reports. As a result, their efforts to address the problem are ignored or undermined.

Over the past decade, a number of social intervention programmes, such as free basic compulsory education, free school uniforms for schools, school feeding programmes, livelihood empowerment against poverty (LEAP) and many more have been implemented in Ghana in an attempt to address social problems like those faced by children on islands and riverine areas of the Lake Volta.

It is clear that these interventions have not yet achieved their ultimate purpose, which is largely because of the scale of deprivation at the heart of these problems. But another reason is that international funding that could help the Ghanian government in this direction is usually awarded to (mostly Western-based) NGOs and actors who mispresent the issue to the media and make sensationalist claims about “widespread slavery”. 

CNN and others who claim to have purely noble intentions have some ethical questions to answer. Did these children (and their families), many of whom are not familiar with the internet, fully consent to the use of their images in these campaigns? Are these vulnerable children and families whose pictures and videos are taken by journalists and NGOs fully aware that they are going to be used as “poster children” of child trafficking and child slavery? How would CNN et al react if a Ghanaian journalist were to travel across remote and impoverished communities in the US filming children and families who may not fully understand the purpose for the film and may not even get to see how they are portrayed?

There are potential abuses of privilege and power here, which do not seem to have been sufficiently weighed up by all actors involved.

What is more, the CNN video and other portrayals add insult to injury by promoting poorly informed, uncritical and sensational accounts which feed into threats of sanctions and other punitive measures against the entire country and, by extension, the already impoverished islanders and communities along the Volta Lake and elsewhere in Ghana.

Dr Kwame Agyeman also co-authored this article. He is a lecturer in international human rights law at Lancaster University in Ghana. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.