Child Labor & Resilient Nations

Stephen DeAngelis

September 07, 2006

According to a New York Times article by Michael Wines [“Africa Adds to Miserable Ranks of Child Workers,” 24 August 2006], “across the globe, the number of children forced to work is in sharp decline.” There are undoubtedly several reasons for this decline including beneficial effects of globalization and increased public attention to the problem.

Worldwide, the number of children who were already ”economically active” by the age of 14 fell roughly 10 percent from 2000 to 2004, to about 191 million, according to the International Organization for Labor, a United Nations agency. More impressive still, the number of young children laboring in the most dangerous jobs dropped by a third. In Asia, the number of economically active children — meaning they worked beyond their chores, legally or not — dropped by five million in just four years. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the decline was even more drastic, nearly 12 million.

But such good news is hard to find across the African continent. “Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa was the only region where the number of working children did not fall. “It turns out that increased child labor is one of the horizontal scenarios that has played out across the continent as a result of the AIDS crisis there.

Wines begins his article with the tragic story of a 9-year-old South African boy named Alone Banda, who, six days a week, beats brutally hard stone into powder. Banda’s grandmother bags and sells the powder for use in cement, receiving about $3/bag. During a good week, Banda manages to crush about half a bag of powder using a thick steel bolt because he can’t afford a proper hammer. According to Wine, approximately a quarter of the children living in sub-Saharan Africa are forced to work.

It is by far the greatest proportion of working children in the world. By the United Nations’ latest estimate, more than 49 million sub-Saharan children age 14 and younger worked in 2004, 1.3 million more than at the turn of the century just four years earlier. Their tasks are not merely the housework and garden-tending common to most developing societies. They are prostitutes, miners, construction workers, pesticide sprayers, haulers, street vendors, full-time servants, and they are not necessarily even paid for their labor. Some are as young as 5 and 6 years old. In Kenya, nearly a third of the coffee pickers were children, a 2001 World Bank Report found. In Tanzania, 25,000 children worked in hazardous jobs on plantations and in mines. Their numbers in Africa grow even as the ranks of child laborers are dropping by the millions in every other region of the world. Child labor declines with prosperity, and so the region’s economic plight — 44 percent of sub-Saharan residents live on less than $1 a day, far and away the greatest share on earth — is a big reason.

Breaking out of this cycle of poverty is difficult because children who must work to live are not being educated. A country’s future is literally eroded away with each new child caught in the flood of poverty created by conflict and disease. In order for a nation-state to be resilient, it must provide for its future and that provision starts with educating and training the rising generation. Technical training (in everything from basic agriculture to infrastructure maintenance) is as important as educating doctors, lawyers, accountants, and so forth. Simultaneously, a country must embark on a serious job creation program. Nothing is more destabilizing than an educated group of young people who can’t find work. There’s the rub. Jobs require foreign direct investment. FDI requires standards. Standards require a functioning government. A functioning government provides social services. Social services require funds. Corruption, the bane of many African regimes, means that money provided to prime the social services engine often finds its way into personal bank accounts rather than public programs. Growing bank accounts mean leaders are unlikely to give up positions willingly. As a result, disease spreads, conflict persists, and poverty continues to define a country’s future — and children continue to work instead of being educated. When this becomes the social norm, hope of a better future is taken off the table.

Beyond the physical cruelty and lost youth, sub-Saharan Africa’s child laborers are social and economic millstones on a region that can ill afford them. They are poorly educated, badly fed, inadequately supervised by adults and far more likely to become illiterates whose children, like them, will toil in fields, tend roadside stands or crush rocks. Already, a number of studies have documented increases in street children in sub-Saharan cities, many of them AIDS orphans forced into sidewalk vending, theft or selling sex to survive.

My point here is that resilience can’t be developed sector by sector. It must be developed holistically, with challenges in each sector attacked simultaneously. Otherwise, advances in one sector are cancelled out by setbacks in others. It can happen in Africa as it did in Asia and South America, but not without a concerted effort, real leadership, and continued commitment. We continue to explore how Development-in-a-Box can help break the cycle of poverty and bring about a miracle (even if it is not an overnight miracle — which it won’t be).