By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: April 3, 2004
BISKÉ, Chad — With Democrats on the warpath over trade, there's pressure for tougher international labor standards that would try to put Abakr Adoud out of work.
Abakr lives with his family in the desert near this oasis in eastern Chad. He has never been to school and roams the desert all day with his brothers, searching for sticks that can be made into doors for mud huts. He is 10 years old.
It's appalling that Abakr, like tens of millions of other children abroad, is working instead of attending school. But prohibiting child labor wouldn't do him any good, for there's no school in the area for him to attend. If child labor hawks manage to keep Abakr from working, without giving him a school to attend, he and his family will simply be poorer than ever.
And that's the problem when Americans get on their high horses about child labor, without understanding the cruel third world economics that cause it. The push by Democrats like John Kerry for international labor standards is well intentioned, but it is also oblivious to third world realities.
Look, I feel like Scrooge when I speak out against bans on sweatshops or on child labor. In the West, it's hard to find anyone outside a university economics department who agrees with me. But the basic Western attitude — particularly among Democrats and warm-and-fuzzy humanitarians — sometimes ends up making things worse. Consider the results of two major American efforts to ban imports produced by child labor:
In 1993, when Congress proposed the U.S. Child Labor Deterrence Act, which would have blocked imports made by children (if it had passed), garment factories in Bangladesh fired 50,000 children. Many ended up in worse jobs, like prostitution.
Then there was the hue and cry beginning in 1996 against soccer balls stitched by children in their homes (mostly after school) in Sialkot, Pakistan. As a result, the balls are now stitched by adults, often in factories under international monitoring.
But many women are worse off. Conservative Pakistanis believe that women shouldn't work outside the home, so stitching soccer balls is now off limits for many of them. Moreover, bad publicity about Pakistan led China to grab market share with machine-stitched balls: over the next two years, Pakistan's share of the U.S. soccer ball market dropped to 45 percent from 65 percent.
So poor Pakistani families who depended on earnings from women or children who stitched soccer balls are now further impoverished.
I'm not arguing that child labor is a good thing. It isn't. But as Jagdish Bhagwati, the eminent trade economist, notes in his new book, "In Defense of Globalization," thundering against child labor doesn't address the poverty that causes it.
In the village of Toukoultoukouli in Chad, I visited the 17 girls and 31 boys in the two-room school. Many children, especially girls, never attend school, which ends after the fourth grade.
So a 12-year-old boy working in Toukoultoukouli has gotten all the education he can. Instead of keeping him from working, Westerners should channel their indignation into getting all children into school for at least those four years — and there is one way that could perhaps be achieved.
It's bribery. The U.N. World Food Program runs a model foreign aid effort called the school feeding program. It offers free meals to children in poor schools (and an extra bribe of grain for girl students to take home to their families). Almost everywhere, providing food raises school attendance, particularly for girls. "If there were meals here, parents would send their kids," said Muhammad Adam, a teacher in Toukoultoukouli.
School feeding costs just 19 cents per day per child.
So here's my challenge to university students: Instead of spending your energy boycotting Nike or pressing for barriers against child labor, why not sponsor school meals in places like Toukoultoukouli?
I spoke with officials at the World Food Program, and they'd be thrilled to have private groups or individuals help sponsor school feedings. (See www.nytimes.com/kristofresponds for details.) Children in Africa will be much better off with a hot meal and an education than with your self-righteous indignation.