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Alberto Posso (Ed.): Child Labor in the Developing World

Reviewed by Prof. Dr. Manfred Liebel, 2021-03-05

Cover Alberto Posso (Hrsg.): Child Labor in the Developing World ISBN 978-981-15-3106-4

Alberto Posso (Ed.): Child Labor in the Developing World. Palgrave Macmillan (Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG21 6XS) 2020. 1. Edition. 273 pages. ISBN 978-981-15-3106-4. 106,99 EUR.

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Numerous analyses with scientific pretensions have been undertaken on the topic of child labour in the last three decades. They differ considerably in their research interests and theoretical and methodological approaches and come to very different political conclusions. Most of them are developed within the framework of one scientific discipline, especially economics, sociology and anthropology. Only a few are interdisciplinary. Most studies ask about the causes of child labour, others focus more on the meanings and effects that work has for children. A more recently addressed issue is how to understand the harm that is usually associated with child labour (see the latest research reports of the ACHA project – Action on Children’s Harmful Work in African Agriculture: Some studies weigh the advantages and disadvantages that work can have for children depending on their specific life situation and cultural context. 

In English, a distinction is often made between child labour and child work in order to do justice to the broad spectrum of forms and conditions, ranging from slave-like to self-determined work. The term ‘Kinderarbeit’, which is commonly used in German, tends to disregard this differentiated view. The same applies to English-language studies that use the term child labour exclusively. These studies are mainly found in economics and are close to the political approach represented by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). This approach generally evaluates child labour negatively and tries to eliminate it with legal work prohibitions and action programmes (so far in vain). In contrast, other approaches, such as those represented by independent scholars and some large child rights organisations, strive for more differentiated solutions that focus primarily on the effects on children’s well-being (see, e.g., the recently published Open Letter: The organisations of working children and young people explicitly demand a right to work, so that they can also claim rights at their workplaces and better defend themselves against exploitation.


With the exception of two contributions, the anthology is in the field of economics. It emerged from a workshop entitled ‘Understanding Child Labour in Agriculture’ held at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, in April 2019. The editor, Alberto Posso, is a professor of economics at this university. Ten of the 12 authors represented in the volume are also economists or are based in international financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank.


The editor states that the main aim of the volume is to gain ‘theoretical insights with empirical evidence’ (p. 18) on the question of why children work. This is to be achieved with the help of case studies on individual countries, which are referred to as ‘developing countries’ in the book. There is a strong focus on India (four contributions), other contributions deal with Vietnam, Cameroon, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. The focus is mainly on rural regions and work in agriculture. Although individual contributions point out that a distinction must be made between children’s work in their own families or small family businesses on the one hand and wage labour ‘for third parties’ on the other, the analyses refer almost exclusively to the latter variant of child labour. In this, they follow the ILO definition of child labour and the corresponding statistical data of this organisation. These serve as a starting point at the beginning of most contributions and are used as a basis for the authors’ own calculations, which are not subject to further questioning. 

Almost all the contributions in the volume attempt to fathom the causes of child labour using statistical methods. Not surprisingly, they unanimously conclude that children work because their families live in great poverty. The authors consider children as potential carriers of ‘human capital’ and see its development hindered by early involvement in work processes. As a result, child labour contributes significantly to the perpetuation of poverty (‘vicious circle’) and hinders the ‘development’ of the respective societies. The article on Vietnam focuses on the strong increase in cross-border migration and states different effects on the question of development.

Development is essentially measured by whether parents have access to financial resources and are able to reproduce their lives and those of their children through wage labour. A country is considered developed when wage labour becomes the main source of income and eliminates the need to rely on children’s work. The basis of development is consistently seen in economic growth. The policy conclusion drawn in almost all contributions is to recommend that governments remove obstacles to gainful employment for adults and, on a transitional basis, increase family income with the help of microcredit programmes and conditional transfer payments. Investment in the education system is considered more important than income support for increasing human capital. Moreover, child labour should be tackled through stricter enforcement of legal prohibitions and easier access to formal education.

Only two contributions in the anthology differ from this line of argument, but in different ways. Both contributions refer to different regions and population groups in India.

Dakhina Mitra’s contribution is dedicated to the situation of girls who produce cheap cigarettes, the so-called beedis, in a rural region in the Kolkata area. The case study is based on participant observation as well as informal conversations with girls and some ‘expert interviews’ with adults. From the girls’ life stories, the author comes to the conclusion that their work, which often begins at the age of nine, is the natural result of a deeply rooted ‘child labour culture’. It is primarily based on gender-based divisions and patriarchal behavioural norms that are reproduced from generation to generation. The girls feel powerless and do not have the ‘courage’ to defend themselves against the exploitation they are subjected to, which they are often aware of. According to the author, this can only be countered through fundamental ‘behaviour change’, i.e. a kind of cultural enlightenment. As an intermediate step, she recommends combining school attendance with ‘vocational training’. With regard to the ILO statistics, she notes that the decline in child labour shown there for India gives a false impression. Child labour is only becoming invisible, as it is shifting from factories to families and other informal areas that are difficult to detect.

The contribution by Afreen Gani Fanidi deals with the work of children from the indigenous Bakkarwal minority in Jammu and Kashmir, who traditionally live from pastoral economy and therefore have a nomadic way of life. The author asks how the political conflict over the national affiliation of the region, in particular the violent appropriation of the local population, affects the living situation of the working children. He criticises that this policy aims at destroying the traditional economy and way of life of the Bakkarwal (as well as other indigenous peoples in the country) and replacing it with a capitalist economy based on the sale of labour power. This would lead to endangering the children’s ‘good work’ embedded in a communitarian way of life based on mutuality, and to forcing the children to submit to exploitative labour relations. He accuses Indian labour legislation as well as mainstream economics of ignoring other socio-cultural ways of living and working and of devaluing them as backward and impeding development. In contrast, the author emphasises the need to arrive at a policy based on respect for ‘lived realities’ and enabling children to live a dignified life on their own terms. If he had undertaken a field study with children, in which the children themselves could have had their say, his contribution would have been even more convincing.


With the exception of the last contribution, the anthology is based on the dogmas of a science that can only imagine development as the implementation of a globalised capitalist economy. Economic growth is hypothesised as a prerequisite for solving all problems. There is not even a trace of critical reflection on its serious ecological and social consequences, which can no longer be ignored. In an instrumentalising manner, children are seen merely as human capital to be invested in, instead of as individuals with their own needs and interests. The structural reasons for the continuing and even growing poverty of the rural population and their children are not even touched upon. They are located solely in their supposed cultural backwardness, above all in their low willingness to invest in education. Thus, it is a cheap way to make the poor themselves responsible for their misery and to declare child labour the cause of all evil.

A similar view is also taken in the rather cultural-scientific chapter, which blames the supposedly deeply rooted ‘child labour culture’ in the rural population for the suffering situation of the children. The author uncritically reproduces the thesis of a ‘culture of poverty’ that the US anthropologist Oscar Lewis thought he had discovered among the inhabitants of a Mexican slum in the 1950s (The Children of Sanchez, last edition 2011). Since then, this thesis of a poverty that is constantly renewed by the poor themselves has also been the basis of the arrogant contempt for the so-called lower classes and their supposed passivity and ‘welfare mentality’.

The conclusion drawn by the editor Alberto Posso at the end of the volume that the contributions have provided ‘new information’ about the causes of child labour is without any basis. The blanket reference to poverty as the main cause is, after all, old hat. The analyses offered in the volume are based solely on correlations calculated on the basis of statistical data whose mostly problematic conceptual and methodological premises remain obscure. There is hardly a thought in the entire book that perceives the term child labour as a discursive construction that could suggest other definitions and classifications. The authors seem to consider their own assumption that childhood and work are mutually exclusive as a given and immutable fact of nature. Many pages of the book are crammed with tables, graphs and mathematical formulae designed to give the impression that exact and timeless science is at work here. This does not even address the simple fact that statistical calculations may show ‘stochastic’, i.e. frequency-based probable correlations, but they are far from being able to provide information about the underlying causes of a social phenomenon or problem.

Behind the imposition of mathematical correlations, the children and their families disappear as subjects who have to be very resourceful to keep themselves alive. Certainly, they are far from having free options under the existing power structures and living conditions, but they are usually well aware of the injustice of social conditions. It is quite astonishing how workshops can still take place and whole books can emerge from them that lack any sensitivity to the experiences and perspectives of working children. One sign of this is that the book almost never talks about the children as persons who think for themselves and certainly have their own ideas about how their lives could be improved. In hardly any chapter are they included as research partners. The book joins a multitude of publications in which children function only as the disposal mass of policies that are developed without their participation. There is still a lot of work to be done in the field of economics. The last contribution of the volume on children of an indigenous minority in India makes this impressively clear. It seems somewhat ‘lost’ in the book and is not even mentioned in the editor’s concluding summary.


With the exception of a single contribution, the anthology is an example of the incompetence and arrogance of mainstream economics in elevating itself to the position of judge over working children and their families and in suggesting solutions to the problem of child labour. This is nothing but a continuation of Western colonialism and capitalist globalisation by academic means.

Review by
Prof. Dr. Manfred Liebel
Master of Arts Childhood Studies and Children’s Rights (MACR) an der Fachhochschule Potsdam, Fachbereich Sozial- und Bildungswissenschaften

There are 104 Reviews of Manfred Liebel.

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Cite this publication
Manfred Liebel, 2021. Review of: Alberto Posso (Ed.): Child Labor in the Developing World. Palgrave Macmillan 2020. 1. Edition. ISBN 978-981-15-3106-4. In: socialnet Reviews, 2021-03-05. ISSN 2190-9245. Retrieved 2024-07-18 from

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