A Consultant's Casebook

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Acute Amorality and Poverty

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Acute Amorality and Poverty

I am especially sensitive to poverty.  Perhaps it's because of my background as a refugee and immigrant.  Before arriving in the United States, we suffered hunger and the dispossession of refugee camps.  I remember my mother bravely crossing back and forth between  the American sector and Russian sector of divided Germany to hawk silk stockings and earn pocket money.  After being fired upon by machineguns, she made the trips more infrequently, but she still made them.

Sometimes I consider how different my circumstances would have been, had she not made those crossings successfully.  What country would I call home?  What language would I speak?  What schooling would I have?  Who would have befriended me?  And what would they make me do to survive?

So, when I read about 6 year old girls tending looms in Morocco, or 8 year old boys sewing soccer balls in Pakistan, or 12 year old Nepalese whores working in New Delhi, I feel a terrible darkness.  I feel that darkness whenever I read about street children, abused children, and orphans.  And the darkness does not go away when I read about the poverty alleviation programs that target children.

I have come across heartwarming stories.  Missionary groups frequently write about "rescuing" children from brothels or indentured servitude.  The stories are truly upbeat and wonderful.  I have no doubt that the "rescued" are better off in the custody of their rescuers.  Unfortunately, most programs end with the rescuers returning home - but then the rescued are lost again.

The social problems associated with children in poverty cannot be addressed by temporary shelters.   When the temporary shelter closes, and the child returns home, the consequences are predetermined.  The parents and relatives of a "sold" child have already treated the child as a salable commodity.  When the child is returned, the parents reap a financial bonus because they can re-sell the child again.

Forcibly removing children from the labor force - whether by rescue or police action - is also non-productive.  It simply tightens the market by increasing demand.  Increased demand makes children more marketable, and in the long-run the increased price may encourage even more parents to regard their children as salable.

The solution to the problem of child labor must be economic.  Children must have value to parents and extended family beyond the few dollars earned by indenture.  The economic order of societies must become structured to regard children as precious assets rather than chattel.  Only by increasing the value of children to the point that their services are priced out of reach, can we eliminate the problem.  Achieving this goal will take a generation or two, will be difficult, and will offend donor morality.

What to do?

The contemporary approaches are moral.  Missionaries spread the gospel and hope that will remove children from the street or workplace.  Social activists boycott WallMart, Macey's, and the Gap hoping to save the textile workers in Bangladesh.  British courts prosecute British pedophiles in the hope that children will remain unmolested in Manila.  And travel agents forsake Japanese sex tourists to eliminate the market for Bangkok brothels.  

These cures have had decades to work, and the problems remain.  There is one cure that will work - education.   But educating the impoverished and exploited young requires ...

one cure that will work, education, cannot be ir effects are nil.  

There are cures that will work.  Education will in the Philippines There cannot be an immediate fix to these terrible social problems.  I can conceive of a time when donors must tolerate and subsidize the very evils we hope to eliminate.  



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Last modified: October 19, 2000