Kristof on child labor

Here is Nicholas Kristof on the terrible consequences of so-called international labor standards.

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.

Kristof goes beyond attacking soft-headed thinking, he also suggests a soft-hearted alternative.

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…. “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 [you can donate at this link, Alex], and they’d be thrilled to have private groups or individuals help sponsor school feedings. Children in Africa will be much better off with a hot meal and an education than with your self-righteous indignation.

Aside: The only thing Kristof misses is that the soft-hearted demand for international labor standards often masks labor union protectionism. Another case of bootleggers and Baptists. And here is Tyler with more on the economics of child labor.