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David Roodman's Microfinance Open Book Blog


Don't get me wrong: sarcastic headline aside, I'm not in favor of the exploitation of children. However, I feel moved to speak against a recent push, I guess led by Hugh Sinclair, to insert a ban on child labor into the lending policies of microfinance institutions (MFIs), microfinance investors, and such accrediting programs as the Smart Campaign and the Seal of Excellence. The concern behind this movement is serious: that microcredit is financing, thus increasing, the exploitation of children. So the cause it leads to is understandable: a push for policies to break any such link.

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My challenges to this proposal are four:

  1. Legality. Hugh argues that child labor is wrong because it is illegal in many countries with microfinance. Excellent point! In fact, most microfinance clients are engaged in illegality one way or another: squatting on city land to build houses the width of a queen-sized bed, failing to pay taxes on their meager earnings, failing to register their tiny businesses with the authorities... So to expunge microfinance of scofflawery, we need to shut it all down. Seriously, Hernando de Soto showed how, at least in Latin America, elites have purposely complicated the law in order to make formality---legality---a privilege rather than a right. Being poor means you are almost automatically illegal. Thus legality is a wobbly compass microfinance.
  2. Ethics. We are all descendants of children who survived to adulthood only by laboring, whether as farmers or herders or gatherers. Only with their labor could the family subsist. I look forward to the day when there is no child on earth for whom this is the best choice. But we are not there yet. And we are not as close as you might think. Going by the numbers, the world has made great progress getting kids into school. However, a huge number of these children aren't learning very much. So how quick should we be to tell parents struggling under circumstances far different from our own what the right choice is? Many of them agree with you on the value of education. Whether it is best to put their children in the schools they can afford today is another matter.
  3. Evidence. The effect of microfinance on child labor is an empirical question, whose answer will probably vary by context. On the hand, microfinance sometimes stimulates at-home businesses, leading parents to pull kids out of school and employ them at home. On the other, it gives parents a new way to finance school fees, providing them the discipline to set aside money each week for this purpose.

    The evidence, like the ethics and the legal argument, is ambiguous. A good non-randomized study in Thailand found credit to increase child labor. One in Guatemala found the opposite. (Hat tip to Hugh for both.) The randomized studies, which I trust more, have mostly found little impact. In Hyderabad microcredit availability did not lift or lower the number of kids in school. In Manila, loans made no difference for the average response to "Any Household Member Helping in Family Business?" Ditto, essentially, in Mongolia. In Morocco, children worked 5.05 hours/week in areas with more microcredit versus 4.88 in areas without, a difference that is not statistically significant; meanwhile the number of children per family in school was slightly but statistically higher in the microcredit treatment areas, at 0.76 instead of 0.73.

    An exception appeared in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Among less-educated, and presumably poorer families, microcredit caused more 16--19-year-olds to work at home, where "home" often meant "farm." As I blogged before, it is not easy to second-guess poor families in the midst of a major economic crisis if they use credit to invest in their farms, perhaps in more livestock, and put these near-adults to work.

  4. Principals and agents. Now, one could retort that even if microfinance does not press children into labor on average, it still must do so sometimes. After all, how comforted would you be if I told you that microcredit does not increase slavery on average? And microfinance increases child labor in some cases, then one can argue that MFIs should vow never to finance such exploitation, and that microfinance investors must demand such vows in return for funds.

    I do hope that microfinance officers don't leave their ethics at the home, that if they find a child laboring in great duress, and they know that a loan would make things worse, then they will not lend. But in general, microfinance, especially group microfinance for the lower-income clientele, has succeeded by not taking much interest in clients' business. Monitoring clients takes time, time costs money, and higher costs lead to higher interest rates. Anyway, trying to determine what people do with their loans or savings withdrawals is often a fool's errand because of fungibility. Moreover, as Hugh's book dramatizes, reality tends to diverge from rhetoric as one moves along the microfinance investment chain---from individual investor, to investment fund, to MFI headquarters, to field practice. MFIs may say they have banned loans for child labor, and MFI investors may buy that reassurance rather easily---but should we believe them? It will be a great achievement if a program like the Smart Campaign can reliably monitor and certify microfinance field practice as being transparent and non-coercive. I think it is a goal too far to certify what is being done with microfinance in each household. Microfinance investment funds promising to rid their portfolios of child labor will be setting the stage for hypocrisy.

This issue exemplifies a larger problem in international aid and philanthropy. A donor that enters a country with plans to make loans or drill wells or build roads cannot understand, much less control, many of the consequences of those interventions. Often local political structures undermine intentions: bed nets meant to be donated to the poor are pilfered and sold to the highest bidder. Pouring microloans into an Indian slum will perturb the paths of thousands of families. In some, more children will walk out the door each day, headed for the local schoolhouse. In others, more will be enslaved at looms (though I do wonder how much of the most vile child labor occurs in household-level enterprises). In the face of diversity and uncertainty of the outcomes, donors can either proceed or not. I think they'll do best to base their choices on the evidence---which looks pretty good in this case---and a general theory about how the intervention contributes to development. Roads, for example, do harm as well as good, but in many cases clearly more good. Similarly microfinance (if the credit is administered in moderation) is a generally useful service that can give people more control over their lives. Some will use that control for ill, but that doesn't make giving the poor more options a bad idea.

Apologies to Jerry Mander, author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.

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