Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Poor + Illiterate = Stupid + Selfish (the development legend)

This was written in September 2003


The poor don’t know what’s good for them.  They have an unnecessary number of children, then don’t send their children to school, make them work for less than minimum wages and then let them marry early to repeat the same cycle of life.

Child labour is an issue of significant debate in the media. Such child labour occurs in poorer countries like India. Some of the popular remedies suggested to treat this malaise are:

1.                  Make sure these children go to primary schools that should be set up in their area and be of a good quality
2.                  Have laws in place that penalize people who perpetrate the act
3.                  Make buyers of the products pay more for such produce, so that the producers who employ children can now employ adults.

In most cases, child labour is the result of parents who send their children off to work and don’t send them to school instead. If parents can’t send their children to school, then we must ensure that they go to school. It would appear that these parents in addition to being stupid (they don’t know what’s good for them) are heartless. Empirically, the world’s most stupid and heartless parents reside in poorer regions of the world – yes, just look at the statistics!

While we in Delhi prescribe and work on these talismanic solutions to children working in poorer regions in India, there are other doing the same to us in India.  People in poorer regions like India did not know:

  • Plastic is bad
  • Automobile pollution can kill people
  • Chemicals and pesticides can have harmful effects on people and the environment
  • We should not trade in hazardous wastes

So there are active environmental lobbies who have concluded that :

All the plastic that lines our canals and keeps the water flowing to areas that don’t have it are bad (plastic apparently does no good in poor countries only)
Our cars must be off the latest technology (doesn’t matter if we don’t have enough cars) that cannot be serviced anywhere but metropolitan India
Chemicals and pesticides must be banned – lets ignore the fact that they provide numerous benefits including increase farm output, kill germs, reduce water consumption for washing clothes etc. More people die for road and rail accidents than they do off these products, but lets worry about chemicals and pesticides instead.

We should be paying more attention to Climate Change, AIDs, the environment and pesticides than we should in making available clean drinking water, tackling malaria and dengue and finding ways and means to find jobs for our people. We would be leaving a permanently devasted world at some point in the next five thousand years if we did not pay attention to these things. Obviously, we off the developing world are stupid and there must be international laws, enforceable with or without our consent, that will set our priorities straight for our own good.

The summarized equation of a huge section of media, development theorists and sincere grassroot organizations who are perpetrators of such thought is thus:

Poor + Illiterate = Stupid + Selfish

If we sent the poor and illiterate to schools that taught them things we know, they’ll be better off.

Is that so?

Parents don’t send their children to school, because the education that the school offers has little or no practical relevance to their lives. Sitting round the corner from an office that I used to work in, in Delhi, is a graduate from a small town. He has completed his BA in History for which he had taken a three year break from his family profession. Before his college education and now after his education, he still sits at the same paan shop plying a successful little business. Another kid I know has also just graduated from college – his parents have worked very hard to put him through college. His mother, a fine and dedicated lady, sweeps floors of homes and offices while his father works hard at his job. He does not want to do what his parents are doing, because he is now educated. But it turns out his education is of no commercial value.

The annual circus around college admissions in Delhi is reminiscent of Wimbledon. People scrambling for tickets on a sell out tournament. Only a BA in History, or Sociology or several other disciplines on offer from India’s “finest” colleges for the most part don’t qualify you for anything in the job market. So India’s rich and educated are for the most part putting their children through three years of college to acquire a qualification, the only value of which is to qualify you to study “further”. Those who don’t, well, they pick up jobs that teach them everything from scratch anyway. It would seem that the poor, with their far meagre resources, have been pretty smart in rejecting education that is meaningless to their lives.

Parents who send their children to work in return for a monetary advance also achieve a couple of things. They have developed a longer term employment relationship with their employer for their children who can gradually earn more as they grow to being adults and generally contribute to the family income. 

By imposing rules that unilaterally preventing poor families from improving their future we are pushing them further into penury. The “poor” are looking for many of the things that everyone is looking for – income, security of income and life. By focussing our efforts on increasing their access to income and the pie of the income, we are enabling them to help themselves. A strong rule banning child labour will just push these children to other vocations that aren’t so fashionable to discuss. Instead of taking the head-on and emotional route, we could attempt to take a sensible one. Some of these questions could be:

  • Do administered prices of farm produce push down wages and hence encourage child labour (which is generally cheaper)?
  • Does the lack of freedom to trade affect prices?
  • Do these farms have best access to technologies that increase profits?
  • What other enterprises would be financial self-sustaining in the area, that would provide better income and employment conditions than farm work?

There are millions of children in our cities working as domestic help or employed in small tea stalls and enterprises. These children clean our homes, bring us tea, iron clothes, fix tyre punctures, work at mechanics etc. All of them are well within the reach of the law as compared to say, interior Telengana. These children somehow never seem to be the subject of national and international initiatives and trade sanctions.

When we adopt the “we know better” attitude, it is no different from that adopted by some in the developed world towards people in countries like ours. The solutions that we now want to force on them worked for us because of our circumstance. A circumstance that allows us to spend three years obtaining a useless college degree, which then qualifies us to do something that is of professional relevance.

The poor in any country are not stupid or heartless. Their poverty is of opportunity to sustainably improve their lives. When they see such opportunities, they also make an informed judgment that is relevant to their circumstance. 

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