As a boy on the streets of Nigeria, Rocky Peter had to eat food from trash cans. He drank water from pot holes and broken pipes.
Today he’s an American musician — even featured on American Idol last year.
This June, Rocky spoke and performed (to a standing ovation) as part of the Peace through Commerce seminar in the Nobel Peace Prize forum. This forum celebrated and reflected on the work of Kailash Satyarthi, a 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the world’s most prominent opponent of child labor.
Certainly, Rocky’s young life involved a great deal of child labor.
Rocky was actually born in Oklahoma, but at the age of 2, his father divorced his mother and sent her back to village life in Nigeria. One of Rocky’s elder brothers soon died and his mother became mentally unstable.
At first, he and his surviving brother begged for food. Later their abusive uncle enslaved them to work on his farm.
After four years of that, Rocky explained to me,
I left his house. Then I served random strangers as an indentured servant. I used the money I made to pay for middle school. By freshman year of high school, I was completely independent and worked in farms and construction sites to raise money for school and food.
Rocky also convinced other street children to teach him to speak English. In his late teen years, he successfully immigrated back to the USA.
But Rocky says one of his greatest ambitions as a boy was to save up his money and buy a wheelbarrow. A boy with a wheelbarrow could bring water or other goods to the markets in a town, and build up his own business.
In the direst of circumstances, Rocky never gave up. He wasn’t waiting around for someone to come save him. He was saving himself, day by day.
In economic terms, Rocky sought to increase his capital — human capital through education and physical capital with a wheelbarrow.
And if you and I want to help more children like young Rocky get out of poverty, we need to respect their own efforts to lift themselves up.
Outlawing Child Labor
When we hear a story like Rocky’s, we naturally want to help. And energetic activists like Kailash Satyarthi have harnessed that kind of compassionate response into support for laws forbidding or heavily regulating child labor.
One of Kailash’s biggest successes is the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182 against child trafficking and “the worst forms of child labor.”
In the years after Rocky immigrated to America, many Nigerian states have adopted a law largely drawn from ILO Convention 182.
As the ILO explains, this Nigerian law
prohibits exploitative and forced labour of children, employment of children in any capacity except where the child is employed by a member of the family on light work of an agricultural, horticultural or domestic nature.
Much of Rocky’s work would definitely have been made illegal.
But it’s not clear that this law would actually have helped him.
First of all, as the US Department of Labor points out, the Nigerian enforcement authorities are woefully undermanned, underfunded, and undertrained.
So the inspectors might be able to find and shut down some big factories (or extract bribes from them), but it would be very hard to get any control of the labor kids are doing on the urban streets or in the rural farms. Indeed, Rocky recalls that whenever visitors came to his uncle’s farm, the uncle would change the boys into fresh, clean clothes, so that it would look like he was taking care of them.
But what if this law had actually been in place during Rocky’s childhood, and what if somehow, Nigerian police had been able to perfectly enforce all the provisions of the law, but without providing any new, better options for Rocky?
In that case, he might have been forced to resort to his fallback options — begging from strangers and eating from garbage.
Child Labor vs. Hunger
That’s because child labor wasn’t Rocky’s underlying problem. Poverty was the underlying problem. Child labor was Rocky’s solution.
Now, I don’t like that solution. I bet you don’t either. We’d rather children were playing and getting educated. But it was the best solution Rocky had to avoid starvation and to get the funds he needed for his education.
None of Rocky’s options gave him the kind of safety we take for granted for most children in the rich countries of the world. Rocky says that over the years, he noticed many other street children going missing, probably taken by child traffickers. His uncle beat him, and some of his later employers were violent too. But a law that merely stamped out Rocky’s employment would not have made him safe from traffickers, nor from starvation.
So attempts to help children like him by outlawing child labor may actually do more harm than good.
Paul Krugman points out that a 1993 American bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, forbidding imports from countries like Bangladesh that employed child labor, had the effect of driving many working children in Bangladesh out of centralized, legal factories and into decentralized, illegal prostitution.
For Nigeria specifically, researchers Benjamin Okpukpara and Ngozi Odurukwe explained in 2001 that, “If overall economic conditions are not improved to lift families out of poverty, children will continue to get involved in economic activities to enhance family income, irrespective of any regulatory or legislative prohibitions.”
Indeed, “simply banning child labour is unlikely to eradicate the problem or may even make a household worse off.”
Capital and Economic Growth
Imagine that you find a child dangling off the edge of a cliff, clinging on to the only thing that he can grasp: a length of barbed wire. You can see the wire biting into his hands. You can hear his cries of pain and fear.
Laws that simply ban child labor are like wire cutters. You may save the child from the barbed wire, but condemn him to the fall.
To beat child labor, then, the best way is to offer a better rope.
One of the biggest, most sustainable solutions is to help families and children to help themselves, just like Rocky, by increasing their access to capital.
And entrepreneurs are bringing and building needed capital in these areas. Mark Zuckerberg just invested millions of dollars in the Nigerian-founded tech-training and staffing company, Andela.
Nourishing productive technologies and talents in developing countries like Nigeria can create the society-wide wealth and the individual opportunities to let children like Rocky escape desperate poverty and eventually spend their time in education and play instead of labor.
Special thanks to Rocky Peter, Phyllis Blees, and Benjamin Powell for their stories and suggestions.
Rocky closed the Nobel Peace Prize forum with 3 moving songs, and you can watch him performing them all. You can also listen to Rocky’s story in his own words, and watch the music video for his song “Good Day.”