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Bizarre bureaucratic dysfunction in child labour

The ILO, UNICEF, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child promote policies known to harm children. What will make them engage with their critics?

Adolescents working in Dhaka, Bangladesh. BBC World Service/Flickr. CC (by-nc)

In the name of child protection, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) promote the worldwide adoption and enforcement of a policy that seeks to ban most children below the age of adolescence from working. This is articulated through the ILO’s Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) and through corresponding national “minimum age” laws, all of which are being lauded right now at the IV World Conference on the Eradication of Child Labour.

The desire to separate children from work is rooted in a culturally peculiar idea contrary to social science findings and much child-rearing wisdom. This holds that there is something “unnatural” about children engaging in even properly supervised part-time work, and that work somehow undermines childhood and impedes or distorts children’s development.

Policies banning children from work exclusively on the basis of their age are more likely to harm children than to help them.

From a scientific standpoint, this is ridiculous. While dangerous or excessive work certainly can threaten children’s well-being, the evidence does not suggest that under normal circumstances the work done by most young children as part of growing up is harmful. To the contrary, it is more likely to be a valuable means of their instruction and socialisation.

Enforcement of a generalised ban on all work by children below middle adolescence not only contravenes sensible child-rearing practice, but has been found by a large number of researchers to have unanticipated consequences that harm many of the very children it seeks to protect.

Such intervention in children’s work can trap them in poverty, impede their access to schooling, and undermine their physical and psycho-social development. It does not have the expected effect of keeping children in school, or even away from inappropriate kinds of work, and to this day there is no convincing evidence that minimum age laws have any kind of protective effect whatsoever. In fact, the available evidence strongly suggests that policies banning children from work exclusively on the basis of their age are more likely to harm children than to help them. There is ample and growing agreement among researchers and other experts that rigorous enforcement of minimum age laws is, in most of the world, likely to leave children worse rather than better off.

Policy violence?

There is nothing new about this recognition. The counterproductive effects of minimum age policy have been widely reported and openly discussed by experts, child advocates, and even children themselves for at least 20 years. Not only has a lot been published on this policy failure, but various experts and child advocates have warned UNICEF and the ILO even at their highest levels through direct communication.

Both agencies are thus fully informed that minimum age policy hurts children. Unexpectedly, however, the two agencies have not tried to rebut these findings, nor moved to fix the broken policy, nor even to review it for its effects on children. Despite the clamour to at least stop actively promoting ILO Convention 138 and national minimum age laws until their effects can be subjected to a full and proper review, they have simply ignored the issue as though it does not exist.
Last year, this was raised to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the body that periodically reviews national compliance with the United Nations Convention of the same name. It was preparing a general comment, a kind of public guide, on the rights of adolescents, and work was one of the topics that it included. When the subject of minimum age laws, and of the Minimum Age Convention in particular, arose, a group of academic and practitioner experts presented the evidence-based objections to the committee.

While the committee’s deliberations are secret, it appears from what we know that it ignored the issue of the convention’s impact on children in favour of the argument that allowing one international standard to be disregarded or abrogated would imperil the entire authority and structure of the human rights architecture. Is the credibility of human rights so fragile that it can only be upheld by continuing the abuse of children? At no point, it should be noted, did the committee rebut the evidence that minimum age laws are more likely to harm children than to help them.

So, the current situation is that the ILO and UNICEF, backed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, continue to promote a minimum age policy that they have been amply warned by the expert community is likely to be harmful to children. The facts about the nefarious effects of the minimum age policy have not been disputed, only ignored. This seems to me an example of outrageously dysfunctional organisational behaviour. It also constitutes a shocking betrayal of the protective mission that these agencies have and of the children they are mandated to protect.

Is the credibility of human rights so fragile that it can only be upheld by continuing the abuse of children?

Bureaucratic groupthink

How does this happen? Why do institutions responsible for protecting working children continue a policy known to hurt them? Obviously, something deep in the values and operations of these organisations has gone seriously awry and is causing this puzzling organisational failure. What might that be? I don’t have easy answers to this question, but I do have some ideas.
Before I elaborate them, let me immediately discount the possibility that these agencies are staffed by people who simply don’t know better. I have worked inside both UNICEF and the ILO, and I know from experience that the professional staff of both tend to be intelligent, highly educated, and well-informed. Moreover, I know that information about the likely harmful effects of minimum age policy has reached each organisation – because I was among those who introduced it to them.
A next theory would be to attribute this dysfunction to a kind of organisational villainy, a tendency to maintain agency power, credibility, and money-raising capacity by sweeping potentially embarrassing problems under the rug rather than dealing with them. This is a common form of organisational failure. Called “goal displacement” by social scientists studying organisational dysfunctions, it elevates the self-maintenance concerns of organisations over their organisational purpose and goals.

Have the ILO and UNICEF placed more operational importance on preserving and extending their influence than on their mission to protect the well-being and development of working children? Although some of that may be involved, I am not inclined to accept it as the principal explanation. I have worked in and with both agencies and have not found in either of them enough cynicism or short-sightedness to move the whole organisation towards the current level of dysfunction for this reason alone.

In fact, to the contrary, I found both leadership and staff to be driven by ideals, inspired by visions of compassion and justice, and as concerned about fulfilling their humane purpose as they were about staying in business. I admired most of my colleagues in both organisations, and still count some of them as personal friends. In my view, these are not the kind of people who would knowingly feather their nests at the cost of children’s suffering. There has to be another explanation.

The ILO are not the kind of people to knowingly feather their nests at the cost of children’s suffering. So what is going on?

The explanation I have come to and tentatively settled upon is a common phenomenon that is increasingly well understood in both cognitive and organisational psychology to cause serious distortions in an organisation’s perception of reality. It is known as “groupthink”, and is a social and psychological dynamic that can easily lead a group or organisation from rationality to dangerous delusion without anyone involved becoming aware of it.

Groupthink occurs when the desire of group members to conform and fit in results in irrational decisions that ignore or repress dissenting evidence and points of view, reaching consensus that neglects to consider critical facts and is impervious to important outside influences. It is a form of “rational irrationality” that especially afflicts bureaucracies which outwardly appear highly rational but inwardly reward conformity.

In this kind of environment, nobody wants to speak up to raise embarrassing facts or defend unpopular positions. Alternative perspectives important to the success of the organisation are neglected or forgotten and simply disappear from view. Disruptive information or uncomfortable ideas from outside simply do not penetrate the walls of groupthink, let alone receive serious consideration. In the definition of the creator of the term, “irrational rationality” leads people to forget and forfeit their own real interests.1 I suspect that something like this might explain how the ILO and UNICEF have been fully informed that a policy that they promote is harmful to children – a very serious charge – and yet seem insouciantly oblivious to the issue.
This “groupthink” explanation dovetails with a range of recent research on cognitive failures,2 and my experience in UNICEF and the ILO confirms that both have strong organisational cultures encouraging ideological conformity and discouraging heterodoxy. In my opinion, both are quite capable of listening as organisations only to what they want to hear. Seven years ago, Michael Bourdillon, Deborah Levison, Ben White and I published a study of children’s work and policy interventions related to it, which drew on a wider range of sources than any study before it.3 It presented the case against minimum age policies from literature and experience, and has since been widely read and cited. We sent a draft copy to the ILO for its information and comment, and expected to receive back at least recognition if not rebuttal. Not a word; they would not engage on the issues.

Since that time, much additional literature has accumulated even in economics, which is the field that the ILO routinely monitors. For example, in a widely circulated 2012 paper, Edmunds and Shrestha analysed evidence from 59 mainly low-income countries and found little effect of minimum age laws either in children’s use of time or their school participation.4 In a 2013 article, Bharadwaj argued from Indian data that the enforcement of bans on child work had the perverse effect of actually increasing child labour.5

In 2015, Putnick and Bornstein found an inverse relationship between work and school enrolment in most of the 24 low- and middle-income countries they studied, but in five of the countries paid work outside the home increased the likelihood of a child attending school.6 One might also mention a 2016 paper by Maconachiea and Hilson suggesting that banning the work of children obstructs socioeconomic development.7 In sum, there is no shortage of recent economics literature critical of child labour laws that the ILO should routinely be coming across and seriously considering. Yet from what I can see, it seems as oblivious to this as to all the rest, a likely sign of groupthink.

Taking responsibility

The most important thing to understand about groupthink is that the tendency towards it is biological, wired into our brains, and inevitable. We cannot avoid it altogether, and probably should not want to since our drive to affiliate in groups, emotionally bond, cooperate with each other, and even think alike is the main evolutionary mechanism by which we humans survive and thrive. We cannot even think alone; our entire cognitive framework is social. Because it is social it is also tied to our emotions, the main vehicles of our relationships. That is why we unconsciously want to think like our organisational team-mates. Our mind unconsciously bends toward accepting whatever the rest of our group values and thinks. Logic has little to do with it.

So, good, conscientious employees at UNICEF or the ILO are pulled by their own internal dynamics, as well as by a facilitating environment, towards internalising and promoting the doctrines and other thought patterns of their organisations. They also unconsciously filter out contradictory values and information to the point that they might not even take notice of such material even when they see it, and they certainly will not lend it much importance. Because their fellow workers perceive the issues similarly, filtering out contradictory evidence, they all assume what they are seeing the same way must be objective reality itself. They are utterly unaware that what they are all perceiving as truth may be no more than a collective illusion.

Carpet weaving in Swari Madhopur District, Rajastan, India. Jeffery Leventhal/ILO/Flickr. CC (by-nd)

Although this tendency is simply part of the human condition, responsibility demands that we be aware of our fallibility and take measures to keep it from getting out of hand. This is missing at the ILO and UNICEF. Responsible organisations are self-reflexively aware of groupthink and take measures to counteract it by ensuring that all pertinent facts are collected and reviewed. How can the ILO and UNICEF do the same?

One idea would be to establish a strict formal procedure for searching out, closely inspecting, and then defending in debate any substantial evidence that conflicts with the prevailing assumptions and conclusions. That is basically what happens in a well-run court of law. Science works the same way, by trying to disprove a hypothesis before accepting it as valid. Sometimes this is done with the help of an ombudsman or special unit for the purpose. In the case of UNICEF and the ILO, why not assign somebody the task of staying in touch with critics and helping them make their case to some level of senior management? In the case of child labour, maybe such an anti-filtering operation could be made part of the mandate of the Understanding Child Work group, which is supported by both organisations plus the World Bank?

Short of a conscious effort to make sure nothing important is filtered out, we are all to some degree at the mercy of groupthink. In this respect, we all need to check ourselves on how well we are listening to each other and start paying more respectful attention to those who do not agree with us. I, too, place myself in that category. I ask myself what groupthink I and others on our side of the debate might have slipped into without knowing it. What are our delusions? What evidence are we filtering out? As fallible human beings, we all face a constant struggle to see the world clearly and act in it compassionately. Surely doing so requires dialogue with those who see differently?

I and those with whom I am allied are ready to talk; are UNICEF and the ILO ready to talk to us? For that talk to ultimately serve the rights and well-being of working children, it must eschew groupthink on all sides. It needs to be based on conscientious effort by all parties to collect the best information available both about and from children, to analyse it with impartiality, and to apply what is learned from it to the demonstrable benefit of the children involved.
This article is based on a presentation to the International Forum on Working Children, La Paz, Bolivia, 16–18 October 2017.

  1. Economist Bryan Caplan originally popularised the term, which caught on in general usage. It is sometimes confused with “rational ignorance”, the decision not to seek further information when the cost of doing so is deemed to exceed the value of the information gained. Both can feed groupthink. ↩︎
  2. General readers wishing to become more familiar with recent non-specialist literature on groupthink and related individual and collective cognitive failures might enjoy Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Riverhead Books, 2017); Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011); Clifton Wilcox, Groupthink: An Impediment to Success (Xlibris, 2010); Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason (Harvard University Press, 2017); Tali Sharot, The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others (Henry Holt, 2017). ↩︎
  3. Michael Bourdillon, Deborah Levison, William Myers, Ben White, Rights and Wrongs of Children’s Work (Rutgers University Press, 2010). ↩︎
  4. Eric V. Edmonds and Maheshwor Shrestha (2012), The Impact of Minimum Age of Employment Regulation on Child Labor and Schooling: Evidence from UNICEF MICS Countries, NBER Working Paper No. 18623. ↩︎
  5. Prashant Bharadwaj, Leah Lakdawala, Nicholas Li (2013), “Perverse Consequences of Well Intentioned Regulation: Evidence from India’s Child Labor Ban”, NBER Working Paper 19602. ↩︎
  6. Diane L. Putnick and Marc H. Bornstein (2015), ‘Is Child Labor a Barrier to School Enrollment in Low- and Middle-Income Countries?’, Int J Educ Dev, 41: 112–120. ↩︎
  7. Roy Maconachiea and Gavin Hilson (2016), ‘Re-thinking the child labor ‘‘problem” in rural sub-saharan Africa: The case of Sierra Leone’s half shovels’, World Development, Vol. 78 no., pp. 136–47. ↩︎
About the author

William Myers is an expert in child protection issues. He is a former employee of and consultant to UNICEF and the International Labour Office. William has also advised various non-governmental organisations with regard to child labour and working and street children. His most recent book, co-edited with Michal Bourdillon, is Child Protection in Development.

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