On NPR this morning there was a report on an Amnesty International report on the child cobalt miners of DR Congo. Families can dig their own mines in mineral-rich DRC. Often, apparently, all or many members of the families take part in this household production, including children. The report suggests that this is a bad thing, that children should not be involved in mining and should instead be in school.
On the face of it, this all makes sense. Children are not old enough to make these decisions for themselves and society must protect them. Mining is a difficult and dirty task, not suitable for small children. School is where they should be.
But this ignores the fact that most parents in the world want what is best for their children and would prefer that they do not work. But if it comes to the stark choice of having the child work or not feed the family, families are forced send their children to work.
Ironically, by calling on Apple, Samsung and Sony to ensure no children are used in the mining of the cobalt used in their products might be condemning these families to a worse fate - making these kids worse off not better.
This was the point of a seminal paper by Basu and Van in 1999, only if, by banning child labor does the overall supply of labor decrease so much that adult wages rise enough to compensate, does a ban actually improve the welfare of the children. And if the local schools are poor - as they often are in rural parts of low-income countries - there maybe little benefit to sending children to them.
Much of my work over the last decade and a half studies the consequences of children working so I am acutely aware of the problem. Enough to know that calls to ban child labor, though well-meaning, are often misguided. I prefer focusing on investments in education and social safety nets to create a situation where families have enough consumption to survive and where sending kids to school is a good long-term investment. Besides, bans are often essentially toothless without real enforcement, something that low-income countries do not have the resources to do. Better to focus on the incentives that cause children to work in the first place.