A More Effective Allocation of Child Labor … and Affection

West African households are labor intensive, and many of the everyday tasks required are technically simple and considered low status jobs: that is, the typical kind of work that children do. Traditionally, farm production was limited more by the lack of labor force than land scarcity, and an additional, productive household member was generally welcomed by a family. Murray Last  interestingly describes how parents in a rural farmstead in northern Nigeria simply did not corporally punish children, as the latter could easily relocate and offer their labor to others if they were discontent.

Compared to children of the largely legally regulated Western world, African children, especially in rural areas, are often allowed a much greater agency with regard to who they want to live with. However, child relocation decisions are generally influenced by other family members or the relocation decision is made by family leaders. Economic theory not surprisingly emphasizes the labor allocation aspect of child fostering practices. If child relocation is predominantly an efficiency concern, economic theory suggests that children are relocated away from households with a large child labor surplus and limited productive assets towards households with a more limited labor supply and more productive assets. That way, children are able to be more productive in the households they are fostered out to, and contribute to an increase in the joint production of the kinship group. As discussed above, households that give up child labor can instead incur a social debt from the household where the child was placed. This debt could in turn be repaid in terms of skills acquired by the child, goods or services—or as insurance, as earlier explained.

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