With the announcement of the two winners of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, the prize committee pointed to the close connection between problems of education and child labor. Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for her views when she was 14, is best known for her insistence on the right of girls to education, while Kailash Satyarthi has devoted himself to freeing children who are effectively enslaved. Where children aren't going to school, it's often because their parents feel that they need to work in order for the family to survive.
In its statement, the committee noted that an estimated 168 million children are working around the world -- 78 million fewer than in 2000. The number who are forcibly prevented from going to school by violent extremists like the Taliban or who are living in bondage is relatively small, and most are probably working by choice. Still, those 168 million children still represent a lost opportunity for the world's poor countries to develop the knowledge and skills of their labor force and to work toward a more prosperous future.
Eric Edmonds, an economist at Dartmouth College and an expert on child labor, compared a family's choice to send a child to school in the developing world to an American college graduate's choice whether not to pursue a master's degree. Both are considering the cost of schooling, whether they can afford to stop working for a few years, and how much they think an education will benefit them, as well as cultural expectations. "I think that decision is really a lot like the decision that a typical Indian family feels with their 10-year-old son or daughter, and it's not a one-dimensional decision," he said.
In some cases, the scant wages a child brings in are so important to a family that sending the child to school is out of the question. "The value of a little bit of income on the household on the margin of subsistence can be quite high," Edmonds said. In other families, a child must stay at home to take care of the livestock and her younger siblings while her parents work.
That's part of the reason why handing out money can persuade poor families to send their children to school, research shows. Not only does the cash make it easier for a family to get by, it has another, less obvious function: as hard evidence that the authorities believe that their children can succeed and that school is worthwhile for them.
After all, families in the developing world don't necessarily know how valuable education will be for their children in the long term, while wages are paid out immediately. A little encouragement can go a long way.
So even though the bill the Pakistani legislature passed in response to Yousafzai's shooting was more symbolic than anything else, lacking any meaningful commitment of resources to improve the country's school system, it still may have accomplished something valuable.
"I think that the dialogue that she's forcing is in and of itself valuable," Edmonds said. "She has people in the Pakistani media, and to a lesser extent the international media, talking about the importance and the value of education."
That said, money is important, too, since in many areas, teachers and classrooms might not be available for families who can afford to send their children to school. Eliminating child labor and offering children an education would require governments to take a careful look their priorities, both in wealthy nations and in the developing world.
"India is sending spacecraft to Mars," Edmonds observed, adding, "It could be that the return on investment for martian exploration is much greater than the return on primary school investments, but I don’t know that that discussion is being had."