Chris Blattman

What child soldiering tells us about trafficking, child labor, and enslavement

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Historically-speaking, coercion is the most common kind of labor contract. I started out with the question: How to understand coercion in rebellion or firms, and why does it often seem to be tied to child recruitment?

Why do armed groups recruit large numbers of children as fighters, often coercively? The international community has tried to curb these crimes by shaming and punishing leaders who commit them—in short, making the crimes costlier. Are these policies effective and sufficient?

The answer lies in more attention to the strategic interaction between rebel leaders and recruits. We adapt theories of industrial organization to rebellious groups and show how, being less able fighters, children are attractive recruits if and only if they are easier to intimidate, indoctrinate, and misinform than adults. This ease of manipulation interacts with the costliness of war crimes to influence rebel leaders’ incentives to coerce children into war.

We use a case study and a novel survey of former child recruits in Uganda to illustrate this argument and provide hard evidence not only that children are more easily manipulated in war, but also how—something often asserted but never demonstrated. Our theory, as well as a new “cross-rebel” data set, also support the idea that costliness matters: foreign governments, international organizations, diasporas, and local populations can discourage child recruitment by withholding resources or punishing offenders (or, conversely, encourage these crimes by failing to act).

But punishing war crimes has limitations, and can only take us so far. Children’s reintegration opportunities must be at least as great as adults’ (something that demobilization programs sometimes fail to do). Also, indoctrination and misinformation can be directly influenced. We observe grassroots innovations in Uganda that could be models for the prevention and curbing of child soldiering and counterinsurgency generally.

My paper with Bernd Beber is now out in International Organization. Ungated working paper here.

Other frontiers in studying labor coercion come from Acemoglu and Wolitsky or Naidu and Yuchtman. They look at why you see coercion in places from New World plantations to British industry. Like us, they think about the individual’s participation decision (comparing inside and outside options) and also how employers can incentivize not just participation, but effort.

The general idea is that the people who controlled the government had an interest in coercing labor, and could use the long arm of the state to make somebody’s outside option quite miserable. therein lies the coercion.

This doesn’t quite work in rebellion or small firms–basically anyone who doesn’t control a state, and hence the outside option. Individual firms or rebel groups need to manipulate and control the mind not the state or body: convincing you that you’ll be hunted down and killed if you run away, using violence and beatings as an incentive to work hard, and trying to indoctrinate you into internalizing the “employer’s” values and objectives.

This works better on children, we argue, which is why you see coercion and child recruitment go hand in hand from rebellion to carpet making.

If I had to write this paper over again, I would probably have made this a more conventional economic paper about coercion in labor contracts, and strategies firms, rebels or traffickers may employ when their actions are outlawed and they don’t have the protection or backing of the state. How violence is important in the inside option rather than just the outside option (which makes more sense for mass enslavement but not more moderate forms). And finally, how indoctrination matters in labor contracts, perhaps as much or more than material incentives. Another time…