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“They came with flowers, you came with force”

Cultural Relativism meets Social Constructivism

Analytically, academic advocates of children’s rights to (and at) work cast their arguments along two related lines about child labour that can be usefully glossed as ‘pragmatic’ on the one hand, and ‘anti-essentialist’ on the other. The pragmatic side of the argument focuses on ‘dealing with children’s experiences as these are found’, a move that clearly invokes proclivities towards what is framed as ‘problem solving theory’.

The anti-essentialist side of the argument supplements this pragmatic side with an orientation to the contingency, situatedness, and plurality of children’s experiences in different parts of the world, and different social settings. Both orientations are enabled, though as we will argue not predetermined, by recent moves in the study of children and childhood in IR. A common theme on what proponents argue is the paradoxical importance of conceptions of childhood and children in IR on the one hand, and the absence of any serious attention to what issues and problems this may entail on the other: For instance, children are configured in IR security frames as vulnerable, as ‘subjects-to-be’ or ‘not yet-subjects’, as well as in other problematic ways that constitute

  • Abstractions from the more rich and complex actual lived experiences of children
  • Denigrations of children’s agency and capacity to interact with, and shape political processes including in international and transnational contexts.

Our argument is not concerned with these, or similar general observations; how children’s ‘innocence’ may be construed or contested, and settling questions this raises is immaterial to our analysis. Neither does our argument preclude or diminish children’s agency and/or the significance of their participation in international political processes, formal or informal. In what follows, we do not take issue with the ‘critical constructivist’ argument that the roles children and childhood(s) play in some analyses has been ‘co-opted’ to serve specific and problematic purposes, and that these can be helpfully contrasted with children’s multiplicity of experiences and responses. Neither accepting this critique, nor contesting it has any consequences for the case we make, or for how we make it. We differ markedly, though, on where proponents of this project draw conclusions that overstate their case: While it may be good research practice to inquire into children’s agency and see whether and how this amounts to instantiations of (collective or individual?) self-empowerment or political actualization, it is dangerous and quite wrong to assume that this is either ‘generally’ the case or in principle always within the ‘reach’ of children. We actually do not make a ‘difference’ between children or adults subjected to various forms of psychic, social, and political suffering as a result of relations of impoverishment or deprivation. Not all may suffer equally, but many will in ways that problematize what generalized concessions about ‘agency’ invoke.


What we argue to be unconscionable is the premise that advocates of ‘children’s right to work’ draw from these arguments in the service of a proposed pragmatic approach. Our concern is with the subjection of children to poverty and what this means morally and politically (in different contexts, no doubt) as well as analytically. Our argument is that proposals for a ‘children’s right to work’ consolidate and entrench relations of impoverishment and their consequences. ‘Different’ childhoods are thus enacted including in ‘developing countries’ in ways that are not culturally contingent, but instead reproduced relationally through the developmental organization of wealth accumulation and impoverishment. What poverty does to children and their experiences is front and center of our argument below. We restore to the abolitionist frame on child labour an account of how political-economic conditions are relational, albeit unequally so, and coerce and coax children into labour markets in order to sustain themselves. To start by taking the ‘situation as it is’, as advocates of (poor!) children’s right to work propose, is to enter into the constellation we reconstruct in an interested manner and with detrimental implications for either seeing or addressing the forces and power relations that ‘make work necessary’ for poor children.


Sparrows by morning, live in peaceful nests! Design shouldn’t dominate things, shouldn’t dominate people. It should help people. Don’t spend your time solving your favorite problems, solve problems that need to be solved, generically. A home is a place where you live, and society is a place where your story begins. Honesty shares honesty, as it is honesty’s nature. Stay always in Ablution and get back to the trust you have been, with.

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