Alex Kelly

Alex Kelly (Backward Education Society - BASE): Alex served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica from 2007-2009 in the Children, Youth and Families Program. He then worked as the field operations manager for the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children in El Salvador until July 2011. At the time of his fellowship, Alex was studying for a Masters degree at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University in the International Relations and Security concentration. After his fellowship Adam wrote: "I enjoyed the chance to get know Nepal and Tulsipur. It was very helpful to see the problems affecting children in a part of the world that I had never been. The chances to go out into the field, as sparse as they were, were very instructive and enjoyable."

No Good with Numbers

24 Jun


I am not a numbers man. I hated algebra, geometry and all the rest. The recitation of figures doesn’t usually affect me. I can understand them intellectually and know their significance, but they do not move me. I am someone who hears stories; see pictures and talks to people to get emotionally invested. However, sometimes figures can be so shocking, so mind-blowing that they throw you off kilter. This is what occurred yesterday as Rachel and I were creating a database for the child labor program at BASE.

One of the justifications for child labor is that it is an economic necessity. A family is so poor that it needs every source of income that it can get, even if that source of income is 7 years old and should be reading not scrubbing. In a country as poor as Nepal, with a GDP per capita of $460 you need money where you can get it. I do not accept these arguments as just or correct, but I can understand them intellectually. Bonded child labor is wrong, but it does not mean that the parents that put their children into it are evil. Life is not black and white, even if we wish it was.  Sometimes economic necessity causes people to do things that tear them apart.

While never accepting this, I understand it. However the numbers in the report show the direness of the situation. The vast majority of the children in bonded labor make between 250 and 500 Rupees a month. At todays exchange rate that is between $2.90 and $5.75 A MONTH. Let that wash over you for a second; it took me over 5 minutes to even begin working again after figuring this out. This amount is such a pittance that you are both furious at the parents for subjecting their children to harsh conditions and 15 hour work days for such an amount and realize the crushing poverty they are in that they are willing to subject their children to this for such an amount and the promise of the meager rations the children receive.

I wish I could rail against parents and the evil of bonded labor. Yes, bonded labor is unequivocally wrong, but so are the economic conditions that drive parents to this. So are schools fees (which some employers promise to pay) in one of the poorest countries in the world. The lack of infrastructure, economic prospects, upward mobility and good government are also wrong. Nepal is suffering from so many wrongs, that who know what it is right and who can judge anymore. I have spent more on Coca-Cola in the past week than these children earn in a month and I have certainly not put in anywhere near the effort that they have.

We must steel ourselves for the many challenges that the people face in Nepal. Everyday BASE is dealing with another challenge. They are trying to tackle poverty, education deficiency, micro-enterprise, environmental degradation and so much more. Sometimes you feel that they are being too broad, but then you look at the range of problems and feel they are not being broad enough. Bonded Child Labor is wrong, but it is not something that can be stopped, just by telling people it’s wrong. Bonded labor will only be ended in Nepal when other wrongs are righted. Till then the numbers will stay depressing, hopefully they will improve with all of the work going into stopping child labor, but till then even reading a database will cause soul searching.

Posted By Alex Kelly

Posted Jun 24th, 2012


  • iain

    July 1, 2012


    “Bonded labor will only be ended in Nepal when other wrongs are righted.” Do you really believe this, Alex? Could it not be that attacking child labor first is a way into other more difficult problems – like caste discrimination? Interesting to know how you set priorities. On categories: does BASE distinguish between a) child labor; b) child bonded labor; and c) the forced labor of children? Are such distinctions relevant? Finally, age. Does it make sense to have the same cut-off age for child labor in rich and poor countries alike?

  • Alex Kelly

    July 5, 2012


    I see Nepal’s problems as very intertwined. Child labour is an outcome of a system that does not work and that has perverse incentives. The system for keeping families tied to the land has been abolished, so there has been uptick in the use of children to pay off debts. It is kind of like playing wack-a-mole – the problem just keeps shifting. As BASE sees it the bonded-child labour may be decreasing, but child labour in other forms is increasing. This is not right and there has been a very successful education campaign to make people aware of the wrongs of child labour. Yet, it will never be fully eliminated till you can stop the desperate situation, where people need children to work or immoral people can take advantage of desperate parents. The book “Little Princes” documents this well. Parents in villages are so desperate that they get sucked in by smooth talkers who make promises and they actually pay these people to take their children. These are desperate acts in a broken system that allows the children to be trafficked and abused. After talking with Pinky it seems that economics and not caste is coming to play a more important role in child labour and even who employs child labour. Looking at the work BASE and other NGOs do, what they are really doing is changing economic incentives. BASE will rescue or have children recalled and give their families economic support to send the child to school and be fed. This is what needs to continue to happen and the society needs to grow and allow these incentives to change naturally.
    Additionally developing countries need more flexible education systems than developed countries. In a perfect world no one would have to work full-time till after 18, but in developing countries this is often the case. So there may need to be a lower working age, but with the caveat that the children must still be enrolled in a school, whether at night or on the weekends. Also more apprenticeships that can better train those who need to work while they are getting paid. The key is recognizing economic realities, while trying to change them.

  • Karin Orr

    July 8, 2012


    Alex, would you argue that bonded labor has increased as agrarian societies in Nepal decrease? Where have you found that child labor is most prevalent in Nepal? In my travels, I have witnessed the apathetic attitude that most civilians have towards child labor. What are the general attitudes that you have found in your time there? Have you seen any other initiatives taking place to address this issue? Thanks for sharing.

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