the lost children of the street
be the next bin Ladens?
December 18, 2001
LONDON - "Without more aid there is a greater danger of
terrorism, I am convinced of that", said Romano Prodi,
the president of the European Commission the other day.
"It may not be a casual effect at the moment, and I
cannot tell you whether the outburst from the South will
be next year or in two years' time, but I know we are
building a tragedy for tomorrow." Top marks for a useful
bit of alarmism.
But the truth is that aid over the years has
encouraged the very factors of development that produce
the abrupt dislocations in societies that lead to
malevolent behaviour, often violent, and make a
percentage of young people a particularly easy prey to
demagogues who wish to turn that violence outwards.
Despite fifty or more years of the Third World foreign
aid industry the rich countries have still not got their
priorities right. Despite all the reports and all the
resolutions at big international conferences still only a
small proportion of aid goes on helping the very poor and
most of it goes on simply "modernising" society with
roads, dams, airports, and other forms of major
In the long run such aid can be a useful item in the
effort to transform an underdeveloped country's future,
but on the way it is also sure to create crises of
overblown urbanisation, the profusion of desperate crime
ridden slums, the breakdown of traditional close knit
family life and enormous divisions between those who make
it splendidly and those who struggle to get one foot on
the economic escalator.
"No pain, no gain". But that is a facile observation.
It IS possible to have fast, industrial-orientated
development AND to protect the poorest and weakest.
Before its awful civil war Sri Lanka was an expert at
that. The Indian state of Kerala has made a good job of
it. So have Botswana, Barbados and Costa Rica and, most
important, one of the highest flying Asian countries of
them all, Malaysia.
One way to a solution is to concentrate on the
children. They are often the most vulnerable members of a
developing society. More than 100 million children live
abandoned by their families in the streets of the world's
cities. Invariably these street children are exploited or
abused, economically, physically and often sexually. They
swoop down to clean shoes, sell postcards or flowers,
offer hot peanuts from portable charcoal burners, sing
and dance, clean car windows at stop lights, steal like
quicksilver, even offer cheap sex.
They are little "Lords of the Flies". Six years old,
nine, fourteen or fifteen at the most, they are roaming
in ever-increasing numbers the streets and byways of
thousands of Third World cities. And for every child
abandoned there are thousands who, although living at
home, are pushed out by their parents everyday to work on
looms, to make shoes or bricks or, in too many cases, to
sell their bodies to men.
If it is not good for the children whose formative and
most innocent years are made bleak and wretched, it is
not good for world society at large which, before very
long, will have in its midst millions of adults whose
lives were disturbed and disrupted at an early age and
who feel they owe the world very little. Resentment can
be one of the most destructive of social forces. To allow
the practice of child labour and the phenomenon of street
children to grow and develop at the pace it is is
irresponsibly short-sighted and can only bring the
western world immense pain and distress as the anger of
adulthood is preyed upon by unscrupulous gang or
terrorist leaders who offer to give that deep bitterness
a channel for its grievances.
Only a hundred and sixty years ago Charles Dickens
could write of London's streets as "a little world in
which children have their existence, where there is
nothing so finely perceived and finely felt as
injustice." As Britain led the world into the industrial
revolution it also led hundreds of thousands of children
into factories, up the chimneys and down the mines. The
nineteenth century philosopher and champion of civil
liberty, John Stuart Mill, wrote that human rights "were
only meant to apply to human beings in the maturity of
their faculties. We are not speaking of children". This
was the temper of the times.
Western attitudes and practices have certainly changed
for the better at home. But abroad, whether it be the
legitimate trade of items such as carpets and shoes or
the illicit trafficking of children for the perverted
sexual tastes of holidaymakers too little attention is
being given to the damage wrought by child labour. Worthy
work is done by a variety of agencies and laws,
particularly on the so-called "sex vacations", are being
tightened, but measured against the scale of the problem
they are gravely insufficient. Children do not read. They
are not informed. They know little or nothing of the
world outside. They are ignorant of trade unions. They
are putty in the hands of the unscrupulous. It is we who
have to fight their corner.
It is easy for the comfortable to blame the indolent.
It is difficult for outsiders to understand how child
labour of such proportions or the casting off of children
into the urban wilderness can be tolerated by parents.
This is to underestimate the relentless pressures of a
harsh climate, a deteriorating environment and arduous
and difficult economic conditions that give life a
precariousness that puts a premium on survival whatever
the sacrifice. The sociologist and writer Paulo Freire
tells of how he tried to persuade a man, living in one
room in Recife in the northeast of Brazil, not to beat
his children. "There are nine of us in the family", came
the answer." When I get home from work, all of them are
crying from hunger, cold or sickness. If I have to get up
the next day at 4 o'clock in the morning I simply must
get some sleep, and there is simply no other way."
Problems of this magnitude left unattended have a
habit of coming back to us. Bin Laden has taught us this
with his shock troops embittered by years of American,
European and Israeli shortsightedness in the Middle East.
Will these children, once adults, revenge their lost
childhood in awful, bloody ways too? I fear many of them
I can be reached by phone +44
7785 351172 and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com
Copyright © 2001 By
Tell a friend about this article
Message and your name