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Will 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 infrastructure.

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 will.

I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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