The impact of child work on cognitive development: results from four Low to Middle Income countries

Children's work and time-use
Working paper

The authors study the relationship between child work and cognitive development in the four Young Lives countries. They address a key weakness in the literature by including children’s full time-use vector in the analysis, which leads to different findings from previous studies which do not distinguish between alternative counter-factual activities. They find child work is only detrimental if it crowds out school/study time rather than leisure. Furthermore, the marginal effects of substituting domestic chores or economic activities for school/study time are similar. Thus, policies to enhance child development should target a shift from all forms of work toward educational activities. 

Evolving Time Use of Children Growing Up in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam, 2006-2016

Children's work and time-use
Working paper

Using detailed and comparable time-use data of children in four low- and middle-income countries, this working paper documents the evolution of their time spent on education, paid and unpaid work as they age from 5 to 15 years. Despite gendered differences in which tasks they undertake, total allocation of time to work (paid, unpaid and household chores) is not significantly different between boys and girls, except in India. Rural boys and girls work longer hours and spend less time in education at all ages in all countries, and differences in time use increase as the children age, driven mainly by those who leave school early.

The authors compare the study cohort with an Older Cohort surveyed in 2009 at age 15 to document trends over time. Time spent on work has decreased quite strikingly in Peru and India, to a lesser extent in Ethiopia, and not at all in Vietnam. This has reduced inequality of time use to the advantage of rural girls in particular. Boys in rural Vietnam and Ethiopia are more likely to stop attending school by age 15, though in India the risk is higher for girls.

Child work in Ethiopia: A risk or an opportunity?


Universal rights of the child

Children all over the world are entitled to rights which are designed to secure and sustain their wellbeing. The UN Convention on the Child and others call for all children to be treated equally, without discrimination as well as ensuring their access to basic goods and services, to schooling, and protection from harmful child labour. Many countries ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including Ethiopia.

However, despite the convention’s promise of protecting children’s rights, children are not always enjoying these, or leading free and full lives, with poverty and related factors being particular stumbling blocks.

Many children lack access to basic goods, services and schooling. For those children who have their basic needs of sufficient and diverse food supply, adequate clothing and shelter met, their challenges lie in accessing education that is of appropriate quality and type, whereas, for other children, their lack of basic sustenance is a more pressing concerns. Education is one of the components which is given strong emphasis by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in part owing to the key role education plays in securing the future wellbeing of children as they grow up. Countries make huge efforts to provide universal access to education. In reality, education is often easily accessible for those children who can afford it, but a remote opportunity for the poorest individuals.


Whose responsibility is to safeguard those rights and secure schooling?

In Ethiopia, caregivers, states, non-governmental organizations and foundations are working hard to safeguard the rights of children in accessing basic needs and schooling, providing food, shelter, school materials etc. However, such efforts only go so far in reaching those children who are most disadvantaged from the outset. In such situations, children are frequently forced to make decisions or follow those of others for their own survival, and their choices are determined by what ends will best support survival in their lived reality. Such decisions orientate around whether to work, what type of work to be involved in and balancing of time on work and school, all determined by a complex range of factors with different priorities.

Children’s experiences of work have distinct consequences, experiences which have been captured by Young Lives over the course of 15 years. The study’s longitudinal research has followed two different cohorts of children over time, so tracking the changing expectations of children before they start working and reflect on understandings of work, transitions to the labour market and associated decision-making many years later.


Can children’s work be an opportunity to fulfil their rights?

Findings from Young Lives show that children can experience benefits from being engaged in work. Some children tell of the positive consequences of starting work, all heavily dependent on the circumstances of commencing and juggling work, its nature, and determinants of the child (age, household wealth, household location, number of siblings and more).

Some children told us that working actually enabled them to pursue education, by providing them with the economic means (from their earnings) to do so, in purchasing school materials. Earnings from paid employment also helped children to get food, clothing and shelter for themselves and for their family members.

For some children, working enabled them to develop skills and adaptive behaviours that are helpful in affording them the skills to best support themselves and future generations as they enter adulthood.


Can child work be a risk to child wellbeing?

Even though many Young Lives children in Ethiopia shared positive experiences of work, harmful or unwanted consequences of such work are also commonly reported. There are many issues raised in relation to the nature of work and working conditions and risk of accidents while working.

Some Young Lives children reported that the work in which they were engaged caused them injuries. They also reported some problems as a result of working for long hours. Children who combine school and work also described poorer school performance as a result of working. There are also children who reported that they dropped out of school to do paid work.


Ways forward

Attention should be paid to supporting children who work by providing safe and fair conditions that views them as individuals in the context of students, children, brothers, sisters and contributors to the wider society.

  • Supporting children where possible to continue with schooling through flexible schooling.
  • Supporting older children who have to work by ensuring safe and fair conditions
  • Working with communities and parents to avoid risks from excessive or unsafe work.


For related Young Lives research findings on children's work, please follow us on Twitter and use #YLChildWork

Children juggling school and work in Ethiopia


Children in Ethiopia start work at an early age and continue to try to balance work and school as they grow up. By following children from birth through adolescence, Young Lives provides evidence on changing patterns of work and school, highlighting differences including those associated with gender and poverty.

In comparing two cohorts of children born seven years apart (a Younger Cohort born in 2001 and an Older Cohort born in 1994), Young Lives is able explore these trajectories of work and schooling across the life course of individuals, but also comparing the experiences of two groups of individuals growing up at different times. In this blog, I highlight some key findings and insights on children’s experiences of work in Ethiopia. A useful starting point is noting how the balance of school and work has changed over the time, with children of our Younger Cohort having much better access to school and spending less time on work as compared with our Older Cohort. Other insights include:


Decreasing involvement in work for pay, but burdens remain

For the Young Lives children in Ethiopia, work starts in early childhood. By age 5, children already worked for the household, and by age 7 they were routinely combining work with school. By age 8, over 90 per cent of children were involved in some form of work but were also spending more hours in school, a trend that increased by the ages of 12 and 15.

Across both cohorts, most of the work undertaken by children was unpaid and the proportion of work for pay decreased. For the Younger Cohort 8-year-olds (in 2009), the proportion working for pay decreased from almost 10 per cent of Older Cohort individuals at the same age (in 2002), to less than 1 per cent. By age 12, the proportion similarly decreased from almost 13 per cent (of Older Cohort children in 2006) to just over 10 per cent (of Younger Cohort children in 2013). Although these are encouraging trends, they disguise the increase in more demanding and potentially hazardous forms of work. For instance, in areas with stone crushing plants and irrigation systems, children were increasingly involved, sometimes spending as much as 6 hours per day in associated paid work.


Striking gender differences in combining work and school which extend with age

Across both cohorts, girls were more likely to be involved in care, domestic and unpaid work. They faced a greater work burden in the home, including cleaning, cooking, care for younger siblings, fetching water and wood, going to mills and markets, and some working in fields or daily labour. Boys, meanwhile, were more likely to be engaged in work for family businesses, farms, and in paid work.

Among poorer households, particularly those affected by drought in rural areas and inflation in urban areas, and especially those facing family problems such as death or illness of caregivers or loss of livestock, children were more likely to drop out of school, girls often to care for sick family members and boys to look after livestock. Surprisingly, the overall drop-out rate of boys in primary school was higher than for girls, who were often more able to combine work with school, but at a cost of more time spent working before or after school, affecting their homework and overall performance. The most common reason for girls not attending was to look after siblings followed by costs of schooling.


Combining work and school can lead to grade repetition and temporary dropout

The Young Lives school survey in 2016-17 found that almost a quarter of children had repeated a grade and 17 per cent had ‘dropped out’ of school at some stage. Some children, especially those from poorer households and those who faced family difficulties, encountered serious problems in trying to combine work with school. This was the case for Senayit who, when in Grade 5, worked on vegetable farms to buy school materials and coffee for the family when her parents were ill and shared: “I think about them while studying: this definitely affects my learning”. However, as in Senayit’s case, at age 12 few households reported that children had permanently left school. Much more common were repeated periods of absence, lagging behind the appropriate grade for their age (so being classified as ‘over-age’ students), and inability to concentrate because of hunger or worries about the home situation and the need to take on additional responsibilities.


Aspirations remain high but educational attainment low

Young Lives found evidence of high parental aspirations, with 77 per cent of parents of Younger Cohort 12-year-olds in 2013 wanting their children to go to university. However, children and parents may be discouraged by poor quality schools, and students facing difficulties keeping up may stop attending regularly, repeat grades and lag behind. At age 12 about half of children in the Young Lives Ethiopia sites failed to reach the achievement benchmark for fourth grade children.

Moreover, some parents expressed concerns about the relevance of what children were learning for obtaining jobs, and decreasing confidence in education as a means of escaping poverty. Others were discouraged by pervasive violence. At the age of 8, three-quarters of Young Lives children in Ethiopia reported witnessing a teacher administering corporal punishment, often for absence or arriving at school late. However, there were also signs that schools can be accommodating of the needs of families, with examples of flexibility at peak agricultural periods of harvesting by adopting half-day shift schooling, and teachers providing extra tutorials for missed classes.


Banning the worst forms but acknowledging benefits of benign work

Some types of work are clearly incompatible with school, are harmful to children’s wellbeing, and are rightly prohibited as exploitative. Ethiopia has ratified the International Labour Organization Convention 182 and included it in its National Action Plan to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labour. Moreover, when children work too many hours this can have a detrimental effect on their schooling, and some work may lead to injuries (most reporting was of minor cuts).

However, some children’s work can be benign or even beneficial, and child contributions may be vital for household survival, particularly among the poorest families. Moreover, children are often proud of their contributions, and gratified by praise and blessings from their caregivers or from God. We also found some children paying for their schooling through their work, buying exercise books, stationery and clothing. One girl in a rural village stated: “If I didn’t have a job, I couldn’t have attended class”. Some older children also supported their siblings’ education, such as Gedion, who migrated from a rural area to the capital city, sold lottery tickets and sent money to his parents to buy clothes and school materials for his younger siblings.


Supporting children juggling work and school in Ethiopia

Legislation on the worst forms of work needs to be implemented sensitively by engaging communities and families in protecting children. At the same time, promoting children’s wellbeing and development requires an integrated approach which addresses the broader social and economic contexts in which children’s school and work are part of their lives. Social protection can play a key role in addressing family poverty and adverse events and should focus on age- and gender-specific risks to reduce the need for children’s work and provide insurance against vulnerabilities. In particular, measures addressed at reducing pressure of care work should be prioritized to relieve the burden experienced by girls. Moreover, promoting flexible learning arrangements can enable children from poor backgrounds who need to work to continue with their schooling.


To further explore our findings on children’s experiences of work in Ethiopia and across the other Young Lives study countries of India, Peru and Vietnam, please read our summative report just out: Responding to children's work: Evidence from the Young Lives study in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vienam, see our related data visualizations here and follow #YLChildWork on social media for updates.

Tracing the links between girls’ unpaid care work and women’s economic empowerment

That women’s economic empowerment and gender equality go hand in hand is being highlighted as part of this year’s International Women’s Day. The theme ‘Women in the Changing World of Work’ draws attention to the disproportionate amount of time spent on unpaid care work as a chief deterrent to women’s economic empowerment.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka points out that:

Across the world, too many women and girls spend too many hours on household responsibilities – typically more than double the time spent by men and boys. They look after younger siblings, older family members, deal with illness in the family and manage the house.

One of the proposed solutions is to ‘Share unpaid care!’ with men, and to invest in technology, infrastructure and services to reduce the care burden on women.

Similarly, in ‘Sharing the Load’ briefing, the Gender and Development Network argue that unpaid care work is connected to virtually every aspect of women’s economic empowerment – impacting women’s time for paid work, education and leisure, and their economic decision-making power.

Girls are increasingly being brought into this important debate, as in Unicef’s report on Harnessing the Power of Data for Girls highlighting gender inequalities in children’s household chores - worldwide, girls aged 5-9 and 10-14 spend, respectively, 30 per cent and 50 per cent more of their time helping around the house than boys of the same age.

In some places, ‘Bring your child to work day’ is every day of the year

The publication of our new Young Lives working paper, ‘Children’s work in family and community contexts’ in Ethiopia has aligned nicely with two commemorative days. Recently, in the USA, there was widespread observation of Bring your Child to Work Day on 28th April. 1st May marks the more historical International Worker’s Day. And come 12th June , the World Day against Child Labour will be promoted.   

Thinking about how our paper might connect to these ‘Days’ made us realize how very differently children are positioned within these themes, revealing a split between wealthier and poorer countries.  

For example, the hashtag #TakeYourChildToWorkDay generated a plethora of enthusiastic tweets from parents in diverse settings across the US, from the World Bank, to scientific labs and police stations to data centres. Children were welcomed into these adult work settings and celebrated as ‘future scientists and engineers’ and ‘young minds at work’; some children dressed up in button-up shirts and ties.

In contrast, the messages produced under the campaign #childlabour were accompanied by photos of Indian and African children labouring in fields, quarries and workshops. Children are shown on their own or with other children. In the USA, children are taken to parents’ workplaces to cultivate professional ambition and talent. In low- and middle-income countries, children are represented as doing the type of work from which they require protection.

Of course, the world does not operate in such binary terms. Yet, a Google search of ‘children in International Workers' Day’ seems to send you to links for the World Day against Child Labour.

And just like that, almost unwittingly, children are put back into their place. (I've written about this before here).

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) webpage on child labour reinforces this point. The ‘facts and figures’ are about quantifying the number and incidence of child labourers, broken down by regions (Sub-sahara Africa, Asia, etc) and sectors where ‘child labourers can be found’.

These comparisons bring into sharp relief the absurdity of holding families in low- and middle-income countries to the same expectations of Western images of childhood, work and family. All children need to be protected from harmful or exploitative work, but not all of the work that children do is harmful or exploitative.

There isn’t just one ‘Bring your Child to Work’ day

In some places, children work alongside their parents from a young age, at home, in fields or in marketplaces. For example, in our paper, we describe the case of Shemsia who began assisting her mother and sister as an itinerant trader when she was nine years old. Two years later her mother provided her with a small amount of cash so that she could start-up her own sales. She said that selling with her sister and mother gave her the courage to work independently. Filagot was also nine when she began selling; she sold injera (local bread) and would call her mother when customers came. Age eleven, she began to sell on her own in the marketplace, saying: ‘I believe I have better skills [now]. I learned how I can attract customers … I can do everything for myself. I can do these activities even in the absence of my mother. I think it will be useful to show my children what [work] I was doing when I was their age.’

The Role of Birth Order in Child Labour and Schooling

Children's work and time-use
Journal Article

Does when a child was born relative to his or her siblings affect whether the child attends school or participates in child labour? We investigate this question by estimating the causal effect of birth order on the probabilities of school attendance and child labour participation. To address the potential endogeneity of family size, we use instrumental variable approach where the proportion of boys in the family is used to instrument family size. Using a longitudinal household survey data from Ethiopia, we estimate unobserved effects bivariate probit instrumental variable model of school attendance and child labour choices. The results suggest that the probability of child labour participation decreases with birth order, but we find no evidence that suggests birth order affects the probability of school attendance. However, among children who are going to school, hours spent studying increases with birth order. Results from complementary time-use analysis reveal that there is no birth order effect on hours spent on household chore. However, hours spent on school increases with birth order, where the increase in hours spent on school seems to come from a decrease in hours spent on market work.

Keywords: Child education; Child labour; Birth order; Unobserved effects instrumental variables model; Ethiopia

Article written by researchers from the International Growth Centre, LSE, Addis Ababa, and the Department of Economics, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University, Atlanta using Young Lives data from UK Data Archive.


Yared Seid and Shiferaw Gurmu (2015) The Role of Birth Order in Child Labour and Schooling, Applied Economics, 47.49: 5262-5281, early online publication DOI:10.1080/00036846.2015.1047086

Children's Work and Labour in East Africa

Children's work and time-use
Book / chapter

This book brings together contributions by academics and practitioners interested in strengthening the role of research in improving policies relatied to children and poverty in Africa. It presents evidence from working children's lives and perspectives in cases from Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, spanning a variety of types of children's work, from agriculture to mining to petty trade, paid and unpaid work, inside and outside household contexts. Examples speak to children's experiences of work to discern best practices that might be applied more broadly, including meaningful ways for involving children in policy processes. The book shows how children's lives have changed with increases in paid and domestic work in addition to the demands of schooling. It will appeal to both academics and practitioners interested in promoting the well-being of working children and ensuring that policies relating to children are firmly based on evidence.


Introduction: Children's Work and Current Debates   Michael Bourdillon, Gina Crivello and Alula Pankhurst

Reframing Children's Contributions to Household Livelihoods in Ethiopia through a Political-Economy Perspective   Tatek Abebe

Work in Children Lives in Ethiopia: Examples from Young Lives Communities   Alula Pankhurst, Gina Crivello and Agazi Tiumelissan

Child Labour in Khartoum: Factors and Repercussions   Ibtisam Satti Ibrahim

Children Sustaining Families: Insights into the Lives of Working Children in Addis Ababa   Emebet Mulugeta

Children Combining School and Work in Ethiopian Communities   Yisak Tafere and Alula Pankhurst

Parents' and Children's Perspectives on Child Work and Schooling   Gladwell Wambiri

Children's Perspectives on their Working Lives and on Public Action against Child Labour in Burkina Faso   Josephine Wouango

The Role of Child Participation in Influencing Policies to Protect Children from Harmful Work: a Kenyan Case   Magdalene Wanza Muoki

Concluding Reflections   Michael Bourdillon, Gina Crivello and Alula Pankhurst

Appendix: Potential Benefits and Harm in Children's Work


Alula Pankhurst, Michael Bourdillon and Gina Crivello (eds) (2015) Children's Work and Labour in East Africa: Social Context and Implications for Policy, Addis Ababa: Organisation for Social Sicence Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (OSSREA), PO Box 31971, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Web:

Global standards miss the nuance in local child labour

This blog originally appeared in The Conversation Africa.

Images of children working in hazardous and abusive conditions naturally provoke strong emotional reactions. For this reason, measures designed to stop children from working, and make sure they go to school, attract little opposition or debate.

Yet the reality is that a rigid approach to child labour has a downside. Work is neither all good nor all bad for children. It is often both.

Clearly the worst forms of child labour need urgent action. However, the solution is not necessarily a ban. Conditions sometimes can be changed to reduce the risk of harm. Working conditions can be rendered benign or even beneficial, which is more constructive than simply banning work that children often need or want for their own and their family’s survival.

Both benefit and harm in most work

The common assumption that, for children, work in the home is harmless while work for pay is harmful is wrong. There is both benefit and harm in most work depending on conditions, aptitude and training of children. So rather than classifying particular activities as harmful, we should recognise that the same work can entail both benefits and harm that should be assessed at the local level.

So how do we regulate children’s work in Africa, and what can be said about interventions seeking to control children’s labour? The African Union (AU) prohibits work that interferes with children’s development but unlike the UN and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, the AU also recognises that rights are accompanied by responsibilities to family and society.

The term “child labour” results in conceptual confusions. And given the widespread adoption of the 1999 ILO convention, the 1973 convention is now redundant. The 1973 convention prohibits work that is not harmful and is often beneficial. Also, sometimes children are overburdened with work in the home, which is not considered by this legislation.

Cultural norms contrast with global legal regime

Cultural norms suggest what work children of particular ages and genders can or should do from a young age, with a gradual increase in responsibilities. This contrasts with the international legal regime which says only work after a specific age should be allowed.

Children’s work also has a social and an economic context. International trade can affect children’s work and their relationships with their families, – a point illustrated by an Ethiopian case study.

The production of cash crops generates income for families, but it also creates pressures within families, exacerbates gender inequalities, and competes with the production of food for the family. The net effect is that cash crops increase the contribution of children as producers and carers. So, the system of international trade can lead to exploitation of children.

Research also shows how changes in communities and crises within families affect children’s lives and schooling. It also highlights how children perceive benefits as well as harm in their work. The benefits of working are not just material contributions to families and being able to overcome “shocks” (unplanned difficult events), but also the gaining of skills and the enhancement of children’s moral status and esteem.

Work is bound with social relations

The risk of harm to children needs to be measured against these benefits. For these children, not working would be inconceivable. Children’s work is inextricably bound with their social relations with their peers, parents and employers. Work gives meaning to their lives.

Research about poor children working on the streets of Ethiopia and Sudan shows how income from work is essential for the livelihoods of children and their families.

The ability to earn money gives children some control over their lives. Working children develop networks to help each other. Many are able to save money and help their families.

Then there is the issue of the relationship between schooling and work. Our research shows that children undertake work to help their families and earn money for school expenses. While work can keep children from school, force them to drop out, or affect their performance, some children have successfully combined school and work. Others are able to continue schooling because of their work. Our research suggests the need for more flexibility in the school systems to support children who have to work.

In Burkina Faso, the parents and children working on the mines and quarries acknowledge the work as hazardous. But they view it as a necessary response to extreme poverty. Also, children may be better off by accompanying their parents to work than being left alone at home. Interventions to remove children from work tend not to address problems facing their families and the need for alternative support.

In Kenya, a Save the Children programme supports working children, which has led to children’s perspectives being included in a new draft for a child labour policy. However, the programme excludes children under the age of 14 who are supposed to be in school.

Listening to what children say about work

The African Movement of Working Children includes “the right to light and limited work” among its “Twelve Rights” with no mention of age. It is high time that we direct attention to reducing harm in child labour rather than seeking rules that impose a blanket ban on children taking on any work.

A more enlightened approach to children’s work would start by listening to what children have to say and working with local communities to raise awareness of problems faced by working children, especially in balancing work and school, and to enhance the accessibility, flexibility and quality of schooling to cater for working children.

Ultimately, measures to reduce poverty and provide safety nets for children living in families facing crises are more appropriate than approaches that focus narrowly on preventing children from working.

The research referred to in this article has been compiled into a book, Children’s Work and Labour in East Africa: Social Context and Implications for Policy, edited by Alula Pankhurst, Michael Bourdillon and Gina Crivello. It will be published on June 12, the Day Against Child Labour, by the Organisation for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Exploring Children’s Experiences of Work in Ethiopia: A Guide for Child-focused Research

Children's work and time-use
Technical notes

This document is the research manual that guided qualitative data collection as part of a sub-study within Young Lives on ‘Stimulating evidence-based approaches to child work/labour in Ethiopia’, one of a wider set of activities exploring the role of research in improving policy and practice in Ethiopia.

Before the field study was designed, a series of consultation meetings was held with local stakeholders who work in the area of child poverty and well-being. This protocol reflects the areas of knowledge and practice regarding children’s work that the stakeholder groups felt it was most important to improve.

Child labour is a controversial topic worldwide and a major area of policy concern in Ethiopia. The international development community and donor agencies play a strong role in shaping policy and research agendas, including in Ethiopia. The main focus is on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour, as defined by the ILO, and on tackling extreme forms of exploitation, such as child sex work and child trafficking. Ethiopia’s Labour Proclamation only applies to contractual labour, but many children engage in informal and unpaid work, including domestic work and work in the streets. The vast majority of working children in Ethiopia work in agriculture. It is widely assumed that work performed for the household is preferable and less prone to exploitation than work that is performed for pay outside the home.

However, there are many gaps in our knowledge. Existing evidence tends to rely on survey-based statistics and relatively little is known about children’s own perspectives on their working lives. A major area of policy and research interest is in the relationship between work and school. There is a wide range of ways that schools accommodate children’s work, and it is important to understand children’s experiences of trying to balance work and school, especially given the Government’s interest in moving from flexible, shift schooling towards full-time schooling. Key concerns for the Ethiopian Ministry of Education relate to high drop-out rates, particularly among boys who are leaving school early to go into paid employment, as well as strategies for increasing primary school completion and progression to secondary school.

Young Lives data show that the vast majority of children combine some form of work (paid or unpaid) with schooling. Against this background this research protocol was designed to generate timely and relevant information that can be used to inform policy discussions and to highlight the role of children’s perspectives as evidence within these processes.