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Child soldiering as cheap option? Bernd Beber and Chris Blattman on child soldiering.

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Carl von Clausewitz was 13 years old when he served as Lance Corporal in the Prussian Army. Napoleon was 10 years old when he was admitted to the Military Academy at Brienne-le-Chateau.  Childsoldiers, both. But certainly not the kind of child soldiers Bernd Beber and Chris Blattman are thinking of with their model of child soldier recruitment. The data they  use to construct their model is, in fact, derived from a survey of former child soldiers of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army and is preoccupied with explaining child soldier recruitment in Africa. As true economists they propose a model to explain child soldiering in which child soldiering is the cheap option…sounds simple but, as so often, it is not really and it is, additionally, not entirely convincing.

Their model is, indeed, a bit slopsided: they assume that child soldiers are not as effective as adult soldiers. For a rational, utility-maximizing leader it is therefore, normally, not sensible to recruit child soldiers. However, if the difficulties of retaining rebels in the group are taken into account it is, in the end, cheaper and easier to forcibly recruit children  because the use of indoctrination as well as the impunity with which they can coerce children to stay with them makes it easier to retain them than adult soldiers. This is the case if children have few or no alternatives, i.e. they cannot run away and there is no prospect of being protected by the state. So far so good. What remains quite murky is their argument that children are less effective soldiers than adults and that therefore their recruitment is puzzling. Hinging upon this argument is their argument about the use of violence and the ensuing policy recommendations…it is therefore worthwhile to discuss this assumption a bit more.

Why should child soldiers be less effective than adults? Beber and Blattman suggest that they are physically not strong enough to make good soldiers  if compared to a 21-year old. But.. it is actually questionable that a 21-old is so much stronger than a 14-year old if we consider the physical lives people have in these countries. Of course, a 21-year old is strong, and probably still stronger than a 14-year old…yet, what is interesting about 14-year old  boys in these countries is that they are strong, too, that they are enduring, used to hard physical labour and certainly in the physical shape to do all what a soldier needs to do, yet, on top of that, they are malleable, easily compliant and, hence, easier to control.  All this together makes them actually a much more attractive recruit than a 21-year old!

Whereas in the US it is certainly true that a wimpy kid cannot outperform a college freshman, this is can be mainly explained by the long lifespan in industrialized countries where physical labour has largely disappeared and physical force is built up mainly during adolescence through leisure sports. But this is not how physical capabilities develop in rural societies in Africa. In Uganda (and other countries with high incidence of child soldiering and child labour like Sierra Leone or Liberia) life expectancy oscillates around 50 years, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, two other countries where child soldiering was rampant, life expectancy before the wars was even lower: 43.1 (1980) and  43.8 (1980)  respectively. If we apply a simple development model of let’s say 30% of a life being childhood, 60% being a parent and 10% being old, we can see that childhood is over at the age of 10 in most of these countries. The short life expectancy also shifts the normal curb of peak performance capacities. If these are between the age of 24-28 in olympic sports among sportsmen of industrialized countries with an average life expectancy of 76 years, they are more likely to be around the age of 14-17 with a life expectancy of 50 years.

Such estimates are rather plausible if we consider additionally that rural children start working in household and farming at a very early age. If a Liberian, Sierra Leonean or Ugandan man of rural origin reaches the age of 21, he is likely to have physically worked for 15 years, hence, rather have the physcial strength and healthiness of a 35-year old in an industrialized country, or even older given the hardship of the labour he did (and malnutrition and diseases). All this considered, a 21-year old might still be stronger than a 14-year old, yet, the 14-year old is of such physical strength and endurance that it makes perfect sense to “engage” child soldiers, particularly adolescent boys  — as the authors’ own survey confirms, stating that 14-year olds were three times as likely to be abducted by the LRA than 9-year olds!

This holds particularly true if we consider that adolescents in most rural areas are already holding crucial roles in pastoring or farming, hence, that they constitute already an important part of the workforce. If we assume that children are exactly attractive because they are strong enough to be enduring  soldiers then they cannot be cheap…everyone, the farmer and the rebel leader, are in fact competing over the resource of strong and healthy boys. As a central pillar of rural labour, boys and young men would not be released into the army or a rebel group unless the family or patron would be appropriately compensated. For rebel groups it makes therefore perfect sense to abduct these children rather than having to pay for them. Abduction happens because strong and healthy children are a valuable resource in rural areas of these countries.

But what about the retainment argument of Beber and Blattman? Even abducted, or especially when abducted, the retainment of child soldiers remains problematic. In Beber’s and Blattman’s model, violence mainly serves the purpose of penalizing “bad” behaviour of the recruits and it is cheaper to use violence than to propose positive incentives… as long as the children have no or very few outside options (like running away or alternatives outside the rebel group). This argument fits well also if we assume that child soldiers have been abducted because they are better fighters than adults. Actually, it fits even better as it can explain also very specific types of violence which are characteristic for situations in which child soldiers are involved,  like attacks against the village and family of the child soldier, forcing them to kill their kin or committing taboo violations like “desecrat(ing) bodies” as described by Beber and Blattman. This violence barrs the children’s return to their village and family, hence, increases the retainment with the rebel group.

But if the family or village  is not killed, why don’t they always and by all means try to get their children back? Here, again, Beber’s and Blattman’s assumption about the outside options appear not to be thought through thoroughly and considering what we know from ethnographic research about rural African societies. Beber and Blattman argue that outside options would be the possibility that the rebel leader will be penalized by an external actor for abducting and violating the children and that, given the absence of the state or international powerful actors in these wars, this outside option is more or less nil. What Beber and Blattman do not consider is the outside option of society: the extremely strong stigma on the children (especially girls) and the fact that most of these children have been already on the lowest scale of the village’s social hierarchy — despite (or because) their value in rural work.

The low social status of children in African rural society can, indeed, be functionally explained by their crucial role as work force. As the strongest elements of the rural society their potential power has to be in check. Elder-based social hierarchies with clearly defined strata and positions (usually sanctioned by corresponding communitarian rituals, ceremonies, initiation rites etc.)  and refined patron-client structures within families (mind that most of the child soldiers were actually foster children) are excellent social means to keep the young, strong and potentially rebellious in their place. Physical punishment, and rather brutal physical punishment, of children has therefore often been explained by the disciplinary necessity to keep children and particularly young men in exactly their social position.  It might therefore very well be that for these children it does not matter whether they are being physically punished and having to work heavy duties for some family member or some rebel leader — at least this is what studies like Norma Kriger’s study on Zimbabwe, Mats Utas’s study on Liberia and Paul Richards’ study on Sierra Leone have found. And it explains why families, from their side, are not always keen getting those children back. Outside options are not (only) reduced by the absence of the state but by the particular social hierarchies of rural African societies and the stigma of childsoldiering in these societies.

What does that change in Beber’s and Blattman’s model? Well, it does not change much in the explanation of violence for retainment purposes but it changes a lot when it comes to policy recommendations…

Beber and Blattman argue that “raising the cost of child recruitment is crucial”, whereby they are thinking of penalizing child recruitment more effectively and severely through state or international institutions of justice. However, if the violence of abduction is the result of the already high costs of child soldier recruitment and if the violence internal to a rebel group serves the purpose of destroying social links then this policy could have exactly the reverse effect. The incentive to rapt children and to “turn them over” becomes higher as does the necessity to “wean” them from their home through violent acts becomes even more urgent.Violence might be increase even if the risks for the rebel group which are associated with the child’s escape or persecution require absolutising the soldiers’ loyalties.

The second recommendation is to raise “real opportunities”, i.e. educational and income, for adolescents to increase the outside options…yet, this makes only sense if these children and youngsters are not seen as being bound into social hierarchies and family networks but as the liberal, atomized, rational decision-making actor whose only impediment to chose freely between fighting, farming, schooling and becoming an accountant, are the rebel leader’s violence…this might work if demobilized former child soldiers find themselves atomized in cities and refugee centres and to avoid that they return into rebel groups or criminal gangs…but it is less likely to work as preventive measure where these kind of decisions are not those of the children in the first place. At least not if children remain in the double position of being essential for the rural economy and being on the lowest level of social hierarchies.

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