Why are children recruited for warfare? Why not just use adults who are likely to be more capable and reliable soldiers? There’s an interesting paper here looking at some of the reasons:
- Children are relatively easy to abduct, subjugate, and manipulate. They are more impressionable and vulnerable to indoctrination, and their moral development is incomplete and malleable.
- They are also seen as more loyal and less threatening to adult leadership.
- Children, despite their a priori disadvantages in terms of fighting skills, may have a particular functional value. They may be suitable for menial logistical support of the armed group, or they may even have certain tactical advantages: they can slip through enemy lines unnoticed, making them effective spies and bomb carriers. Also, the proliferation of inexpensive, lightweight weapons has made it easier to use children as soldiers. These small arms are easy to transport and use with little training.
- Rebel groups also make simple cost-benefit analysis: children require less food and no payment. Punishment of children is also less costly. Child soldiers are financially attractive. Rebel groups may be extremely resource-constrained and forced to recruit children.
- The use of child soldiers can present a moral dilemma to enemies: should they kill children?
- Rebel groups may recruit children in order to signal seriousness, commitment and ruthlessness, and thereby instill fear in the enemy.
How are child soldiers recruited? Patterns of recruitment of children vary according to the context. It’s usually a mix of punishment, promises of rewards and indoctrination.
- The recruitment of children is facilitated when they are forced to participate in an assassination (perhaps of one of their relatives, parents or friends). The objective is to break their will. The forced killing of relatives also destroys a child’s outside options: if the child were to flee, it has no place to go to, or the community may reject the child because of what it did.
- Armed forces will also destroy other outside options for children: schools, villages, farms etc.
- Armed forces abuse children’s feelings of desperation and traumas resulting from previous situations of extreme violence.
- Armed forces also abuse certain motivations of children: children may join armed forces because of the desire to take control of events, or because of the protection offered by being at the shooting end of a gun.
Human rights policies don’t always work out the way we want them to. Almost any significant action has unintended consequences, and in some cases these consequences can turn out to be the exact opposite of what we intended. As Kierkegaard said, life can only be understood backwards, although it must be lived forwards. Some of the best intentioned human rights activism just perpetuates the rights violations it wants to combat, and perhaps even makes things worse.
I now found another example in an interesting paper by Blattman and Beber. The paper is about child soldiering and looks at some of the things governments can do about it. Child soldiers are often recruited by insurgent groups. Governments can decide to increase counter-insurgency efforts in order to stop the insurgents from recruiting children. But this counter-insurgency increases the minimum force size requirement for the rebel group, hence also the rebel leaders’ incentives to abduct children.
Now suppose the government reaction is not to step up hostilities but to develop educational and economic opportunities for children so that children have larger outside choices which make it more likely that they escape from and less likely that they are lured by the rebels. However, according to Blattman and Beber, intermediate levels of development of such choices could push the optimal age of recruitment of child soldiers downwards. And if outside choices increase, the incentives for the rebel group to take over the country also increase. If rebel group incentives increase, the incentives to recruit children also increase.
Some time ago, I linked to a paper claiming that poverty and lack of education do not, contrary to common belief, contribute to terrorism. If this claim is correct, then it has major implications for counter-terrorism efforts. There’s another paper here making a similar claim, looking at the correlation between violent insurgencies and levels of unemployment, specifically in Iraq and the Philippines. One often assumes that unemployment and the economic and social alienation resulting from it, are elements causing or facilitating political violence, and that efforts to promote employment can have a beneficial effect on social cohesion and political loyalty. The unemployed are believed to have the mindset (frustration etc.), the time and the opportunity to radicalize and be radicalized, whereas people who are employed have a lot to lose, economically, from political instability. Positively stated,
insurgency is a low-skill occupation so that creating jobs for the marginal unemployed reduces the pool of potential recruits.
However, the authors find
a robust negative correlation between unemployment and attacks against government and allied forces and no significant relationship between unemployment and the rate of insurgent attacks that kill civilians. … The negative correlation of unemployment with violence indicates that aid and development efforts that seek to enhance political stability through short-term job creation programs may well be misguided.
Some of the reasons given in the paper in order to explain this negative correlation are:
- Counter-insurgency forces usually spend money to buy intelligence from the general population. More unemployment means that the available money can buy more intelligence, hence bring levels of violence down.
- Insurgents also need to live. If there’s a lot of unemployment, they need to spend more time on basic survival and hence can spend less time on violence.
- Efforts to enhance security—establishing checkpoints and the like—damage the economy.
The paper deals only with two countries, neither of which is perhaps a very typical case. Moreover, cross-border terrorism doesn’t seem to fit well into the analysis. But still, the findings are interesting.