Learning from History

Margaret Macmillan, the distinguished historian and former Warden of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University, offers the following advice on how to ‘ learn from history’. It is indeed a case of ‘looking into the rear-view mirror; if you only look back, you will land in the ditch, but it helps to know where you have come from and who else is on the road’.

Will economists tethered to so-called Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) models learn from history in the spirit that Professor Macmillan meant or will they continue with their model-driven approach to how economies in the real world are supposed to work? Two well-known macroeconomists – David Vines and Samuel Wills – ran an Oxford-based project dedicated to ‘the rebuilding of macroeconomic theory’ that brought together both supporters and detractors on whether DSGE models have a future after their dismal failure following the global financial crisis. Their answer seems to be a cautious ‘yes’ provided the profession is prepared to learn from history in the way that Keynes did and carry out the necessary intellectual adjustments that would challenge the hegemonic sway of the benchmark New Keynesian DSGE model and a yield a more pluralist discipline. But…detractors are not convinced, notably Paul Krugman, who simply said that there has been no new ‘big idea’ in macroeconomics since Keynes. In any case, he opines that the old-fashioned IS-LM model or some variation of it was good enough to enable one to understand how governments could respond to the global recession that was unleashed by the GFC. Hence, there was no failure of macroeconomics as an intellectual discipline, merely a particular version of it because the DSGE adherents failed to learn from history.

Sustainable development goals (SDGs) and child labour

Until the advent of the SDGs at the beginning of 2016, there was a discrepancy between the monitoring framework on global poverty and the international community’s quest to eradicate – or at least ameliorate – the incidence of child labour. On the one hand, the international community ratified the ‘elimination of the worst forms of child labour’ as one of the eight fundamental principles and rights at work (or core conventions) under the auspices of the ILO. On the other hand, the MDGs, which preceded the SDGs, did not specifically express any commitment to the eventual elimination of child labour, especially in the developing world. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were certainly committed to improving the welfare of children, but it took the form primarily of improving the health and educational status of children, not their status and vulnerability in the world of work. The employment indicators of the MDGs that were subsumed under goal 1 (eradication of poverty and hunger) were, by default, focused on adults.

This lacuna in the MDGs has now been overcome with the advent of the SDGs. As is well known, the SDGs grew out of a meeting at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from 25-27 September 2015 that coincided with the celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the UN. This historic meeting of all member states of the UN decided on new global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are now 17 goals, 169 targets and 230 indicators under these targets – all to be accomplished by 2030!These goals, targets and indicators range across the themes of poverty, hunger, health and education, gender inequality, inequality in general, sustainability, industry and innovation, economic growth and decent work, peace, justice and institutions and development partnership. Of course, most of these themes are also present in the MDGs. This is to be expected as the SDGs build on the MDGs.

An explicit commitment to deal with challenge of child labour is now embodied under goal 8 of the SDGs which seeks to ‘promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’. Target 8.7 under this goal states that member states of the UN should :

Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.

What are the global trends pertaining to child labour as monitored within the framework of the SDGs? The progress report, as compiled by the UN, notes that:

While the number of children from 5 to 17 years of age who are working has declined from 246 million in 2000 to 168 million in 2012, child labour remains a serious concern. More than half of child labourers (85 million children) participate in hazardous work and 59 per cent of them work in the agricultural sector. Girls have made greater progress than boys, with the number of girls engaged in child labour declining by 40 per cent during the period 2000-2012, compared to a decline of 25 per cent for boys.

Under current and prospective trends, what are the chances of eliminating child labour by 2025? In a recent evaluation, the ILO has suggested that, under current trends and despite commendable progress, the elimination of child labour by 2025 is unlikely to be achieved. It thus called on the international community to ‘dramatically’ accelerate its efforts to cope with the challenge of child labour.