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Know Your Place: Ethiopian Children’s Contributions to the Household Economy

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Analysis of quantitative and qualitative data of a pro-poor sample of Ethiopian children provides a more nuanced understanding of the role of children in the household economy. Children’s work is largely shaped by age and gender; however, our results reveal considerable flexibility within these same structures according to household composition, birth order and sibling composition. We find that exceptions (whereby girls or boys are undertaking work normally associated with the other sex or another household member) are affected by household composition, but driven by intergenerational interdependence. Further, these exceptions are not random; children’s work is affected less by poverty than by dynamic household circumstances. Given changes in the composition of poor households and absence of adequate social safety nets in a context of high risk and uncertainty, interdependence serves as a protective mechanism for poor households.


Une analyse de données quantitatives et qualitatives sur un échantillon d’enfants éthiopiens vivant dans la pauvreté permet une compréhension plus nuancée du rôle de ces derniers dans l’économie des ménages. Le travail des enfants est, cependant, largement fonction de l’âge et du sexe; nos résultats révèlent, en effet, une flexibilité considérable dans ces rôles en fonction de la composition du ménage, du rang de naissance et de la composition de la fratrie. Nous constatons que les exceptions (dans lesquelles les filles ou les garçons exercent un travail normalement réservé à l’autre sexe ou à un autre membre du ménage) sont influencées par la composition du ménage, mais qu’elles résultent principalement de l’interdépendance entre les générations. En outre, ces exceptions ne sont pas aléatoires; le travail des enfants dépend moins de la pauvreté que des circonstances dans lesquelles les ménages évoluent. Compte tenu des changements dans la composition des ménages pauvres et de l’absence de protection sociale adéquate, dans un contexte d’incertitude et de risque élevé, cette interdépendance constitue un mécanisme protecteur pour les ménages pauvres.

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  1. Government departments and international organisations tend to adopt a fairly narrow definition of child labour. Of note, this does not include work on doing domestic tasks.

  2. Young Lives ( is a long-term international research project investigating the changing nature of childhood poverty. Young Lives is core-funded by UK aid from the Department for International Development (DFID) for the benefit of developing countries. Sub-studies are funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank (in Peru), the International Development Research Centre (in Ethiopia) and the Oak Foundation. The views expressed are those of the author(s). They are not necessarily those of, or endorsed by, Young Lives, the University of Oxford, DFID or other funders.

  3. We note that the survey does not cover the pastoralist regions of Afar or Somaliland.

  4. See Outes-Leon and Sanchez (2008) who describe the sampling strategy in detail. Overall, the sample is pro-poor, and sentinel site selection was purposive. Household selection within the sentinel site was random, and a careful analysis of the distribution of child characteristics included in the sample suggests that the data cover a wide variety of children that is broadly similar to nationally representative data sets. Therefore, although not suited for simple monitoring of child outcome indicators (as the mean characteristics will be different), the Young Lives sample is an appropriate and valuable instrument for analysing correlates and causal relations. Further, we note that the survey does not cover the pastoralist regions of Afar or Somaliland.

  5. Round 1 started with 1000 children, but by Round 2 the sample had reduced slightly to 977 due to attrition. However, bias from this small attrition has been analysed and is likely to be insignificant (Outes-Leon and Dercon, 2008).

  6. Recall that the qualitative sample was over-sampled for risk, which included for orphans missing one or more parent.

  7. To protect the identity of respondents, pseudonyms are used for the specific sites and names of individual children.

  8. For details of the methods, data management and other issues, see Tafere and Abebe (2008).

  9. For a detailed discussion of the research ethics, methods and training of the research team, including issues arising over the course of the longitudinal research, and ongoing informed consent, see Morrow (2009). Particularly concerning the use of qualitative methods in the Young Lives qualitative sample in Ethiopia, see Tekola et al (2009) and Tafere and Abebe (2008).

  10. We have re-checked the files and cannot find an entry for Sefinesh for the period 13:30–14:00.

  11. Sefinesh has never known her father because her mother left him when Sefinesh was still a baby.

  12. The interview took place on 14 October 2007 with Sefinesh’s grandmother.

  13. Recall that the sample is a cohort and was sampled using households with a child aged 7–8 years in 2002. Therefore, the oldest child in the household cannot by definition be younger than the YL older cohort child (unless an older child returned from migration; however, this appears not to have happened in our sample).

  14. In economics terminology, we employ household fixed-effects estimates.

  15. Heckman-style estimation would be preferable but we were unable to find a variable to predict participation that did not affect hours worked.

  16. In fact, the effect is quadratic (that is, the rate of increase in hours worked declines as children get older).

  17. The term is used in many economics papers also, for example in the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. See for more details.

  18. Though the estimates on the oldest girl lose precision due to the smaller sample size.

  19. As mentioned in the methodology section, in this article, pseudonyms are used.

  20. Of note, this shows that parents/caregivers are not the only ones in the household who teach children how to work: siblings also teach each other important skills.

  21. Of note, cattle herding is a type of work usually associated with boys.

  22. We use ordinary-least-squares regression with community fixed effects (to control for unobserved heterogeneity between the diverse communities). Descriptive statistics for the variables are shown in Table A3 of the Appendix.

  23. Recall that all of the children are of a similar age, born within a year of each other, but there is variation in their birth order.

  24. A puzzling result seems that a father being present increases the number of hours worked on economic activity.

  25. Splitting the sample into rural and urban shows slight differences (in particular the age gradient is steeper in rural areas, and the shocks are more pertinent), but also reduces precision of the estimates.

  26. Cognisant of endogeneity problems, nevertheless we tried various wealth measures such as the wealth index, value of assets, per capita expenditure and ownership of various assets. None were significant.


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Additional Tables

See Tables A1, A2, A3, A4, A5 and A6

Table A1 Descriptive statistics for all children, including siblings
Table A2 Comparison between siblings of gender, age and birth order effects
Table A3 Descriptive statistics: Young lives cohort children
Table A4 Young lives children determinants of hours worked on a ‘typical day’
Table A5 Boys and girls separate hours worked on a ‘typical day’
Table A6 Young lives children self-reported hours worked on ‘typical day’

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Heissler, K., Porter, C. Know Your Place: Ethiopian Children’s Contributions to the Household Economy. Eur J Dev Res 25, 600–620 (2013).

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