The truth is that the selective saving of Malala, along with things like “aid” are part of the “humanitarian facade” which masks the continuing exploitation of the East

byDr Rohail Ahmad

Much has been made of the Malala Yousafzai case recently. The backlash has already started, with some accusing the West of exploiting and using her as a cover. But even these people have not examined the facts about the central issue – the root causes of the lack of education. That is what this article aims to do.

Swat, Pakistan; where Malala comes from
Swat, Pakistan; where Malala comes from

Lack of education is a huge problem in the world, including in countries that have nothing to do with the Taliban or even with terrorism generally. It is true that there is a Taliban problem in Swat, Pakistan – the area that Malala comes from – but in the rest of the country, millions of children go without education, for reasons that are nothing to do with the Taliban. The root cause of the lack of education in countries like Pakistan is lack of money. This in turn is overwhelmingly due to the international division of labour, which consigns all the cheap, boring, manual work to the East, whilst retaining all the interesting, high-end, high-value work in the West. To add insult to injury, cheap labour is then presented as a comparative advantage for these countries. The truth is that cheap labour is not a comparative advantage – it is the worst disadvantage you can possibly have. It leaves nothing left over for health, education, pension etc. It leads directly to child labour – and hence lack of education – because parents are not able to earn enough to support their families.

According to the theory of division of labour and comparative advantage, countries like Pakistan – and hence children like Malala – are good only for cheap labour. So if Malala and her friends become educated, who will perform the cheap labour, and does that mean that Pakistan will lose its comparative advantage?

The truth is that the selective saving of Malala, along with things like “aid” are part of the “humanitarian facade” which masks the continuing exploitation of the East. “Aid” is a particularly obnoxious term: it is no such thing – it is usually loans that are made so that Eastern governments can buys things from the West, often arms. Much of it goes straight into the pockets and secret bank accounts of corrupt leaders like Asif Zardari of Pakistan. Add to that the interest that is paid, means that the West actually receives more from the East than vice-versa. Not to mention the “structural adjustment” policies that are usually conditions of such loans, and which are now well accepted as having caused huge economic damage to these countries.

Child labour – then
Child labour – then

The current East/West imbalance has its roots in the origins of capitalism in Britain in the sixteenth century. Capitalism gave rise to the slave trade and colonialism, because of its needs for cheap labour and of markets. Slavery and colonialism gave the West the huge advantage it enjoys to the present day. But these should not be seen as the result of the “evil Westerner”. According to Marxian theory, human beings are conditioned by their environment, primarily by the economic system – in this case capitalism, whose main goal is to maximise profit by paying as little as possible for labour which is usually the main cost of any business. So it was not a case of Europeans of that time being evil, but rather that they were made to do evil things by capitalism. Under different circumstances it could well have been the other way round. We should also not forget the role of Eastern collusion in all this: slavery and colonialism would not have been possible without the collusion of the Africans and the Indians. So the question arises: What is more evil? To enslave and colonise others – or collude in the enslaving and colonisation of your own people and country? No: the fight then, as now, was not between East and West, but rather between the ruling classes of both, colluding with each other to exploit the common people. The first miserable victims of the British Industrial Revolution were British workers themselves, in particular their children who gave rise to the modern notion of child labour.

Slavery and colonialism have been replaced in the modern age by more subtle forms of exploitation in the form of unfair and rigged world trade policies. The most egregious of these policies is the free flow of capital and goods, but not labour; equally egregious is the international division of labour, already mentioned; finally, the lack of an international minimum wage, which leads directly to child labour.

Iqbal MasihIqbal Masih, Urdu: اقبال مسیح was a Pakistani child who became a symbol of abusive child labor in the developing world

Cheap labour in the East is essentially a continuation of slavery. Collusion also is alive and well: there is direct evidence to show how Pakistan actively colludes with child labour, thus brutalising its own children. In 1995, in an echo of the Malala case, a twelve-year-old boy called Iqbal Masih, a child labourer who spoke out against child labour, was shot and killed by the Pakistani “carpet mafia”, whilst riding his bike. In a converse echo of Western hypocrisy, before he died Iqbal Masih had been given an award by Reebok! – the very company notorious for using child labour, along with the likes of Nike and Apple. The collusion also exists in the fact that, worse than no migration, we have selective migration, which continually drains the East of its best talents. Also, by allowing the rich and powerful of Eastern countries to come to the West for health, education and luxury, means that they have no incentive to improve their own countries.

Child labour – now
Child labour – now

So what is to be done? Firstly, an end to this artificial international division of labour, which is not at all based on genuine skills, geography or climate. Secondly, we either need an international minimum wage for manual labour or free flow of labour – certainly an end to selective migration. We need an end to aid, to be replaced by the aforementioned minimum wage which should be paid directly into the pockets of workers. This would have to be enforced on Western companies by Western laws, in the same way that those who practice child prostitution abroad can now be prosecuted in their home countries. Finally, we need to stop the rich and powerful of the East from coming to the West for health, education and luxury.

Why should the West change? Because for many years and decades – centuries in fact – the West has managed to bury away its problems in the East, but those problems are now returning to haunt it, in the form of mass migration, terrorism and unsustainable world population growth (a direct result of the need for child labour), to name just a few problems.

Unsustainable world population growth – notice that up until 1950, East and West are similar, and then diverge.
Unsustainable world population growth – notice that up until 1950, East and West are similar, and then diverge.

We should change because we all now live in a global swimming pool and it is no longer possible to pollute one half of it without polluting the whole of it. We should change if we truly, genuinely care about children like Iqbal Masih and Malala Yousafzai.

(Please note that full references for all of the above claims are given in my PhD thesis, Cheap Labour = Child Labour, available here: Have You Read It )

1. CIWCE (Centre for the Improvement of Working Conditions and Environment). Child Labour in Carpet Weaving Industry in Punjab. Lahore: CIWCE & UNICEF, 1992. (PDF)
2. Humphries, Jane. Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
3. Moyo, Dambisa. Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa. London: Penguin, 2010.
4. Schlemmer, Bernard (ed). The Exploited Child. London: Zed Books, 2000. (Contains the phrase “humanitarian facade”, p.188)
4. Silvers, Jonathan. “Child Labor in Pakistan.” The Atlantic, February 1996. (Contains the evidence of the collusion of the Pakistani government and business establishment)


Dr Rohail Ahmad has a PhD (2013) and an MA (Distinction, 2010) in Creative Writing from Brunel University. He also teaches there – “Travel Writing” on the BA program and “Global Fiction” on the MA program. His MA novella jointly won the Curtis Brown Prize at Brunel, and was also longlisted for the Paris Literary Prize. One of his MA stories was shortlisted for an anthology of British Asian fiction by Tindal Street Press. His PhD novel, thesis and commentary on globalisation / child labour were well-received by the examiners. Find out more at Have You Read It


3 thoughts on “The Taliban are nasty people but they are not the root cause of the lack of education in Pakistan

  1. You say capitalism gave rise to colonialism and the slave trade, do you mean specifically the Transatlantic slavetrade? If so, you ought to state so.
    Slavery has been a feature of human life from ancient, it is not the consequence of capitalism, it significantly predates capitalism. Read any Abrahamic ‘holy’ book, you’ll see slavery.
    The Arabs have been using enslaved black Africans for centuries, estimates put the figure at 150 million. There was a thriving trade in the deplorable enslavement of humans, males preferably castrated.
    Arabs colonised North Africa to such an extent that North Africa is more culturally similar to the Arabian gulf then it is to black Africa.

    Slavery (of africans) in its most barbaric form is on going, see the monstrosity that is Mauritania. See the commonly used Arab word for a black african, ‘abeed’, literally ‘slave’.

    People have been trading in slaves for tens of centuries, the transatlantic slave trade was Europeans cashing in on what Arabs were already doing, and had been doing for centuries.

    Unsustainable world population growth has a damn site more to do with clergymen saying to impressionable, fearful masses that contraception is haram, wrong, immoral than it does the need for child labour. Clergymen extoll the virtues of large families, of multiple births, no matter the damage it does to women’s bodies or families finances. To be an married mature woman is a shameful thing in many places, places were girls are married as early as possible, and therefore more likely to have more children.

    The graph shows that industrialised countries had lower numbers to start with, they were always going to end up with lower numbers at the end, even without the western advent of contraception.
    Cultural differences see teenage girls and pre-teens married in the eastern countries, they are therefore more likely to have significantly more pregnancies than women in the west who do not marry as teens and certainly never as pre-teens, therfore their conception window is smaller. Most western women marry in the mid to late twenties.


    1. Thank you for your highly pertinent comments.

      Your points about slavery are perfectly correct and valid. I did indeed mean the transatlantic slave trade, and I can only the blame the word count restrictions for the simplicity of my treatment of the slavery issue. I go into the question of slavery more fully in my thesis, available here:
      I begin the section on slavery there with the sentence: “Slavery has existed since the dawn of civilisation.”

      Your point about birth rate is more debateable. You surely cannot deny that, although the graph shows a small divergence from the beginning, it shoots up at around 1950, and that this needs to be explained? Your points about clergymen and contraception etc. are valid but I would argue are not the root causes. Once you have economic independence, which goes hand in hand with education, young women can stand up to clergymen and, dare I say, even their own families, regarding early marriage and children etc.


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