Informal Institutions: Child Labour

By Damini Sitaram

Helmke and Levitsky (2004) discuss how the importance of informal institutions has been marginalized due to the focus on formal institutions. Formal institutions are easier to observe as they are enforced through official channels and are not ambiguous in language. Informal institutions are difficult; as there are no official channels to enforce them, they are often unwritten and ambiguous, and there is no objective point of origin, it is difficult to categorize an ‘informal institution’. Helmke and Levitsky describe how in some cases, similar situations and formal institutions can lead to two different outcomes due to informal institutions. An example of this is the child labour law.

Laws banning child labour are universal, and many countries have legislation that prohibits the use of minors for hard labour. However, when doing a comparative case study, it is often so that the enforcement in one case is more successful than the other. In Bangladesh, children often work in exploitative conditions, whereas in France, there is little to no risk of child labour and them being exploited.

Even though the legislation, the formal rule that child labour is illegal, the outcomes are different in Bangladesh and France. This might be due to the informal institutions: living in a poor country, Bangladeshis find it normal for every household member to have a job, including children. The French, living in a developed country, have placed emphasis on the child’s right to education.  

Sending children to work is an informal institution, as it is often induced from the social environment whether it is accepted or not. It is not pursued through official channels and is ambiguous, and therefore, in each case, has a different effect on the formal institution and changes the outcome. 

Actor-centered or Societal Functionalism: The Surinamese Amnesty Law

By Damini Sitaram

Pierson (2011) explains that there are two ways of understanding institutions, namely actor-centered functionalism and societal functionalism. Actor-centered functionalism is based on the behaviour of rational individuals, whereas societal functionalism states that particular institutions are solutions to certain societal problems. However, with each institution, it is very hard to distinguish what type of functionalism it fits best. The extension of the amnesty law in Suriname in 2012 is an example.

In the power vacuum caused by Suriname’s independence from the Dutch since 1975, Desire Bouterse, the commanding officer of the Surinamese army, staged a coup in 1980. Under his military dictatorship, the infamous December murders of 1982 happened, for which Bouterse allegedly gave the command. From 1986 to 1992, a civil war erupted between Bouterse and Ronnie Brunswijk, during which both of them established their own political parties. Bouterse himself was elected president in 2010, currently fulfilling his second term.

The law of 1992, which extends amnesty to those involved in the civil war, was originally enacted by Parliament to help heal the country. Instead of being tried in court, it allowed Bouterse and Brunswijk, two powerful men, to work together and rise to power.

In 2012, Bouterse’s own party voted for the extension of the law to include atrocities committed from 1980 to 1985 and thus also the December murders. This resulted in national as well as diplomatic immunity for Bouterse, further strengthening his power.

The amnesty law was framed as a societal solution, but could never have been passed without the support of those who benefitted from it, such as Bouterse, while also strengthening them; the circle is closed. Unintended consequence or not, it remains difficult to clearly distinguish between societal and actor-centered functionalism in this case.