College of LAS « Illinois

Economics

The Fostering Dilemma

Controversial practice benefits some African children.

fostering photo

Richard Akresh first witnessed the African practice known as “fostering” while he was in Togo in the mid-1990s as a Peace Corp volunteer.

With fostering, poor families will sometimes send a child to live with wealthier friends or relatives, often to work as a maid or perhaps on a cocoa plantation. Most non-governmental agencies, such as UNICEF, take the position that fostering is typically bad for children, but Akresh wanted to take a closer look at this practice to find out what really happens to these children. Were they worse off than if they had stayed with their families?

Akresh, now an LAS professor in economics, suggests that the agencies’ position is based primarily on anecdotes of abuse, rather than data. So he set out to collect the data through surveys so extensive that they totaled 600 pounds of paper.

“No one would deny it—you could find the story of the child who was beaten, or the horrible situation of the child that works 18 hours a day,” Akresh says. “They exist; they’re not fiction. But the question was: Are they just anecdotes, or if you did some systematic survey, how do most kids end up? This was the systematic survey.”

In 15 randomly selected villages within the province of Bazega in Burkina Faso, Akresh and his team surveyed 600 households in the initial phase, tracking 300 foster children and their families over 18 months.

Akresh documented that children being fostered were living with families that were better off than their birth families. The fostered children often worked as servants and were not treated as well as the new family’s children; but when he compared the fostered children to their biological siblings who remained at home, he found that many fostered children were better off in such areas as schooling and health.

For example, he found that young fostered children were 17.9 percent more likely to be enrolled in school than their biological siblings back home.

“There are, no doubt, horror stories out there,” says Akresh. “But one thing that needs to be taken into account is the situation the child is leaving. It might look harsh to work long hours at a cocoa plantation, but if you look at the home situation, you might find that this represents an improvement.”

Winter 2008