Global Governance Centre
10 June 2022

Visiting Fellow Spotlight: Nadine Benedix and Her Research on the Transnational Mobilization of Working Children

Currently a PhD candidate at the Chair of Transnational Governance at the Technical University of Darmstadt and a Visiting Fellow at the Global Governance Centre, Nadine Benedix takes us into the origins and analytical crux of her ongoing doctoral research on the transnational mobilisation of working children.

Tell us about your PhD!

Broadly speaking, I am interested in how seemingly “governed actors” participate in (international) politics. I am looking at the global network of organized working children. This network has received some attention in media, academia, and international politics. They have criticized the existing international child labor regulations and called for inclusion in decision-making processes on regulating child labor – especially within the International Labour Organization (ILO).

However, these children are not only active on the international level. Looking at the local units of the network within very different geographical contexts, we can also observe many other "everyday" practices enacted by organized working children, through which they shape their own lives and immediate political and social environment. Here, I am thinking of self-organized psychological and legal support, mutual micro-credits, and food provision. It is striking that the engagements of many seemingly “weaker” subjects with our globalized society remain relatively understudied in analyses of the construction of the international. Through an empirical review of what working children are doing in their respective “local” contexts and with global outreach, I want to contribute to a broader understanding of what it means to be an agent and thus to participate in the co-construction of international politics and social reality.

How did you become interested in organized working children and how exactly do they mobilize themselves?

Since the beginning of my master’s studies in International Studies/ Peace and Conflict Research at the Goethe University Frankfurt and the Technical University of Darmstadt, I have been interested in everyday mobilization and resistance. When I worked as a student assistant at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), I first encountered the working children's movement. Together with Carmen Wunderlich, for whom I worked there, we started to study their role in international politics.

The working children’s movement started in the 1980s in Peru, where it was supported by a local NGO. Over the years, working children – with the support of adult facilitators – became organized in many South American, African, and Asian countries where child labor is part of daily life. In 1996, these various groups first met in India. They released a statement claiming that working children should have a right to participate in international politics and that work would not be detrimental per se but that exploitation at work should be better regulated. Since then, the transnational network has regularly released similar statements.

For my master’s thesis, I then went to Bolivia to study how the national organization of working children in the Andean country contests child labor norms at the state level. Through my observation of local group meetings in three Bolivian cities – La Paz, El Alto, and Potosí – I realized that there is more to their organization than the contestation of the current norms and policies against child labor. Local groups also directly shape their life courses by appropriating and substituting institutional, material, and political structures. These observations essentially motivated my PhD project: I want to know how they claim agency within existing hierarchies and how these “everyday” practices shape (their) reality.

What are some of the methodological challenges of doing research on such a global network and the everyday practices of its adherents?

There are a lot of practical and ethical challenges involved in this research. In terms of practical issues, studying a transnational network of local organizations consists of a lot of field research. Fortunately, I dispose of a scholarship from the German Scholarship Foundation that allows me to stay in here in Geneva to study interactions between International Organizations and working children. Hopefully, it will also enable research stays in Senegal and Bolivia to explore the daily life of organized, working children more closely. Of course, also many ethical issues arise when researching working children: How do I do field research when children are involved? How can I make sure that they only participate in the study if they want to? How can I possibly understand and interpret their descriptions of reality, given that I am a white researcher from Europe? Despite all these challenges, I still think that there is something gained from studying children's perspectives when dealing with the issue of child labor – provided that they consent to participate in the process and are supervised by adult caretakers. Involving children directly in the research process can contribute to a better understanding of their situations, opinions and wishes. I hope that participatory methods and self-reflection provide space for the children to actively co-shape the research process.

Nadine Benedix
I want to contribute to a broader understanding of what it means to be an agent and thus to participate in the co-construction of international politics and social reality.
Nadine Benedix

In comparison to other scholarly fields such as anthropology or cultural studies, International Relations as a discipline has been slow to acknowledge what postcolonial theorists refer to as subaltern groups, notably in its understanding of agency. Why do you think this is and how do you see your PhD research contributing theoretically to a deeper conversation between IR theory and postcolonial theory?

The most obvious answer is probably that International Relations was originally a state-centeric discipline. To put it in rather simplified terms: In realist theory, agency is understood as the exercise of rational interest within inter-state relations. In contrast, more Marxian scholarship mainly analyzed the determining structures of capital. Constructivism opened up these dichotomies by understanding reality as co-constructed – not only by states but also by civil society, business entities, and international organizations. However, many constructivist studies on the role of non-state actors in norm creation and diffusion tended to undertheorize power relations.

In contrast, postcolonial studies pay particular attention to these relations between individuals and broader social structures, such as the state, capitalist relations, and racialized discourses. Although having their disciplinary roots more in the humanities than in the social sciences, I think that postcolonial theories already have and still can fruitfully contribute to IR scholarship. One obvious way is by helping to reverse its tendency to black-box states, institutions, and social movements. Of course, this coincides with poststructuralist, feminist, and practice-theoretical research on international politics, which has directed attention to the micro-practices of creating discursive subjects and the everyday exercise of power. Such understandings allow us to consider “international” relations as not only between states but also within the lives of the “governed,” that is those individuals that live and act within broader power structures.

Postcolonial studies have impressively shown what these colonial structures do to people and how people interact with, appropriate, or resist them. If we are to understand how our contemporary political reality is shaped by the legacy of colonialism, I think it is necessary to take a postcolonial perspective on how “subaltern” or “governed” subjects interact, shape, and co-construct the international. Of course, such studies also reveal that colonial legacies are enmeshed with capitalist and patriarchal structures. By looking at the working children, I aim to contribute to such a broadened perspective and understand how these actors’ everyday lives are related to their direct involvement in international politics.

In September, you will be heading off to Senegal for fieldwork. Why have you chosen to do fieldwork there and what exactly do you plan to do during your research visit?

Since I want to understand the transnationality of the network of working children, I want to study how the “everyday” of the local groups of working children unfold in different spaces. My field research in Bolivia gave me a glimpse of how the groups function there and relate to the Bolivian national network (UNATsBo) and the regional Latin American network (MOLACNATS).

In Africa, the regional organization of the groups of working children called MAEJT (Mouvement Africain des Enfants et Jeunes Travailleurs) is located in Dakar. The MAEJT has been accredited as observer organization by the African Union and is involved in the attempts to create a dialogue with the ILO on current normative regulations. To understand the broader functioning of the network and its relations with adult supporters, NGOs and international organizations, I plan to study the MAEJTs functioning and political practices in Dakar. I also want to understand what the local subgroups of the movement are doing and how they relate to the broader network. I plan to conduct very open research and I aim to involve the children as much as possible. For instance, I will try to use visual tools such as videos or art through which they can express themselves and account for their daily lives, self-understandings, and political positionality.

Why is the GGC an interesting place for you to be?

During my time here at the Geneva Graduate Institute, I have gained countless new insights into my research project and I am so happy that I can stay for another three months! Researchers at the GGC work on various questions related to my project, such as knowledge production in international organizations, the contestation of global governance, and the organization of international development in practice. I am really enjoying the critical spirit shared amongst so many researchers here. The research done here impressively questions power hierarchies in IR by using new and innovative methods and concepts to research the production and effects of power hierarchies.

Moreover, the Centre also regularly invites external scholars whose research ties in with those discussions and even enlarges the broad horizon of topics already discussed at the Graduate Institute. In addition, Geneva is generally an exciting place for me.

The Graduate Institute is located only 1.5 kilometers from ILO headquarters! Being close to the place where decisions are made makes it much easier to understand the diversity of actors and roles.



Captivated by Nadine Benedix’s research? Join us in September for a more in-depth presentation on her ongoing work.

Register here



Nadine Benedix is a PhD candidate at the Chair of Transnational Governance at the Technical University of Darmstadt. In her PhD project, she investigates practices of transnationally organized working children contesting international child labor regulations. Her broader research interests include norm contestation and postcolonial and practice theoretical perspectives on agency in global governance. She holds a master’s degree in International Studies/Peace and Conflict Research from Goethe University Frankfurt and Technical University of Darmstadt.