The International Discourse on Children’s Participatory Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility

Abstract: Two global trends are taking place within our emerging knowledge society: (1) multinational private corporations are increasingly incorporating corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles into their business strategies and operations; (2) and international rights institutions and frameworks are increasingly recognizing the role of private corporations and CSR principles in development efforts. This paper seeks to situate children’s participatory rights within this growing trend. Through an exploration of these trends, opportunities for children’s genuine participation begin to arise within an increasingly globalized and technological knowledge society.


Connecting Participatory Rights to Private Corporations
CSR Principles in Relation to Children’s Rights
International Recognition of CSR Principles and Private Corporations

[see below for an accompanying presentation deck that was delivered to a masters seminar in Children’s Rights at Ryerson University’s Masters of Early Childhood Studies program]


The economic system of every state is becoming increasingly intertwined within a global trade network where massive amounts of monetary and human capital are exchanged between states on a daily basis. International regulatory frameworks and institutions are attempting to regulate and monitor capital flows to ensure fairness, justice and equity between states (Brown, 2010; Fernando, 2011). The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Economic Forum and the United Nations Global Compact are among the international institutions that seek to promote human dignity and fairness in economic activity between states with various levels of wealth and power. Subsequently, multiple international frameworks have been created to ensure the protection, promotion and remedy of human rights of marginalized populations within states where international businesses operate (Brown, 2010; Fernando, 2011).

Recognizing that global economic activity is primarily driven by multinational private corporations, various international institutions and frameworks are increasingly acknowledging the tremendous role, responsibility and influence of private multinational corporations in economic activity that impacts human rights (Brown, 2010; Wood & Scharffs, 2002). Parallel to this, private corporations are increasingly recognizing the role of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) within their business operations and strategies (Banerjee, 2008; Caroll, 1999; Garriga and Melé, 2004). While international institutions and frameworks have typically held States accountable to human rights and are only beginning to extend to private corporations, the development of CSR principles are being developed internally within the corporate industry and many businesses are attempting to hold themselves accountable to human rights.

Children represent a marginalized population in society whom are involved in global economic activity and for whom these international institutions and frameworks are meant to protect and respect (Boyle, 2009). In order to protect, provide and encourage the rights and optimal development of the child, the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was drafted, approved and ratified by 193 countries, and came into force on 2 September, 1989. While most of the UNCRC focuses on rights associated with protection from harmful exploitation in economic activity, children’s participatory rights are also provided by the Convention.

The acknowledgement of private corporations by international institutions and the development of CSR principles within private corporations are paramount to the full realization of the UNCRC in society that is characterized by an emerging digitally-facilitated knowledge society (Hargreaves, 2003). This knowledge society is characterized by economic growth and prosperity that is increasingly influenced by the creation of knowledge and the resulting economic output of services, ideas and communications (Hargreaves, 2003). The knowledge society and its knowledge property is also being influenced and controlled by the private sector which is increasingly coming into conflict with the public domain (David & Foray, 2002).

Two global trends are taking place within our emerging knowledge society: (1) multinational private corporations are increasingly incorporating CSR principles into their business strategies and operations; (2) and international rights institutions and frameworks are increasingly recognizing the role of private corporations and CSR principles. This paper seeks to situate children’s participatory rights within this growing trend. Through an exploration of these trends, opportunities for children’s genuine participation begin to arise within an increasingly globalized and technological knowledge society. Within this society, children’s participatory rights can be realized if private corporations conduct their strategies and operations according to CSR principles as articulated by the various international institutions and frameworks.

Connecting Participatory Rights to Private Corporations

The global movement to protect, promote and realize the rights of the child has seen many States enacting laws in uniformity with the individual articles of the UNCRC. Protection rights in the UNCRC that are associated with economic activity are articulated in Articles 32 and 34 and relate to commercial work and sexual exploitation, respectively. Furthermore, Article 32 holds states accountable to upholding the child’s protection rights by enforcing a minimum age for admission to employment, appropriate regulation of hours and conditions, and penalties to ensure enforcement for violation of these rights (UN, 1989). While participation rights are also embedded in the UNCRC, the interpretation of children’s participatory rights in private economic activity remains relatively unexplored in the literature.

Article 12 in the UNCRC (1989) states that, “the child who is capable of forming his or her own views [has] the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child.”. Article 17 in the UNCRC articulates that states parties, “shall ensure that the child has access to information and material,” through mass media that is of, “social and cultural benefit to the child,” and in accordance with Article 29 which articulates the child’s right to an appropriate education in, “preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society.” Furthermore, Article 28 Section 3, encourages international cooperation in education, “in particular with a view to contributing to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world and facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge and modern teaching methods.”

Considering our digitally-facilitated knowledge society which is largely controlled by private corporations, the above Articles (12, 28(3), 29) of the UNCRC implicate children’s participation in private economic activity. Digital technologies–for example, the Internet, personal computers and mobile phones–allow, “access to information and material,” (UNCRC, Article 12) through a mass media known as, the Internet. These digital technologies are also, “facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge,” (UNCRC, Article 28 (3)) and are increasingly becoming a, “modern teaching method”. Digital technology, including the Internet, grants children the capacity for individual expression and a unique opportunity to, “express those views freely in all matters affecting [them]” (UNCRC, Article 12) through multiple means of expression (Article 13), including the use of social media, blogging, and audio and video conferencing.

The digital technologies that are increasingly being used to educate children lie predominantly within the domain of private corporations (de Castell & Jenson, 2004). Corporations are the main designers, producers and promoters of the digital technologies that are quickly becoming ubiquitous in many children’s formal and informal educational settings and materials (Kleiman, 2000; Greenfield, 2009; Livingstone, 2005; Strommen, 1992). Children, as one of the central users of digital technologies–both at home and in schools–, have very little direct impact and influence over the enormously complex private corporation and its business strategies and operations (Druin, 2002; Guha, 2004). The current state of private economic activity thus excludes children’s genuine participation and their associated rights in matters that affect them the most, namely their education.

The enormous wealth and power that private corporations hold in today’s globalized world necessitates an obligation and responsibility to act ethically in its business operations (Brown, 2010). Many private corporations operate within multiple countries and are not only involved with influencing children’s education through its products and services, but are also involved in the manufacturing process, which typically occur in developing countries where issues of exploitative child labour is prevalent (Brown, 2010; Fernando, 2011). As such, the development and adoption of CSR principles by private corporations and their acknowledgement by international institutions, like UNICEF and the UN, represent progress in recognizing children’s participatory rights, whether they are explicitly stated or not within individual corporations’ CSR policies.

CSR Principles in Relation to Children’s Rights

The notion of CSR, as it applies to private corporations, has a long and complex history, especially within the United States–the birthplace of the modern private corporation (Banerjee, 2008; Caroll, 1999). After a thorough investigation of over 50 years of literature on the definition of CSR, Caroll (1999) suggests four kinds of social responsibilities that constitute CSR practice: economic, legal, ethical and philanthropic. To put in more pragmatic terms, Caroll (1991) summarizes, “The CSR firm should strive to make a profit, obey the law, be ethical, and be a good corporate citizen” (p. 43).

However, as Banerjee (2008), Caroll (1999), and Garriga and Melé (2004) point out, the notion of CSR is highly contextual and unclear. This presents a problem when discussing children’s rights in a globalized economy. Some may believe CSR conveys the idea of legal responsibility; to others, it means being ethical in social behaviours; still to others, CSR may simply equate with charitable contributions regardless of the nature of the economic activity (Votaw, 1972). Relatively few of the CSR principles outline participation rights at all, whether adult’s or children’s.

In order to clarify over 50 years of literature, Garriga and Melé (2004) attempt to ‘map the terrain’ of CSR theories and approaches by classifying them in four groups: (1) instrumental theories, which focus on the wealth creation of corporations and that any social activities are a means to economic results; (2) political theories, which focus on the responsible use of political power by corporations; (3) integrative theories, in which the corporation is focused on social demands in society; and (4) ethical theories, which articulate how corporations should ethically conduct themselves in society. Integrative theories of CSR could provide a useful model for contextualizing children’s participatory rights in economic activity which produces products and services that are meant to meet the social needs of an increasingly technological society. In other words, corporations operate in society only in as much as social demands dictate, which gives them a certain legitimacy and prestige. As such, corporations should take into account these social demands and integrate them in their business strategies and operations in accordance with social values (Garriga and Melé, 2004).

These social values within a complex globalized economy can be very difficult to articulate. However, a number of prominent social and international institutions, such as UNICEF and the UN, have undertaken this monumental task and continue to articulate them through various frameworks and documentations, which I will discuss in the subsequent sections of this paper.

Garriga and Melé (2004) identify the concept of social responsiveness as being instrumental to integrative approaches to CSR. When private corporations are socially responsive, they are able to identify the unmet social demands of society and choose to address these demands through economic activity in accordance with the social values of society.

While CSR principles have been heavily critiqued in modern society (Banerjee, 2008; Matten & Moon, 2004), it is possible for private corporations to take a specific theory and approach to CSR, such as integrative theories, in order to maximize children’s participation in economic activity. Children represent a key audience and consumer to some private corporations. Thus, their legitimacy and prestige, or as UNICEF states, “their social license to operate” (UN Global Compact, 2012, p. 3), is directly correlated to children’s unmet social demands. In order for private corporations to live up to their CSR policies, they must include children’s genuine participation in their business strategies and operations.

It should also be noted that integrative theories of CSR assume that society’s social needs and values are aligned with the best interests of its citizens, including children. It may be that society does not know what is best for its citizens. As such, any CSR policies that private corporations adopt should also consider other theories and approaches related to CSR such as profitability, political power, and ethical conduct.

International Recognition of CSR Principles and Private Corporations

By adopting an integrative approach to CSR, we recognize that private corporations can be responsible by meeting the social demands of society in accordance with social values. Several documents and frameworks by the UN and UNICEF can be understood to articulate these social demands and values of a global population. For example, in light of the discovery of extreme forms of exploitative child labour in developing countries, the UNCRC developed Article 32 which recognizes a child’s right to be protected from economic exploitation that may be harmful to their development (UN, 1989). Furthermore, in recognition of our knowledge society, the UNCRC developed Aarticles 17, 28, and 29 which articulate a child’s right to access information and material through mass media which will prepare them to live in a free society. This right in the UNCRC articulates the social demand that children need access to certain technologies in order to participate fully in society and contribute to their intellectual development.

Recently, the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), a UN agency that seeks to work with international businesses to align their operations and strategies with human rights, along with UNICEF and Save the Children have launched an initiative to protect children’s rights within our increasingly globalized economic system. Their flagship document entitled, Children’s Rights and Business Practices (CRBP), is an attempt to promote children’s protective and participatory rights within the private sector businesses’ strategies and operations, and to be subsequently codified in within CSR policies (UN Global Compact, 2012). This document is another attempt, in addition to Article 32 in the UNCRC, to further detail the social demands society places on the economic activity of private corporations in respect to children’s rights.

The CRBP document gives more weight to social demands that emphasize protective rights rather than participatory rights. However, the document clearly identifies that one of the core principles of the UNCRC is child participation. In outlining various social demands in accordance with social values, the CRBP document misses an opportunity to include children’s participation. For example, Principle 2 in the CRBP document outlines that, “all business should contribute towards the elimination of child labour, including in all business activities and business relationships” (UN Global Compact, 2012, p. 18). Several authors have illustrated the dichotomous role of child labour in developing countries and how international pressure to eliminate child labour comes at some costs while also excluding children’s genuine participation (Berge, 2007; Bourdillon, 2006; Boyle, 2009; Liebel, 2002, 2003). Berge (2007) and Liebel (2002, 2003) illustrate the children’s rights movements in Latin America where children exercised their participatory rights to freedom of expression on the issues that matter most to them, namely the need to work in order to sustain their livelihoods. Berge (2007) and Liebel’s (2002, 2003) argument is that child labour is inevitable in the existing capitalist system and the poverty resulting from it (Berge, 2007). Therefore, child labour is seen as a ‘necessary evil’, and it is better to recognize children’s active participation and advocacy for creating safer working conditions. Another argument, articulated by Liebel (2002), is that children’s work can contribute to their personal development and prepare them to play a responsible and meaningful role in their societies. Both of the aforementioned arguments were obtained directly from children exercising their participatory rights by expressing their social demands and values.

UNICEF also recently launched a new website to coincide with the launch of the CRBP initiative (UNICEF, 2012a). The website directly addresses CSR in order to advance children’s rights in business and economic activity. The website is meant to provide practical tools and knowledge for businesses who seek to align their strategies and operations with the UNCRC and the CRBP. The website acknowledges that children are not simply miniature versions of adults and that economic activity affects them differently. As such, private businesses need to consider the unique social context of childhood in order to reduce the harmful effects of economic activity.

However, similar to the CRBP initiative, there is a lack of discussion on children’s participatory rights. Interestingly, in a section on integrating children’s rights into business strategies and operations, the website mentions that the first step to becoming a child-friendly business is to take appropriate actions to prevent and mitigate the business impact on children’s rights. Furthermore, the website articulates that businesses can continue by advancing children’s rights through core business activities. This alludes to the notion of incorporating children’s participation in business activities as an extension of protective rights without explicitly saying so.

In order to clarify their stance on children’s participation in private economic activity, UNICEF recently released a document called, Children are Everyone’s Business (CEB), which serves as a practical workbook to help companies understand and address their impact on children’s rights (UNICEF, 2012b). In a section on engaging stakeholders, the document emphasizes that the, “best experts on how businesses impact children” (p. 34) are the children themselves. They continue to outline some methods for meaningful child participation and ethical considerations when working with children. While this mention of children’s genuine participation in private economic activity is a welcomed step in the right direction, it is far from an exhaustive discussion about how children can meaningfully participate. Furthermore, the section is only one page in a document that is more than hundred pages long.


Through an exploration of the recent developments and adoptions of CSR principles by prominent and international rights-based institutions, such as UNICEF and the UN, we see that there continues to be a lack of critical discussion and acknowledgement of children’s participatory rights. However, it is also evident that there is rapid growth in the field of CSR within these rights-based institutions with the release of several documents and initiatives within the last few years. The CRBP, CEB and UNCRC acknowledge the importance of participatory rights and children’s meaningful participation. As the two global trends of CSR adoption and its recognition by international institutions continue to expand and articulate itself through research and practice, the new conceptions of childhood will realize itself in our emerging knowledge society.


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Presentation deck: