From the individual to the structural, the concrete to the abstract: we must now examine that plank of the pathological paradigm that is most widespread, most unquestioningly accepted and most politically problematic. This is the ever-present linchpin of ‘poverty.’ In interview after interview and report after report, anti-trafficking actors point to poverty as the single most important cause-factor leading children to be trafficked. On their understanding, poverty is responsible for pushing parents to sell their children, for pushing children to go along with the labour migration that is equivalent to trafficking and even—in the most generous of assessments—for pushing individual traffickers to make their quick, exploitation-heavy bucks. The language of ‘pushing’ is of course significant. It casts poverty as an actor, an entity cum force that can perform the thinking- and doing-work on behalf of human beings. It thus absolves the innocent of responsibility and contextualises the guilty in a way that allows us to humanise them. It depoliticises both micro-level individual decisionmaking and those decisions that have macrostructural effects, positioning causality as ultimately outside the domain of the human, in precisely the way that religious narrativising also does.
Evidence for this abounds. In my interviews in Cotonou, for instance, I was told by one influential Beninese politician that ‘we mustn’t forget that it is poverty that underlies all placement,’ while a senior figure in the country’s child protection police added: ‘We have to remember that poverty is at the root of all this. If a father doesn’t have the money to feed his children or send them to school, these children are going to be vulnerable to trafficking.’ Official documentation echoes these views. In Benin’s POA, for example, poverty is identified as ‘the underlying cause of the emergence and growth of child trafficking’ (MFE and ILO 2008: 13), and its very first page highlights that ‘parental neglect, the disintegration of family structures, and monetisation’ all exist within the framework of ‘the growing immiseration of poor households’ (ibid. 1).
Yet whilst poverty is universally decried as the ultimate backdrop to trafficking, engagement with what causes poverty is almost entirely nonexistent. Within the trafficking discourse, and as a direct reflection of the Neoliberal ideology that I argue is so determining for it, ‘poverty’ is seen as a reality that just is, without any causal underpinning. Benin’s POA can once again illustrate. In its section on ‘The Structural Causes of Trafficking,’ we read that poverty is the number one culprit, that trafficked children predominantly come from poor families and that parents are forced by their poverty to accept untold abuses of their children. But at no point either in these pages or in any of the following is there any reflection whatsoever on why parents are poor, on what underpins this ‘structure,’ or on how and why it has led ‘poverty’ to become so prevalent (MFE and ILO 2008: 13).
Aware of just how deafening this silence was, I sought in my interviews to push the matter with anti-traffickers. Yet in the more than 100 interviews I conducted in places ranging from New York to Vienna, only one single individual elaborated independently on poverty beyond simply stating that it was an issue. Worse still, when I sought to provoke reflection, to ask people where poverty comes from, the responses I received varied from blank stares, to periods of silence, to outright deferrals. For example, when I questioned Rosa, the assistant to an extremely powerful American donor politician whose money is fundamental to this entire field, her response was simply, ‘Neil, forget poverty or where it comes from, people want to employ kids because they can pay them less. It’s that simple.’