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The State in the Village

The second important anti-mobility mechanism within the anti-trafficking arsenal has involved expanding the state’s power internally, down to the level of the village. This has been attempted everywhere that there are significant migratory outflows, and in particular in countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Its typical form comes in the ominously titled ‘Village Vigilance Committees.’ Abidi was the UNICEF employee responsible for establishing the first of these in Benin, in an initiative that partnered the state, UNICEF, IPEC, two donors and a collection of locally subcontracted NGOs. He explained their genesis to me in the following, predictably benign fashion:

It was an innovative thing for us at UNICEF. At the start it came from the willingness of citizens to help vulnerable children. They were all volunteers.

We told them to organise and said, “It’s within your own community that you’ll find the answer to this problem.” They were very informal structures at first, but then we decided to spread the model around the country.

We tried to build them everywhere, wherever we went to sensitise. We got influential local people involved and had them convince parents not to let children leave. When they’d been sensitised, we built on that and built further committees.

Already one can detect a tension in Abidi’s narrative. On the one hand, there is ‘organic’ community willingness and a desire to help and volunteer. On the other, the pushy hand of external intervention—with UNICEF telling people to organise and convincing parents not to let children leave. No doubt his ambiguity reflects his own uncertainty over the initiative, particularly in the face of a sceptical academic. But that ambiguity disappeared the further I climbed the policy ladder and as the village committee model began to formalise. Dibi was Benin’s senior civil servant working on trafficking when I interviewed him in 2010, and he had the following to say:

We are very strongly supported by UNICEF on this, especially in the sending zones...Last year, for example, 38 village committees were set up in the North alone, taking the total to over 1400 throughout the country. These are a key initiative for us, because they permit the communities to participate in our efforts. The [local branch of the Family Ministry] sets the committees up and UNICEF pays for them. Our local child protection branches manage and coordinate, while NGOs are involved to help with the job.They exist throughout the country and their purpose is to sensitise and prevent abuse. They receive training and equipment, but no money. Ultimately, their goal is to stop kids leaving, because leaving home is what leads to trafficking. The committees liaise with the local police and other authorities, all working to prevent child departure.

Dibi’s narrative clearly pulls no punches. As the man was once sitting at the very top of Benin’s anti-trafficking tree, he possessed and shared a bird’s- eye view of the committees and their operation. From their organic and hotchpotch beginnings with Abidi in 2001, they grew into a 1400-strong network that spread capillary-like across the country, as the state’s arm in the village. And lest there be any doubt, both my interviews with village committee members and the official documentation that I consulted confirmed Dibi’s assessment that they were all about mobility prevention. Charley, who was the head of his committee, told me that his job was officially ‘watching over’ child departures, while Cliff, also a committee head, explained that committees were ‘vigilance bodies to stop children leaving.’ Likewise, a confidential UNICEF report documenting committee plans of action also notes that committees focus primarily on community surveillance (MFPSS and UNICEF Benin 2006), while one of the very few West Africa-wide committee project evaluations offers exactly the same conclusion (Botte and UNICEF 2005: 16).

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