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Alternative Policies Please?

Stories like Zack’s contrast sharply with the tall tales of anti-trafficking. The latter even seem somewhat ridiculous when cast in the light of these actual migration histories. And evidently, my interviewees feel the same— we have already seen a number of them bemoan NGOs for their dishonesty or stupidity. But in this, the chapter’s final section, we will focus in more detail on what discourse- and policy-affected communities think of the anti-trafficking establishment, its narratives and its policies. We will delve briefly into ‘the view from below of the view from above’ and will examine the alternative policies that those ‘intervened on’ would like to see enacted on their behalf.

When I discussed conventional anti-trafficking messaging with my interviewees in the Zou departement or on site in Abeokuta, the major emotions people expressed were frustration or surprise. They simply could not understand how anti-traffickers could get it all so wrong, or why they’d tell such ‘stupid stories’ that differ so radically from people’s everyday realities. For some, this was all a question of ignorance. For others, it was far more nefarious. Two elder women I spoke to in Atome Village believed it was a combination of both:

Neil: What do you think of the message you hear that young people

shouldn’t be leaving the village?

Jeanne: The people who tell us that are holding back the development of

this village!! I am so angry, it’s a terrible message! And they give us nothing in return. These NGOs, they come here and they talk but they bring nothing with them!

Neil: Why do you think that is? Why do they do that?

Jele: I think it’s probably because they don’t want to see us go and

develop elsewhere instead of here. They want us to stay and develop our own country. Which I can understand, but their words are useless to us, because they bring us nothing.

These perspectives were echoed across most of my focus group discussions. In one particularly poignant example from Sehere Village, a teenage boy told me the following story:

I remember that one NGO came here and said “Don’t leave home, it’s bad for you.” They even promised to bring money for those who stayed and didn’t move; but they never did! Why?? Those who stayed had been tricked and were really upset and angry, especially when compared to those who did end up leaving and made some money. This is why I think that leaving is good.

His friends shared this thinking:

‘We don’t have the same view as the NGO. We think it’s a good thing to leave, because that’s how you find money. We leave no matter what they say.’

‘Me, I don’t even care what they say. If I’m not in Abeokuta, I’m working in Save [in Central Benin], because that at least gives me some money.’ ‘There’s nothing in this village, no work! So even if they don’t like it, parents have no choice but to let their kids go and when kids themselves decide to go, parents have no choice but to accept it. Because when they go, kids at least make some money, they can at least send some back. We might understand the NGOs’ message, but we can't eat their words, can we?’

Perhaps it will be unsurprising that most people give very short shrift indeed to anti-trafficking messages. I asked migrants and their ‘traffickers’ whether people respected the law, listened to the police or took note of the messaging. For most, the answer was a resounding ‘no.’ People play the game, they nod to authority where necessary and thumb their noses at it where they can. Again from my focus groups:

Neil: Do you just pretend to the NGOs and the government then, saying one thing and doing another?

There was a lot of laughter amongst those who understood my question.

A number of people said “Yes, yes we do.”’

‘Neil: So you just pretend to the authorities then??

Of course we do! We say “Sure, we won’t leave” in the hope that they’ll bring us something. And then when they don’t, we go anyway.’

Neil: How do you go about getting around the authorities when

you’re taking youngsters across the border?

Trevor said the state had set up village committees all over the place, but they’re all corrupt: “We can easily turn them and take kids away no problem,” he explained. Another added: “There are many paths you can take across the border and that the state has no idea about”. “L’Etat est bete”, said a third man - ‘“The state is stupid”. The police just sit there and guard the ones they know about, but we take the others.

What, then, would people like to see happen differently? How would the policy-affected like to see policy work for instead of on them? Without fail, when I asked people these questions or questions such as ‘What would you do to help and protect your young people?’, there were two major responses. These were the following:

  • 1. Provide us with economic alternatives to our labour migration.
  • 2. Improve our working conditions or provide labour protection for those who have migrated.

Hardly rocket science, it has to be observed. On the first point, nearly every single one of the people I asked said that giving them economic alternatives would be the most important thing anyone could do for them. ‘Give us jobs,’ ‘Promote development,’ ‘Bring industry here,’ ‘Pay us more for our crops,’ ‘Give us what you have,’ ‘Train us in skills’ were all some of the answers I received. The general point was that ‘If we want to make something of our lives, we need to migrate, so if you don’t want us to migrate, you need to bring here what we can access there.’ The second response was similarly widespread and can be encapsulated in the simple phrase: ‘Improve our working conditions.’ Since few people see the kinds of work that young males do as inherently problematic, and since all seem to accept its structural necessity within a world of monetised social relations, it is extremely rare to find anyone who wants that work prohibited. By contrast, what people would like are improvements in their working conditions or investment in labour protection. ‘Pay us more wages,’ ‘Have us work fewer hours’ or ‘Get the government to protect us at work instead of stopping us working’ were all answers I was given.

And are these such unreasonable suggestions? Aren’t they in fact entirely intuitive? When and where in the world do poor workers not want to be paid more or treated better? Which of them wants to lose the one job that constitutes the best of their very narrow set of options? In their research on these questions, Huijsmans and Baker rightly ask whether the predominant approach to the supposed ‘worst form of child labour’ that is ‘child trafficking’ represents in reality a ‘worst approach to young migrants’ (2012). Likewise, Bourdillon, Levison, Myers and White all critique mainstream international child protection for taking jobs away from young working people without systematically addressing the reasons why these young people need to work in the first place (2011). Because in the end, attempting to promote the ideal of a Western Childhood without changing the economic structure within which all childhoods exist is at best futile and at worst highly damaging. Children work and migrate in poor regions such as West Africa because they need to. As a consequence, their work is individually and collectively valued. If policy-makers genuinely wish to improve children’s lives, they need to understand why it is that children work and migrate, how they experience their labour and mobility, and what alternatives could meet their needs differently. This means engaging at one and the same time with respect for socio-cultural difference and attention to the political-economic constitution of want.

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