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Systems of Ignorance

Yet anti-traffickers obviously do not live in a vacuum. It is true that some of them have been drawn to depoliticised (and depoliticising) institutions such as UNICEF because their habitus corresponds to the habitus required by those institutions. But these institutions also systemically reproduce and reinforce that habitus. Their patterns and structures of knowledge acquisition and transmission ensure a lack of learning and thus a sedimentation of received understandings. They are at times like systems of ignorance. How so?

In the last chapter, we saw that I was the first person ever to ask certain of the teenagers working in Abeokuta how they understood and experienced their work, or how they defined what they do and why. When I later put this to anti-traffickers and asked them more generally about their familiarity with the populations they target for their various interventions, I learnt that what I’d heard in Abeokuta was far from an anomaly. Few anti-traffickers had ever encountered anyone represented by their discourse or impacted by their policy. And the small handful who had, had done so during the kinds of set-piece encounters that are common in development settings. This indicates that there is a systemic divorce between practitioner and ‘beneficiary’ that ensures that even the most basic feedback loop is broken. The subject position of the anti-trafficker cannot shatter into a moment of radical subjectivity unless it is challenged and revealed as incomplete. But this is impossible unless it comes into contact with an alternative. And the absence of that means that what is internalised is reproduced.

Worse still, although plenty of money is spent on ‘research’ by antitrafficking organisations, little of that research would pass academic muster, and it often takes place after interventions have been conceived. There is thus a dearth of formal pathways for institutional learning or for the challenging of received ideas. This was made clear to me when I asked my institutional interviewees what role research typically plays in their work. To my surprise, almost none said that they based their interventions on anything like what the academy would consider defensible scholarship. Abidi, for instance, was central to the early evolution of the anti-trafficking field in Benin, and he told me bluntly that ‘We didn’t have to work too hard to have an idea of what was going on before we decided to intervene.’ Similarly Mitch and Yaya, who were important figures at IPEC when we met. ‘Does research normally preface intervention?’ I asked. Mitch explained: ‘It depends. With mining kids, for example, it doesn’t matter if they’ve been trafficked or not, we already know they shouldn’t be there, so we just take them out before research even begins.’ Likewise Carl, whom I asked whether research was important more generally to the ILO’s project and policy work. ‘It never really happens that way,’ he said. ‘This isn’t a ground-up thing.’ The fact that it isn’t a ‘ground-up thing’ means that anti-traffickers write and intervene without even having to fulfil the most basic of empirical requirements. And of course, in doing so, they fail to learn about different ways of seeing and doing, reproducing what has already been internalised.

This is further compounded by the distribution of symbolic capital within the anti-trafficking field. Anti-trafficking agencies typically cite either their own publications or the publications of their fellow antitraffickers. In part, this is simply because it is politique to do so. But in part it is also because established organisations are seen to ‘know best’—in other words, to possess the legitimacy of experts who are viewed as credible and thus to be believed. What does this mean? It means that at times the anti-trafficking field is like an echo chamber. Even though pathways for institutional learning are limited, the major institutions retain such symbolic capital that people inside and outside of them nevertheless take what they say for granted. Martin was previously a US government employee who had switched to the NGO sector when we spoke about this. I asked him about the new strategy that his organisation had been developing.

Neil: Did your new approach take a long time to develop, Martin?

Martin: Yes, for sure. Most people in this field don’t have any in-depth

understanding of what we’re dealing with, so it took ages.

Neil: So people don’t really have on-the-ground understandings?

Martin: No! Zero! There’s a major problem with where they get their

information. Just look at the Global Report [On Human Trafficking]. It’s awful. But people believe it, “Because the UN says so.” There’s a huge issue with UN authority here; reports take on a life of their own, despite the problems with accuracy.

‘Reports take on a life of their own’—this is critically important. It means that anti-trafficking materials are invested with the symbolic capital of their authors and thus have meaning-making power. This is how discourse and ideology work: each self-perpetuates like a self-propelling juggernaut through the recursive actions of those living ‘inside’ them. The child trafficking discourse, along with its governing ideologies, is internalised by anti-traffickers and is reproduced by them. But those anti-traffickers also live inside systems which guarantee this internalisation and reproduction. Those systems prevent anti-traffickers from accessing alternative information and force them instead to recycle their own preexisting information, which spreads and spreads because of the symbolic capital they possess.

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