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Placement as Trafficking in Benin?2

All of these dynamics were illustrated starkly during my fieldwork in Benin, particularly when it came to the idea that child trafficking was a corrupted recent outgrowth of the traditional practice of vidomegon (‘child placement’). Although the policy-makers I interviewed recited that story by rote, when I questioned them as to how and why they were so certain of its accuracy, their responses varied from blank stares, to stutters, to simple assertions of ‘We just know.’ Two particular instances stood out. The first was an interview I conducted with Didi, a senior civil servant at the heart of the Justice Ministry and a cornerstone of the national anti-trafficking pantheon. When I asked him why trafficking had exploded in Benin a decade ago, he said: ‘It all comes back to the monetisation of social relations. In the beginning, placement was about solidarity. Money wasn’t involved. Sometimes kids went with people to whom they weren’t related, but they were well treated. Monetisation made kids a way of earning money.’ In response, I asked him whether any studies existed that demonstrated or proved this supposed link between monetisation and exploitation. I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘At least I don’t know of any.’

Second, and in similar fashion, I was once a participant at a national child protection workshop in Cotonou that was organised by one of the major international NGOs active in Beninese anti-trafficking. There I had the opportunity to sit for three days amongst what was effectively the entire quorum of the Benin-based child protection community. During one of the early sessions, an academic who was also a senior figure in one of the agencies present at the workshop introduced ‘The History and Context of Trafficking in Benin.’ His story too turned on the monetisation of child placement. And when it finished, I asked him and those in attendance whether anyone was aware of any study that demonstrated the link between the monetisation of child placement and an increase in the level of abuse that placed minors experienced. My question was greeted with total silence. No one responded, and eventually, somewhat sheepishly, the session chair looked over and conceded that there was no such study and that this was problematic.

This necessarily begged the question, ‘Where does the understanding that placement equals trafficking actually come from?’ Here the exchanges I had with two further institutional interviewees were telling and are worth repeating, since they point to the living power of received ideas in structuring the thinking and doing of those inside the system, and to the systemic reproduction of those received ideas through institutional practice. In the first case, I was interviewing Moussa, another senior civil servant working in the Family Ministry. The following is an extract of the notes I made after our encounter:

Extract 4.1: Fieldnotes from a Day with Moussa I asked Moussa whether the anti-movement components of the anti-trafficking law had made it easier for corruption to flourish. At this point he went off on a long tangent. He opened a document he’d been working on entitled “History Repeating Itself,” in which he made the socio-cultural link between the slavery of the past and child trafficking today. “The weight of tradition is really very heavy,” he began, somewhat dramatically. “Child trafficking has deep, deep roots in Beninese society. In Africa, the child belongs to the community, is a gift, a richness, and this communal feeling is what underlies the fact that the child can comfortably go and live with any member of the extended family, if it is believed that doing so will help the child on the path of life. We call this practice ‘confiage’ or ‘placemen? in French,” he added. “However, at a certain point in time, this once positive tradition deviated from its core purpose, such that now it has become monetised, and leads to abuse. Children are not sent to school, they are transaction- alised.” I asked him where he got his information. He said it was all

based on the UNICEF studies.

Similarly revealing was my discussion with Marti, a frank and critical local government official responsible for child protection in the comune where two of my case study villages were located. When telling me about the process of policy formation, he began by explaining the ideal of the procedure as it should be. ‘We start by taking stock and understanding the phenomenon,’ he said. ‘We investigate, we do studies, and we come to the realisation that what was once a mark of mutual support and solidarity has recently transformed itself into trafficking.’ Then he smiled—‘It doesn’t always work like that, of course’—before conceding that in this instance they had relied on studies from the UNICEF Library in Cotonou to build their analytical picture of placement corrupted.

I subsequently visited the UNICEF Library in Cotonou, aware by this point that it occupied a place of unique importance in Benin’s antitrafficking field, in part because it was the only child-focused documentation centre anywhere in the country, and in part because it had been rubber-stamped by the world’s premier bearer of symbolic capital in matters relating to children. I searched extensively for any studies that might have been of relevance to the topic at hand and made two key findings. The first was that, as suspected, no work existed empirically examining the correlation between the changing nature of placement and the changing nature of child experiences of that placement—in other words, nothing empirically validated the assertion that previously positive placement had morphed into abusive trafficking. Second, I found that all the major studies contained in the Library and relating to child trafficking, child movement or child placement cited in their literature reviews two of the earliest related studies present in the Library’s archives. These were UNICEF’s 1998 Study Prepared for the Sub-Regional Workshop on Trafficking, Child Domestic Workers, Particularly Girls in Domestic Service, in the West and Central Africa Region and the 1994 study on Vidomegon Children, Unaccompanied Children, Abandoned Children in Benin.3

Already, the very titles of these documents make clear the assumed equivalence between child placement or domestic service and trafficking or other forms of suffering. But a brief discourse analysis reveals that both were conducted on the basis of the assumption that placement and domestic service are exploitative and problematic in and of themselves. At various points throughout the texts, for example, placement or child domestic service are described as ‘problems,’ while at one point, readers are told of ‘the dangers inherent to these situations.’ Moreover, readers are informed that ‘the existence of an economic motive on the part of one or both parties [to the child’s placement] is enough to qualify it as trafficking’ and that ‘payment for child domestic a salient indicator of the exploitative nature of the situation’ (UNICEF 1998: iii-vi). At no point, however, do we encounter any empirical research examining the situation of children themselves in relation to that of their forebears in the premonetary past!

The point being made here is not that the nature of child circulation, child placement or child/youth migration has remained unchanged, nor even that the advent of modernity and the deepening of capitalist relations has had no impact on the way in which children and the young move or on the experiences they have when they do move. Indeed, related historical sociological data (see, for instance, Jacquemin 2000, 2006, 2008) and my own research demonstrate that youth migration and labour relations evolve under the influence of capitalist entrenchment. The point is simply that despite the doxic certainty within which the narrative of ‘tradition corrupted’ is cloaked, no empirical analysis to this effect actually exists. Rather, what we have are the deeply rooted and widely accepted received ideas that children being away from ‘home’ is negative and that the monetisation of child work and movement automatically transforms something unproblematic into something that is essentially exploitative (and thus qualifiable as trafficking).

This, then, is the power of the ideology of Western Childhood, not just in the ideational realm of people’s minds, but rather in the very material that those minds use to learn, understand and do. The discourse of child trafficking is internalised and reproduced by people in contact with the literature that creates and recreates trafficking as a concept. And that literature exists in the first place because the ideology of Western Childhood frames the thinking of those who produce it. What is more, the very systems of learning that pertain in the institutions comprising the anti-child trafficking field ensure that this discourse and that i deology continue like juggernauts, no matter what exists ‘outside’ of them. Institutions like UNICEF learn either from their own ideologically conditioned pre-existing narratives or from parallel institutions who inhabit the same ideological orbit and whose work they read and cite. These major meaning-makers are thus like a structural echo chamber, perpetuating their paradigms across individuals, institutions, time and space, sedimenting them internally and projecting them externally.

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