It is partly in recognition of this fact that Easterley quips: ‘The aid professional has a tremendous fear of his own writing’ (2002: 231). Like Handel’s subordinates, he worries that his words will arouse the distaste of his superiors. And as a result, he works hard to avoid any trouble. He averts moments of conflict, limits potential antagonism, sidesteps situations where he must honestly speak out and generally self-polices in what Sartre would no doubt characterise as a bad faith accommodation of the moment of subjectivity to the subject position of the dominant. I found this again and again amongst my anti-trafficking interviewees, so much so that discursive self-silencing seemed a norm. When I asked Angela, for example, whether she had the freedom to say what she wanted at UNICEF headquarters, she explained:
[Long sigh]. Look, it depends. Generally speaking, yes of course you can say what you want, but you’ll be blasted left and right and bullied by countries if you do. We therefore try to be constructive and point out future directions. Some people criticise us for not being critical enough. We know it means that the process takes a long time, but we take a long-term view. Personally, I’m not super critical. You must also remember that if you want to say something here, you need to get the institutional OK.
Similarly Ellen, a former ILO country officer, who told me that:
At the ILO, you have to be diplomatic. Often that’s just an organisational culture thing, there isn’t always even direct political pressure. It can just be staff over-compensating and trying to avoid alienating states. One example was a harsh report I wrote on the state of migrant workers in Thailand, which the organisation wanted me to edit, even though the Thai government’s representative said it was fine. There’s just a lot of self-censorship in this field, which in part is about money and jobs. Many people here are just international civil servants and don’t have the genuine commitment of bodies like Human Rights Watch.
Alice and Fulani also described themselves as ‘international civil servants,’ and they have authored documents which form the absolute bedrock of the global anti-trafficking canon. In discussing the process by which they produced their most recent (and enormously widely distributed) report, we had the following exchange:
Neil: Did you have freedom with the data?
Fulani: We did, and we were able to do a lot of analysis with it, but
we didn’t. We decided not to because we wanted to play it safe, in case this, as a first report, becomes an annual thing. Avoid making enemies, you know. We were both of course fully aware of why we did this - because we know that states moan if they’re made to look bad. We had to do a lot of persuasion just to get it off the ground. So, we decided to limit ourselves to a “gentle” report.
Neil: Outside of this report though, how much freedom do you
Alice: Well, being the UN, we have freedom but also constraints. We
have to be diplomatic. So usually our criticisms are couched in terms of recommendations. Remember that we depend on funding.
This kind of self-enforced, funding-dependent ‘diplomacy’ was widespread among my interviewees. I found it most notable when it came to the concept of ‘exploitation.’ Exploitation is what one ILO staff-member described as the ‘Pandora’s box issue’ for the anti-trafficking field. This is partly because the term has never been defined—even the Palermo Protocol shies away from giving an actual definition. But partly it’s because any attempt to define it necessarily involves asking the most contentious political questions around. Is it exploitative, for instance, to pay someone less because they’re desperate and you can? Or is it exploitation only when that person has been ‘forced’? What actually is ‘free labour’? And isn’t all wage-labour theft? These questions go to the very heart of what society is and how we organise it. Under capitalism, and particularly under its currently hegemonic neoliberal variant, exploitation has been sidelined as a benchmark for labour’s legitimacy and replaced with ‘freedom.’ This freedom has been constructed in basic terms and as the absence of physical force. Labour relations are thus entirely depoliticised. The highly charged normative term of exploitation has been banished to the margins of indeterminacy, while freedom has been divorced from any social, cultural, political or economic moorings. Some anti-traffickers know that this is problematic. And a few even view it as a classic case of ideology-at-work. But do they say anything? Very rarely. Take Gigi and Ronald, for example, both important figures at ILO headquarters at the time of our interview. We jointly lamented the elision of exploitation and its replacement with a false and depoliticising free/unfree binary. ‘Reality is just much greyer than that,’ Ronald complained, while Gigi argued forcefully that freedom is structurally determined and thus indistinguishable from the systems that engender exploitation. But did either ever address this publicly? Not a chance; they had never even thought of it, as both were aware that doing so would mean war with their superiors. Reflecting back on this later, Sara, a colleague of theirs, explained simply: ‘Neil, even those who agree that in reality the world is grey turn the grey to black and white when they put it on paper.’