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The Politics of Representation

These fieldnotes and the dynamics from the previous sections all suggest that there is a major gap between the ‘reality’ of individual and institutional practice in the anti- child trafficking field and the formal representation of that practice, as well as between individual thinking and the institutional representation of that thinking. This gap is a defining feature of the field as a whole, and it holds, I believe, a key to understanding its operation. But before we delve more deeply into theorising about how and why it exists, I want to make its enormity even more apparent, by looking in further detail at the differences between the messy reality of policy and project implementation and the formal representation of that implementation in terms of ‘outputs’ or successes.

Benin’s anti-trafficking law is a good example. On paper, it is universally lauded as wonderful and claimed by everyone who contributed to it as an achievement. On ratification, for instance, US TIP reports went from lambasting the country’s lack of a suitable legal framework to congratulating ‘[t]he Government of Benin [for its] solid efforts to combat trafficking through law enforcement efforts’ (USDS 2007: 65). In private, Embassy even staff high-fived each other for their efforts. Similar things happened at UNICEF. On the agency’s website, the law was hailed as a major coup that would ‘strengthen the legal framework surrounding efforts to combat child trafficking and facilitate the implementation of activities the government and its various partners.’8 In internal documentation, staff cited the law as a(n output) triumph for the ‘advocacy component’ of their Beninese anti-trafficking work.

Yet while the law is represented as a critical component of Beninese anti-trafficking policy, in practice, my research showed that its reach is limited and its implementation is slapdash. We have already seen as much earlier, with Beninese citizens routinely ignoring, resisting or mocking its intentions. But it gets much worse. Although supposed to be ‘the State’s arm in the village,’ some of my village committee interviewees were unaware that the law even existed. Likewise John, a local police officer I spoke to, who had never even seen its text, or Cecile, a communal child protection officer, who concluded our meeting by asking me whether I could email him a copy!

The story is similar with the (in)famous village committees. These are widely referenced as fundamental to West African anti-trafficking efforts and depicted consistently as a resounding success. Various of my interviewees cited them as an important part of the struggle in Benin. UNICEF internal documentation says the same, recording their establishment as a key country project output, while one important ILO publication even cites them as an example of regional ‘good practice.’ That report reads:

Local vigilance committees (LVCs) are composed of community volunteers. Their chief role is to mobilize the community to take action against trafficking, monitor the well-being of children and migrant behaviour, identify and intercept children at risk of becoming victims of trafficking and coordinate the offering of direct assistance services to children in need. LVCs are an effective and appropriate structure to curb trafficking by working with the children most at risk of being trafficked and their families. (ILO-IPEC 2010: 1, emphasis added)

This claim is strongly refuted by the research I conducted in my case study villages. Interviews with both village committee members and members of the communities for which they were nominally responsible clearly show it to be false. ‘Ordinary’ villagers were commonly unaware that committees even existed, while those who did know about them typically saw them as no more than a nuisance to be ignored or challenged. In Zelele Village, I interviewed Charley, who is both the village head and the head of his village’s committee. This was our exchange:

Neil: Can you describe to me the work that the village committee


Charley: Each village quartier has a representative to watch over child

departures. From time to time, we all get together to give each other an update. In the beginning it worked well, but because it’s voluntary work, and we haven’t heard a thing from the state since it was set up, our level of activity has really gone down...

Neil: Doesn’t the state support your work?

Charley: No. They give us nothing. It’s all voluntary so we don’t have

any means. And now, because kids are struggling and our local NGO doesn’t have the means to look after all of them, there’s a risk of departure.

Neil: What does the community think of you guys?

Charley: [Smiles knowingly]. Look, our role isn’t repression. We’re

just here to tell the authorities what’s happening. Sometimes we’re seen in a bad light because of our relationship with them. The problem though is that sometimes we call the police and they do nothing. There’s no enforcement, so kids still end up leaving.

Neil: Why don’t the police react?

Charley: Because they have loads of other stuff to do and sometimes

they don’t even have a vehicle. They’ve only got one car and that might be in action elsewhere, meaning that they can’t come to our village. When that happens, the quartier representative will say “Guys, don’t let your child leave” and the family will just tell him to mind his own business. They say “this is our child, we can do what we want with him, he is here doing nothing and we have no money. So go away.”

The picture Charley paints is damning. And it has been confirmed by the only other independent academic analysis I know of that evaluates West African LVCs. This is the 2005 consultancy report written for UNICEF by Roger Botte. He interviewed dozens of people during an examination of village committees across four West African countries, including Benin. Like me, his conclusion was that for all they may be represented as engaging, bottom-up interventions that protect vulnerable children, in reality they remain top-down impositions which are underfunded, overly focused on migrant policing, insensitive to structural issues and largely ignored by their target populations (2005: 4-9). It is perhaps telling that well-placed insiders told me that this report was ‘actively suppressed.’

One final example before we move on: the writing and publishing of ‘grey literature’ or reports. Producing documentation of almost any kind is a major activity for anti-traffickers, pretty much everywhere in the world. Handbooks, guidelines, leaflets, sensitisation materials: all proliferate and many are of very questionable quality. Why? I asked Helen, whose intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the anti-trafficking field is practically unrivalled. She had been her country’s women’s minister when trafficking really began to take off as an issue and at the outset of her own ‘trafficking career.’ She then headed the anti-trafficking work of a major international organisation, before finally leaving politics and entering civil society as a prominent critic of dominant anti-trafficking paradigms. She had the following reflection to share:

It’s all about funding Neil. When I was on the inside, we depended on funding, as well as on government support and the OK of the Secretary General, who is always a political appointee who wants to keep the gravy train keep rolling. So not much is actually able to happen; people just produce papers - cut and paste, cut and paste, cut and paste. Yet these only exist to tick boxes.

Although there is major pressure for anti-traffickers to produce at least something that looks as if it contributes meaningfully to the fight against trafficking, the time-pressures and political censorship they face mean that often they end up doing only the easiest and least contentious thing, which is churning out worthulsen fit only for the furnace.9

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