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Home arrow Economics arrow Child Trafficking, Youth Labour Mobility and the Politics of Protection


  • 1. The classic examples of this lack of reflexivity are the two ‘fathers’ of Western child psychology, Piaget and Bowlby. Piaget theorised that all children develop according to a set of fixed stages demarcating cognitive progression (Inhelder and Piaget 1958; Mussen et al. 1984: 227), while Bowlby argued that these depend fundamentally on the strength of the mother-child bond (1968 [2007]: 84-5). Yet Piaget’s entire sample was made up of Western nursery-going children observed performing the same tasks (Rose in Jenks 1996: 26)! While Bowlby’s research was all carried out in London! As a result, Piaget’s developmental paradigm ended up resting on very Western assumptions about cognitive reasoning (Mussen et al. 1984: 236), while Bowlby’s analysis relied on ‘cultural [read: Western] prescriptions for childhood...presented as if they were intrinsic qualities of children’s own psychological makeup’ (Woodhead 1990: 74). Each scholar ultimately made the cardinal scientific error of conflating trends observed in one society and at one historical moment with universal, invariable, biological human processes.
  • 2. Some of this section reproduces work published in Howard (2011).
  • 3. The original title of the study is Les Enfants Vidomegons, Les Enfants en Rupture, Les Enfants Abandones au Benin. This is noteworthy because the phrase ‘en rupture’ encompasses all general parent- child separation and is imbued with highly negative connotations.
  • 4. The case of cotton subsidies and their impact on Benin is especially resonant and powerful when considering such neoliberally inflected political hypocrisy, for a number of reasons. First, at the time, cotton accounted for around 5% of Benin’s GDP and fully 40% of the country’s export receipts (OECD 2005: 20). It was the country’s major cash crop and provided the bulk of cash income for hundreds of thousands of Beninese households. Although the US routinely denied that its subsidies had any impact either on world cotton prices, national cotton earnings or cotton farmer poverty, myriad data suggested otherwise. Research for the trade justice movement by Alston et al. (2006) and by Sumner (2007) showed clear correlations (and causal relationships) between US subsidies and world price depression. OXFAM (amongst many others) estimated a consequent 1-2% decrease in cotton-related earnings for countries such as Benin (2002). And Minot and Daniels estimated that the average cotton farmer in the Zou region where my case study villages were located would see his income fall by 15% if cotton prices fell by 40%, with overall poverty levels increasing by 17% (2005: 17).

Causal relationships that can be traced all the way down to the level of the individual farmer are hard to prove beyond any reasonable doubt. But my research with cotton-farming communities and the migrants who left them certainly suggests a strong relationship between cotton price falls (and by extension US subsidies) and both farmer impoverishment and the out-migration of teenagers dubbed ‘trafficking’ by the anti-trafficking establishment. Farmers and state agricultural agents universally agreed that cotton was critical to their well-being, with life significantly better when prices were high. In contrast to this, since the onset of price depression, small-scale household projects were put on hold, more and more family members had to enter the wage market, and many more had to migrate to Nigeria or to the cities. When I asked people, therefore, whether young people moved more frequently to places like Abeokuta after the fall in cotton prices, everybody told me that they did. In the words of one interviewee, ‘They wouldn’t move at all if prices were still high. They’d all be in school.’

  • 5. Handel was not alone in enforcing discursive discipline. Frequently, anti-trafficking actors told me that they had been briefed on which language was or was not acceptable and which did or did not fit the accepted framework. In one particularly revealing instance, an interviewee explained that the US government agency funding the project on which he worked at the ILO had actually sent a representative to brief all staff against use of the term ‘sex work’ in any public material. This then penetrated the whole organisation, he lamented, sapping integrity and leading to top-level directives preventing anyone from deploying the said terminology, or indeed from inviting conference or workshop participants likely to do so. Others told me similar things, admitting that reports which contradicted the formal position were ‘savagely edited’ or actively suppressed. Even my own experience of participant observation corroborated these stories. On one occasion, when I wished to formally question the public discourse of the agency in which I was embedded, my superiors flatly refused, explaining that this would be impossible ‘on the inside.’
  • 6. Handel was in fact so wedded to the ideology ofWestern Childhood that I saw him visibly shaken at the prospect of its challenge. He became angry as I questioned him and pushed on the aporia in his thinking. Psychologically, he could not brook contradiction, and his position of power meant that he was able to bend the world to fit his beliefs.
  • 7. These are moments of what the ethnography of aid literature would call ‘translation,’ where NGO brokers help beneficiaries to articulate their needs in terms acceptable to donor frameworks, even if in practice their subsequent behaviour refuses even remotely to conform (Mosse 2004, 2005).
  • 8. Last accessed 12/02/16.
  • 9. In discussing this, Rodrigo, who had global responsibility for his IO’s anti-trafficking work, explained that the last project he had supervised ‘was basically just seminar, seminar, seminar, conference. A waste of time. No results, an excuse to get together and eventually produce a report, after which people are happy, the money gets spent.’ Likewise Martin, who complained of his former donor employers: ‘The problem is that [we] have to demonstrate results and this creates issues for project work. The results-driven framework is one of the reasons why there are so many conferences and workshops - people have to do something to justify their money and to show some form of tangible outcome.’ This is also why one single document can at times constitute an output for a whole host of different organisations. Benin’s National AntiTrafficking Study is a case in point. The US TIP Office authorised the initial grant to UNICEF. UNICEF then partnered with and paid the Beninese Family Ministry, who in turn commissioned a Beninese academic consulting firm to produce the final text. All four put the report’s existence down as an ‘output.’
  • 10. The background paper that the group published is publicly available here: IAG%20CoM%20Background%20paper%20for%20CoM%20 Side%20Event%20Meeting_Geneva%20copy.pdf. Last accessed 12/02/16.
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