The price of political hypocrisy

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I meet Adri in a rain-soaked village at the edge of a lake in Southern Benin. ‘Hello Boss!’ he cries, as he greets me with a toothy grin and a shot-glass of welcome palm-wine. We’re here to talk about the business of trafficking – and his having been trafficked in particular. ‘We were on our way to Gabon, to work in the fisheries’, he explains. ‘Their lakes are much richer than ours, so we thought that if we went there we could use our skills and make some money’.

Adri and his fellow travellers had paid a smuggler a few thousand francs to get them across the water – ‘our Dads negotiated the price, we were excited to go’. ‘What happened?’ I ask. ‘Before we’d even arrived, we were rounded up by police, whites and NGO people. ‘You are child slaves, trafficked children’, they told us. We are here to rescue you.’’ ‘And then?’ ‘Then they sent us back to the village. Gave us apprenticeships we didn’t want and left. Most of the boys have migrated again’.

Adri’s story is not unique. Since the 2001 discovery of the Etireno boat on which Adri and hundreds of other teenage boys were travelling, Benin has been blacklisted as a global hub for the traffic in children. The country’s dark past as a lynch-pin in the trans-Atlantic slave trade has only served to cement this label. Now, the crime of trafficking – movement and exploitation – is called ‘modern-day slavery’, and is said both to be the major force keeping the country’s rural young out of school and best tackled by keeping them ‘at home’.

 I head to the central cotton-belt to learn more. In Sehere village, John tells me that he was himself in school until his father died. ‘I didn’t have enough money to continue’, he says, ‘so I decided to move to Nigeria’. Sat with us are five other boys who have just returned with John from the mines across the border. Officially, they too are ‘victims of trafficking’, since they moved to engage in work that the anti-trafficking establishment deems inherently exploitative for minors.

‘The work wasn’t that bad, you know’, Peter explains. ‘Sure it was hard, and we spent hours under the sun, but we ate well, we were paid, and we worked surrounded by all our friends’. Rory continues: ‘Of course school would have been great, but I did two years there and earned 140,000 francs (about $200). That’s enough to set me up now that I’m home’.

When I ask what they make of the way their work is viewed by policy-makers, the boys are palpably dismissive. ‘The government, foreigners, NGOs, they all come here and tell us that moving is bad – that we’ll end up as slaves if we go. It’s just not true’. Village elders echo these frustrations. ‘There’s nothing wrong with boys doing hard work’, Elise says. ‘We all do hard work, and we have to move in order to find it, because what we have here just doesn’t provide. Life depends on money, and our crops don’t earn us enough like they once did’.

Where the policy establishment has blamed both the migration and exploitation that comprises trafficking and keeps rural children out of school on ‘ignorance’, ‘devious traffickers’ or unspecified ‘poverty’, the ‘trafficked’ and their communities tell a different tale. It is the crash and sustained depression in cotton prices that they identify as underpinning their problems, forcing them out of the classroom and on the road to tough jobs elsewhere.

‘When cotton worked, things were different here’, Charley states, pointing to the brickbuilt houses around him as evidence of better times past. ‘Farmers earned money, young people stayed at home and went to school, people were able to build things for their families’. Now? ‘All that has changed’. This change came in the late 1990s, when an international collapse in cotton prices heralded a prolonged depression that devastated household incomes. As the World Trade Organisation itself recognised, this depression didn’t just ‘happen’ – it was a partly the result of American cotton subsidies, and it deepened as these subsidies have continued.

When I ask policy-makers why they aren’t addressing such tangible and unjust ‘root causes’, instead of focussing on stopping movement or demonising work, the responses I receive are as damning as they are revealing. ‘We know that this is a big problem, but our hands are tied by the State Department’, one US staffer tells me. ‘That is simply not our responsibility’, says another. Sandra, a wisened Beninese government official, perhaps best sums it up: ‘Politicians aren’t going to change these policies just because a few kids are forced from school or are trafficked. In their reports, they say ‘poverty is the cause’, they blame culture or the poor distribution of resources. We know it’s a lie, everyone knows it’s a lie, but what can we do? We aren’t allowed to say anything, so we don’t. It’s organisational hypocrisy’.

The more I learn, the more I ’m left with the feeling she’s right. Trade Justice activists have long since argued for reform in this field. In a paper produced back in 2003 as part of Oxfam’s campaign against US subsidies, the economists Nicholas Minot and Lisa Daniels suggest that subsidies represent as much as a $60 annual loss to the average Beninese cotton farmer – the difference between a family like Peter’s sending two of their children to school, or two of them away to work.

Though this is all well known, still nothing changes. As with so much in the development field, the political interests of the powerful are once again trumping the basic needs and rights of the powerless. While the institutions that are supposed to work on their behalf remain deafeningly silent. In the meantime, young people like those I talk to are caught in the middle. Unable to continue school because subsidies have hollowed out their earnings, they are unable to migrate for work because trafficking policy calls that work slavery – and promptly returns them home if they are found. In meeting Adri again, I ask him how he feels about this. ‘Bof’, he replies. ‘C’est la vie, non?’

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