‘Playing the Game’
At this point, lest there be any doubt, I want to emphasise that I do not see all anti-traffickers as craven underlings engaged in subordination or self-subordination. Nor do I believe that everything in the anti-trafficking field happens according to diktats emanating from above. Far from it. Anthropologists of policy have long shown that the world is far more complicated than that (Shore and Wright 1997; Mosse 2004, 2005, 2006; Shore et al. 2011). Staff inside discourse- and policy-making systems routinely resist where they can. Sometimes they will sabotage intended outcomes; at others, they perform the necessaries while bemoaning behind backs; still at others, they comply on paper whilst in practice doing what they wish. The same is true also of project ‘beneficiaries.’ Already in the 1970s, Hobsbawn argued that peasants mix compliance and resistance to ‘work the system...to their minimum disadvantage’ (1973: 7), while more recent work on development brokerage has shown that they do so in development settings as well. Typically, this will involve patterns of per- formativity that see beneficiaries jump through hoops but only insofar as is necessary to get what they want (Bierschenk 2008; Olivier de Sardan 1996, 1998, 2008; Naudet and Lecomte 2000). In each case, irony is the key mode of subjectivity. Subordinates neither buy into dominant ideology nor manifest its subject position. Yet since they possess insufficient power to mount a direct challenge to its dominance, they comply to the extent that they have to while maintaining the self-protective subjectivity of ironic distance.
I saw this subjectivity at work at every level of the anti-trafficking chain, including at the very top and the very bottom. My interview with Daisy was remarkable in this regard. Daisy was literally amongst the half-dozen most high-ranking anti-traffickers at the UN, and therefore one of the most senior anywhere in the world. She ran a major inter-agency project with massive discursive influence and serious international backing. Yet once we were safely behind the walls of her office and had bonded over anthropology and politics, her guard came down and she told me that she thought it was all just ‘crap.’ ‘Do you know how I survive in here Neil?’ she asked, rhetorically. ‘I leave my brain at the gate. Can you imagine?’
I could. But I could barely contain my glee or fascination. She lit a cigarette—strictly prohibited on UN premises—and passed one to me. ‘It’s all bullshit,’ she said. ‘Just hot air - in German they call it “worthulsen”.’ I was staggered. Why didn’t she leave? ‘Oh, because at least I can do some good in here; fund things that others wouldn’t or push in directions that others might not. In the end,’ she added, ‘as long as I don’t take it all too seriously, I’m basically alright.’
Such cynicism was paralleled also at the other end of the chain, amongst the peasant populations I met in Benin and upon whom trafficking discourse and policy act with such impunity. Already in the last chapter, we saw that many Beninese simply ignore the strictures of mainstream antitrafficking, doing what is necessary to get around the authorities. Here I want to underline that they also do so with smiles on their faces. My interview with Artur was illustrative of this:
Neil: Do you guys just pretend with the authorities then when they
come here and say “Don’t migrate”?
Artur: Yes, of course! [Laughter]. We say “Suuuure, we won’t
leave!” [More laughter]. And our hope is that this will make them bring us something. But they never do. [Frown].
Neil: So wouldn’t it just be better to be honest?
Artur: Sometimes we do do that. But if we do then they go off and
don’t come back. They speak about us far away and on the radio. Then we have no chance of getting anything from them. [Grins]
Artur’s instrumentality was echoed all across my case study villages, including amongst some of the putatively anti-trafficking NGOs whose job it was to implement anti-trafficking projects on the part of international donors. My research assistant was once a subcontracted anti-trafficker working for one of these NGOs. Although his employers had always officially endorsed the anti-movement anti-trafficking message seen in Chapter 2, in practice, he and his boss laughed at how stupid it was and so coached villagers to simply ‘play the game.’ On one occasion, he told me, they had gone to a project village the day before a donor visit explicitly to brief people on what to say to the visiting dignitaries!7 Surprised though I may have been, I later went on to witness (and ultimately engage in) precisely such behaviour myself, in relation to a project that I had worked on years before. I reproduce the fieldnotes from the encounter here, since their richness and depth can tell us a lot about the kinds of bad faith, irony and all-round performativity that we are reflecting on in this section.
Extract 4.2: Fieldnotes from a Donor’s ‘Field Visit’ Eventually we arrived at the village, shortly before the US Embassy’s “project assessment” was scheduled to start. N immediately said it was important for the villagers to “ham up” their participation, to “sell their project”. S said that although the project work we watched did actually happen at other times, the extra number of people on show today, including the local women’s group, were here specifically in order to “market” their participation. The Family Ministry’s local representative also chimed in, organising the women workers to sing a welcome song to the Embassy staff when they turned up.
After briefly meeting and greeting each other at their Range Rover, we gathered in the school room, were welcomed by the kids, and sat down to the business of discussing the project. N brought out his standard spiel about how this was a key initiative to help keep kids at home, and to fight against trafficking and migration. He really exaggerated, and it was difficult to listen to given how critical I know him to be of this rubbish. But he did at least say that given that trafficking is a “market-based phenomenon,” offering kids skills or a trade so that they can “defend themselves” when they do inevitably leave is important.
All the while, the Embassy rep looked so tired and so uninterested. Her body-language was totally disengaged and it was clear that she’d been doing this all day. The visit itself was in many ways merely representative, and what impression she could have gained about the community, its needs or even the project presented from the time she spent there I just don’t know. She too was just ticking boxes.
As I watched I was fascinated to see how numbers- and target-focussed her people were. Her Beninese assistant asked how many kids are at the primary school, noted it down, and then noted down how many girls this included. When we mentioned the participation of the women’s group, he noted that too. After a bit, we got on to what the community was expected to do. It was painfully patronising when he said, “We expect the community to raise 25% of the costs of the project”, before asking, “What will the community be doing to ensure that the project survives after it has been started?”
Once the meeting had finished, everyone got up to leave and the Embassy woman and I made a beeline for each other. It was clear that she was interested in what a white man was doing here, and also that she was interested in my opinion - far more than anyone else’s. She told me how she’d been all over the region today seeing projects and only this one had been mildly impressive. Our interaction smacked so loudly of the colonial overtones of this kind of work. She said a number of disturbingly racist things and in a real hush-hush, white-person-to-white-person, kind of way. She (and we) seemed to encapsulate everything that is wrong with this system...