TORONTO (Thomson Reuters Foundation)–When anti-trafficking group Next Generation Nepal received a tip that children were being abused in an orphanage on the outskirts of Kathmandu, its staff went undercover to investigate. They discovered 18 children living in a small room. The toilet was covered in excrement. The food in the kitchen was crawling with insects. One boy was so ill that he could barely walk.
These children were not destitute orphans, but victims of child traffickers who had tricked their parents with promises to educate their kids and keep them safe.
Instead, the predators profit by forcing the children to pose as orphans so that unsuspecting tourists and foreign donors give money and time to what appears to be a good cause, said Martin Punaks, director of Next Generation Nepal (NGN).
Such “orphanages” are among the unfortunate consequences of the inefficiency and corruption that permeate Nepal’s bloated aid sector. Far from helping Nepalis, some of the aid agencies operating in the country do more harm than good, say researchers and local activists.
The hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid that flow into the country each year provide a pillar of the economy. But they also enable corrupt outfits, including fake orphanages, to flourish.
“The private sector hardly exists,” said Punaks. “The only place to make money is through civil society. This is where the income is in the country. People set up NGOs as a business.”
Even well-meaning organizations end up running programs that don’t function as planned or fail to live up to their promise of helping the almost seven million Nepalis--about a quarter of the total population of 27.5 million--who live in poverty.
“Right now, everybody is just doing their own thing, following the money, and it’s very sensationalised and it really causes more chaos than help in a lot of ways,” said Michelle Kaufman, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied anti-trafficking programs in Nepal.
Nepal has witnessed a proliferation of anti-trafficking groups since the late 1990s, when human trafficking captured international attention and became a priority on the foreign aid agenda. Most of the groups focus on sex trafficking.
Though reliable statistics are scant, NGOs say thousands of Nepali women and girls are lured each year into the sex industry at home and abroad. Exploitation of Nepali migrant workers is also widespread. Unscrupulous middlemen trick women, men and children into working in exploitative conditions in domestic work, factories, brick kilns and construction.
Even NGOs that do release program reports that account for their activities may outline their projects and the number of participants, but provide little data documenting that the activities actually helped stem trafficking, said Kaufman.
Adding to the chaotic atmosphere, NGOs also compete against each other for funding and prestige.
“There are a couple of hundred [NGOs] in Nepal that say that they’re working on trafficking, but only a small handful actually run shelters and care for trafficked women,” said Mary Crawford, a professor at the University of Connecticut who researches anti-trafficking groups in Nepal.
“It’s a cut-throat world out there, trying to get donors to support your foundation and your anti-trafficking initiatives.”
There’s little government data on human trafficking, so NGOs often inflate the number of people they’ve helped and the size of the problem in the hope of getting more donations, said Kanchan Jha, CEO and founder of Sano Paila, a Nepali anti-trafficking NGO.
“Most of the time, in Nepal, the numbers are manipulated because they want to show [success] in the reports,” he said.
In the midst of the rivalry, non-profits often miss opportunities to help victims. An example is the group of NGOs that work at checkpoints along the India-Nepal border, stopping and questioning suspicious travelers, such as men accompanying young girls. Working with the police, they rescue trafficked children, take them to shelters and try to reunite them with their families. While they may save lives, the NGOs fail to work together at the border, which would be more effective in helping more people, according to critics.
Among Nepal’s most famous anti-trafficking organizations, Maiti Nepal, runs one such program that employs sex trafficking survivors, who themselves were taken across the border. Anuradha Koirala, Maiti Nepal’s founder, said the program successfully deters trafficking.
"When they get to work at the border, they really feel very dignified and very honored because they are saving the lives of other people and working for the country,” said Koirala of her workers.
Maiti Nepal has pulled around 25,000 children out of potential trafficking situations since 1997, she said.
Yet most NGOs “aren’t cooperating to pressure the government to go after the most powerful traffickers,” said Jha, whose organization also works at the border. “Once in a while arrests happen. And then prosecutions are done and some people are sent to jail. But it’s all part of a publicity stunt.”
Jha said he’s been trying to build an alliance with the government and other NGOs at the border for years to go after these traffickers. But “they are turning deaf ears.”
“No one wants to really coordinate with each other because if they do, they have to share the funding,” he said.
Some NGOs are territorial, creating their own “constituencies,” said Meena Poudel, a Nepali researcher at Post Trafficking Nepal.
As a result, some NGOs refuse to help or provide services to trafficking survivors rescued by a competing NGO, she said.
Many NGOs aim to prevent trafficking by educating the public, but there is no data proving such information campaigns are effective, said Elzbieta Godziak, a professor at Georgetown University who is studying anti-trafficking education programs in Nepal.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the fear-based campaigns used by some NGOs can have negative effects. Their shock tactics include street performances featuring young girls being dragged off to brothels by traffickers and then dying of HIV/AIDS
In one remote Nepali village, parents pulled their daughters out of school after an NGO performed such a skit for fear that traffickers would kidnap the girls if they left the house, said Crawford.
“There are all kinds of complicated situations that you don’t hear about from the NGOs,” she said. “They don’t have a lot of incentive to do really good evaluations. They don’t have the training.”
In other cases, survivors have been disowned by their families after NGOs labeled them “mentally disturbed” and insisted on keeping them in a shelter for psychiatric treatment, said Poudel.
Many NGOs have good intentions, but they don’t consider the social impact of the ways they portray survivors, she explained.
Recent partnerships between Nepali NGOs and universities have brought some hope.
In addition to Godziak’s evaluation, the Human Trafficking Vulnerability Project, sponsored by Stanford and Vanderbilt universities, will begin this spring to evaluate the effectiveness of anti-trafficking campaigns through randomized control trials. The trials will test awareness campaigns with different educational messages, drawing on the projects of 60 Nepali anti-trafficking groups.
“[Nepali NGOs] have invested a tremendous amount of time and resources in trying to educate the public on this thing called human trafficking,” said Cecilia Mo, one of the project’s leaders. “What they don’t have is information on what that’s accomplished.”
She said she hopes the Human Trafficking Vulnerability Project’s findings, which will be released next year in a report, will be useful for anti-trafficking organizations outside of Nepal, too.
“It’s our job as researchers to empower them with that information so that they can work more effectively. It’s about trying to capture what is positive and what’s negative so that we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
-- Rachel Browne and Alia Dharssi are Fellows in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto