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Why don’t we know if anti-trafficking initiatives work?

by Benjamin Harkins
Friday, 11 August 2017 10:28 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A longer version of this article first appeared in the Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 8.

Over fifteen years after the UN Trafficking Protocol was adopted, the evidence available to determine how much progress has been made in combatting human trafficking remains very limited. At all levels of anti-trafficking work, the collection and analysis of data to support a results-based approach continues to be underemphasised, particularly in comparison to the use of emotionally-charged rhetoric and hyperbole.

This curious allergy to providing valid supporting evidence extends to the highest profile reviews produced within the sector. In the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, the US State Department trumpeted that the progress made since the UN Trafficking Protocol was developed ‘has been nothing short of profound’.

In the small print much further into the report, it is stated that the key statistical data which the report collects on global law enforcement are still ‘estimates only,’ raising questions about the empirical basis for making such a claim.

A substantial and ever growing body of research has convincingly demonstrated that the evidence base is lacking in the anti-trafficking sector. Contrary to what is often assumed, limitations in the practice of monitoring and evaluation for anti-trafficking initiatives pose the greatest constraint to a more informed approach rather than the clandestine nature of trafficking in persons.

The standards of evidence have been set very low for anti-trafficking projects and there isn’t much incentive for practitioners to pursue better data. Interventions continue to be designed and funded largely based upon donor policy agendas—and the outsized supply of anti-trafficking organisations that are ready to pursue them—rather than results-based decision-making on what works. There is a real sense that many of the same strategies will be continued indefinitely regardless of the outcomes produced.

The author’s personal experience of conducting an independent evaluation for a project addressing human trafficking in Thailand highlights some of the challenges involved in trying to apply evidence.

After a month of field research interviewing the project stakeholders, all of the indications were that trafficking was not a significant problem in one of its two target areas. When presented with the findings, the organisation implementing the project was dismayed that the evaluation actually questioned the focus on trafficking rather than just providing cosmetic recommendations.

That project is now in its seventh year of implementation in the same target area.

What many anti-trafficking organisations seek from independent evaluations is the appearance of impartial assessment to present a stronger case that their work is going well. Evaluators and the organisations who hire them are participants in what can be described as an economy of bad faith. There’s an unspoken agreement that no serious concerns will be raised about the interventions examined, and in return, the evaluator will be kept on the roster for future assignments.

Internal monitoring of progress for anti-trafficking projects is perhaps an even greater need so that regular adjustments to strategy can be made. However, it is generally restricted to bean counting the direct outputs of activities rather than the longer-term outcomes that are intended to flow from them. This relies on the rather large assumption that the outputs produced will lead to the envisaged outcomes without actually obtaining any proof.

What is particularly disturbing is the efforts made to cover up the knowledge gap by vastly overstating what has actually been achieved by anti-trafficking initiatives. The rhetoric seems to have increased a great deal recently, with organisations even claiming that their beneficiaries have been “liberated from slavery.”

Perhaps the clearest disconnect between evidence and practice in efforts to counter exploitation is the continued emphasis placed on improving the criminal justice response. There seems to be a stubborn unwillingness among many anti-trafficking actors to interpret the very limited results achieved in investigating and prosecuting cases as indicative of the need to develop alternative approaches.

To determine results, performance indicators such as the number of victims identified, prosecutions and convictions are typically measured – all of which may be subject to manipulation to show illusory progress. In Thailand, the NGO Empower has documented that before the US State Department’s TIP Report is released each year, ‘a few hundred migrants, mostly young women, are rounded up, detained and deported as victims of human trafficking to show that Thailand is doing its job to tackle trafficking in the sex industry’.

Although this demonstrates that police definitely know how to raid brothels and massage parlours, it does little to prove that anything meaningful has been achieved in countering human trafficking.

The often superficial and sensationalistic media coverage surrounding human trafficking arrests and court cases is an important factor in maintaining this agenda, as it has contributed to an over-simplified understanding of the issue as one of criminality alone. Rather than engaging with the complex and uncomfortable matters of structural inequality involved, representations of trafficking in the media tend to emphasise a simpler and more palatable narrative of victims and criminals.

Important questions are starting to be asked about whether the evidence being collected on anti-trafficking efforts is in line with the outcomes that beneficiaries themselves are seeking. In particular, many NGOs have begun measuring their results in terms of responsive remedies for exploitation, such as financial compensation, rather than narrowly focusing on criminal prosecution and conviction of traffickers.

Increased commitment by donors and practitioners to raise their standards of evidence is needed to move beyond basic accountability for delivery of anti-trafficking projects and start leveraging learning. This must include a greater willingness to document in rich detail where interventions have failed to achieve their intended goals.

Benjamin Harkins is a migration expert who has spent eight years in Southeast Asia working on labour migration, human trafficking and refugee issues. He is currently a Technical Officer with the International Labour Organization in Bangkok, Thailand.