The Politics of Evidence, Research and Data in Anti-Trafficking Work – new issue of the Anti-Trafficking Review
Despite increasing interest in human trafficking and related exploitation, a great deal of anti-trafficking policy and practice appear to be based on assumptions that are not well-proven or adequately questioned. Calls for more evidence, research and data abound; however, even when they are available, they are sometimes ignored or manipulated to serve particular agendas.
The eighth issue of the Anti-Trafficking Review explores the role of evidence, research and data in anti-trafficking work and how they influence our understanding of the issue and responses to it.
The articles in this issue centre around several broad themes. The first one concerns the evidence that is used—or rejected—in the development of national anti-trafficking policies. The most glaring example of rejection of evidence is explored in the article by Susann Huschke and Eílis Ward. The authors describe the research they conducted into the nature and extent of the sex industry in Northern Ireland. It was supposed to inform debates about the introduction of the ‘Swedish model’ of criminalising the purchase of sex as a measure to combat trafficking in the region. The research found that both sex workers and their clients oppose the ban and think it will make their lives worse. During the legislative consultations, opposition was also voiced by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice and the police, who said they would not prioritise the investigation of consensual adult sex. So why was the measure adopted, despite the evidence that it would have little, if any, effect on trafficking? The authors conclude that it was ‘essentially meant to send a moral message about the unacceptability of commercial sex rather than to achieve progress in the fight against trafficking’. Indeed, policies on human trafficking and sex work are very often based on morality rather than evidence, echoing the findings from the DemandAT research on prostitution policies. In the light of the inconclusive evidence on the relationship between sex work (and prostitution policies) and trafficking on the one hand, and the lack of evidence on the numerical effects of different prostitution policy regimes, on the other, the DemandAT research on prostitution policies suggests to place the emphasis on the implications of different policy regimes: What do they mean for harm reduction efforts? What do they mean for trust towards authorities and readiness to report crimes?
The second broad theme in this issue concerns the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of anti-trafficking interventions and is the subject of two articles. Van Dyke focuses on human trafficking partnerships in England and Wales and Harkins - anti-trafficking interventions in Southeast Asia. Both authors point to the fact that M&E is not conducted by many anti-trafficking organisations and when it is—there is often insufficient desire to be rigorous and insufficient investment. It is typical for organisations to ‘bean count’ outputs (such as number of clicks or distributed materials or number of participants in a training) rather than outcomes or impacts (such as reduced vulnerability or increased knowledge). This makes it impossible to determine the actual success of an intervention and anti-trafficking projects sometimes continue for years without any real evidence of success of even need. In addition, as the DemandAT research on demand-side campaigns points out ‘commissioned external evaluation is no guarantee of quality’. Indeed, Harkins points out the inherent compromises involved in hiring external evaluators: ‘[external evaluation] has created a whole industry for professional evaluators who understand very well that their ability to continue to find work depends upon producing reports that do not reveal any serious concerns.’ Both authors conclude that donors and implementing organisations need to invest more in M&E as the savings on M&E costs are likely to be lost through reduced impact.
Another broad theme in the issue is related to statistics or, more commonly estimates, of human trafficking. There is an almost obsessive desire to know the scale, proportion, major sectors and geographical concentrations of human trafficking. This focus on quantification has come at the expense of qualitative research which can offer a more nuanced understanding of the experiences of migrants and trafficked persons. In her article, Anne Gallagher undertakes the onerous task to unravel the methodology behind the Global Slavery Index and to question some of its findings. Importantly, she also reflects on the growing use of indicators, indices and metrics to understand complex social problems and devise solutions to them. This is seen in the tendency of ‘philanthrocapitalists’ like Bill Gates, Marc Zuckerberg or Andrew Forrest to enter the development field and gradually take the role usually reserved for governments. While corporate philanthropy may add innovation and flexibility, it essentially lacks transparency and accountability. Gallagher concludes that ‘there is something deeply worrying about the commodification of structural social problems, such as human trafficking, by unaccountable private players—and the corresponding marginalisation of governments as responsible agents of change.’
Finally, another theme in this issue relates to the need to actually speak with the people who will be impacted by anti-trafficking policies. This is the case with the Northern Ireland article described above, where sex workers’ concerns about the new legislation were disregarded. But it is also important to take into account the experiences of those who implement anti-trafficking measures. In their article, Jennifer Lynch and Katerina Hadjimatheou describe the research they conducted with border force officers at Heathrow airport who have the task to identify potential victims of trafficking. The officers share their frustrations with the limitations they have in interacting with passengers arriving at the airport and consequently, their duty to identify and refer potential victims. It is important to take these concerns into account when developing anti-trafficking policies or at least to have more realistic expectations about the role of front-line officers in anti-trafficking work.
Ultimately, this issue of the Anti-Trafficking Review demonstrates that research, if designed, implemented and analysed properly, can produce the evidence necessary for better responses to trafficking and exploitation. At the same time, we need to look more critically at the political and social factors that often lend an implicit bias to research and evidence.