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Pitfalls and advantages in assessing anti-trafficking awareness campaigns

Anti-trafficking campaigns speak to a whole range of issues, interests, and audiences, but how effective are they? The lack of evaluation makes it difficult to find out.

Mayor McGinn/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

Human trafficking is the issue of a large number of awareness campaigns. Indeed, campaigns to increase ‘awareness’ are probably the most frequently performed activity in anti-trafficking interventions. A recent study on trafficking prevention initiatives found that out of 43 reviewed projects, 38 included “information and awareness raising” as a goal. In contrast, capacity building was an issue for 22 projects; activities in research and education programmes for 17 projects; and victim assistance and support for just six projects.

A full spectrum of campaigns

Campaigns targeting global audiences are usually undertaken by alliances of international actors, while actors at the local level usually build awareness raising into their projects as one aspect of their overall efforts. Campaigners tackle different topics. Some aim for general awareness (UN-GIFT, Blue Heart, Stop the Traffik, Blue Blindfold), while others focus on specific issues, such as labour exploitation (Used in Europe); sexual exploitation (Responsible Client, Report Anonymously, Stop Sex Trafficking, Thorn); or the forced begging of children (VICTOR, Open Your Eyes). Additionally, campaigns lobbying for the prohibition and suppression of prostitution (For Fair Sex – Against Trafficking, Turn off the Redlight) often cast themselves as anti-trafficking initiatives. In contrast, campaigns directly addressing the probable ‘victims’ of trafficking in order to inform them of their rights and opportunities for assistance are rare.

The organisers of such campaigns often pursue overlapping, at times contradictory aims. Campaigns seeking to change individual behaviour, for example, may call on consumers to report suspicious observations to a telephone hotline or e-mail account, while others demand more responsible consumption or even abstinence from a particular good or service.

Messages addressing vulnerable persons differ too: while one strand may warn against seemingly lucrative offers to go abroad and instead posit that it would be better to stay at home, another strand may inform these same people of their rights in case they encounter trouble. One campaign targeting domestic workers went as far as camouflaging helpline offers within posters ostensibly advertising soap.

The vulnerable, however, are not the primary targets of anti-trafficking campaigners. For most activists, campaigns are tools to promote policy change. In order to raise attention for their cause, anti-trafficking campaigns often include emotive language and images of ‘modern slavery’ in ways that make it difficult to dissent without feeling uncomfortable. These then sell whichever preferred policy prescription as the best way to ensure that we won’t be seeing these images in the future. Such prescriptions include: stricter regulation of supply chains; increased prosecution rates and tougher punishments for offences deemed to be trafficking; or increased state assistance and protection for vulnerable workers.

Many people have raised concerns over the goals or tactics of such campaigns. Some critics have argued that anti-trafficking campaigns spread a simplifying message that disregards the negative impact of existing regulation regarding migration, trade and labour relations. Others, meanwhile, suggest that many campaigns employ a narrative that presents victims of trafficking as passive objects and helpless prey for unscrupulous traffickers, thereby opening up space for crime control agencies and anti-trafficking activists to act as rescuers.

Potent, but not always effective

As a general rule, it is extremely difficult to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of such campaigns. This is as true for campaigns seeking to modify behaviour as it is for campaigns announcing a new hotline. Taking the latter as an example, calls are often insufficiently documented, and it is often difficult to ascertain why a call was initiated or which follow-up steps were undertaken after the call ended. Nor can evaluations be based merely on the volume of calls received, as such numbers cannot be compared to any sort of baseline figure of potential callers. In other words, unless we know how many people aren’t calling the hotline, we cannot tell if it is a success.

Without evaluation one cannot differentiate between a bad campaign and a poorly implemented one, as Vicky Freimuth argued, and as Helga Konrad pointed out, despite all the money that has been spent surprisingly little is known about the impact of anti-trafficking responses, efforts, measures, and activities. The existing shortcomings in evaluation processes have made it difficult to learn from the experiences of finished or ongoing anti-trafficking interventions. This hampers the development of insights into which instruments are the most effective for preventing the many misbehaviours criminalised today as ‘trafficking in human beings’. The comprehensive evaluation of anti-trafficking campaigns is an essential means of correcting mis-development and of preventing good money going to bad projects.

The study cited in the introduction to this piece observed that anti-trafficking projects do not always have clear objectives for their awareness–raising activities and explicitly spoke of a “lack of evaluation”. The main problem for most information and awareness initiatives is that measurements are either not conducted at all, or result in ambiguous answers that leave open space for interpretation. In light of these results, it is surprising that this study suggested launching an EU-wide awareness raising campaign against trafficking. Taking the results of the study more seriously, another suggestions seems much more logical: find out more about the effects of campaigns by systematically evaluating some of the smaller campaigns that are undoubtedly in the pipeline for 2017.

Evaluation is the responsibility of sponsors. Sponsors interested in reducing forced labour and trafficking in human beings should ask for the best possible evidence of the effects of the interventions which they sponsor – including unintended or side-effects.

For more information on the evaluation of anti-trafficking initiatives, see Hames 2011, van der Laan 2011, Deloitte 2015, Berman and Marshall 2013 and 2011, UNODC 2013.

About the author

Norbert Cyrus is a researcher at University Bremen. As member of the European research consortium DemandAT he explored the occurrence and use of demand arguments in past and present debates on human trafficking and examines the potential of evaluation to make anti-trafficking campaigns more effective.


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