Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The blindness of using venture capital to fight human trafficking

Venture capital relies on market-based solutions to maximise short-term gains. That is no way to address worker exploitation.

Laine Romero-Alston Kavita Ramdas Sebastian Köhn
1 February 2021, 11.00am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Over the past 20 years, philanthrocapitalism has shown a predilection for quick, sensational, and often tech-driven approaches to addressing many of society’s biggest social issues, including human trafficking. This has benefitted a vocal faction of the anti-trafficking movement, one that primarily focuses on carceral (law and order) responses and victim ‘rehabilitation’. This funding tactic often comes at the expense of other parts of the movement that are oriented more towards prevention, justice, and rights.

Why has philanthrocapitalism shown interest in shaping the anti-trafficking movement in this particular direction? First, and perhaps most importantly, philanthrocapitalism’s modus operandi comes from venture capital finance. Some would argue that any large-scale private philanthropy constitutes philanthrocapitalism, but the term more accurately describes a subset of private and corporate philanthropy that is based on a venture capital theory of change – one that supports the use of business models in the non-profit sector and focuses on ‘social return’ on investments.

Crucially, venture funding is not long-term funding. The whole idea is to make a short-term investment in an entrepreneur’s concept or initiative. In the business world, this sometimes helps a start-up grow to the point where it can obtain liquidity from other sources. Applied to anti-trafficking initiatives, or indeed to the non-profit sector more generally, venture money tends to favour quick and quantifiable measures over structural change. At Open Society, our philanthropic origins are in private capital but we have avoided venture finance ‘solutions’ to worker exploitation. Instead, we have focused on supporting movements of workers to organise for justice, health, and safety in the workplace.

Philanthrocapitalism is deeply embedded in the system of colonial and predatory capitalism that permits – and sometimes even encourages – the exploitation of workers.

Second, philanthrocapitalism is deeply embedded in the system of colonial and predatory capitalism that permits – and sometimes even encourages – the exploitation of workers. Under this system, it is perfectly logical for a company like Walmart to give millions of dollars to anti-trafficking organisations that seek to address exploitation, while failing, over and over, to address worker exploitation both in its supply chains and at its stores.

It is easy to turn cynical when corporations that clearly lack their own ethical standards ‘join the fight’. For example, the investment bank UBS spends millions of dollars on anti-trafficking programmes while settling their own money laundering and tax evasion probes left and right. In the past 20 years, UBS has also paid out more than $100 million in penalties for employment-related offenses.

This is not to say that philanthrocapitalism is actively complicit in human trafficking, but that it adheres to an understanding of exploitation that is neoliberal and binary. There is a convenient focus on the most extreme and salacious forms of exploitation while those that appear less egregious, such as wage theft, harassment, or retaliation for speaking out about rights violations, are ignored. In reality, exploitation is not binary but exists along a spectrum, and most workers in the world experience it in some way.

Third, over the past 20 years philanthrocapitalism has had very strong ties to Silicon Valley and frontier tech more generally, and these links have influenced the ways in which it supports the anti-trafficking movement. In particular, they have resulted in an excessive focus on technology as the ultimate solution to human trafficking. Money is pouring into facial recognition and artificial intelligence efforts that will supposedly revolutionise the detection of both traffickers and victims. For example, Spotlight, an initiative of Thorn that uses Amazon’s Rekognition software, and DIG, which is primarily supported by the US military, catalogue huge numbers of sex work ads to fight human trafficking. The result? In 2017, DIG led to just three human trafficking prosecutions, though allegedly far more detention and deportations of sex workers. Similarly, Hotels-50K and TraffickCam are designed to help law enforcement recognise hotel rooms where trafficking might take place, but concerns remain that the tools are more likely to be used against sex workers.

The problem with chasing short-term gains

Of course, the impact of philanthrocapitalism on the human trafficking movement extends far beyond tech utopianism and a few unscrupulous corporations. Most importantly, the orientation towards venture capital-style investments determines what solutions are considered effective, and by what measures. Too often, police operations will be favoured over efforts to build worker agency and power. This is because the former produces quick, visible, and quantifiable outputs, and does not require long-term investments in worker movements that could actually upset power imbalances and lead to structural change.

The philanthrocapitalist preference for quick and visible results has pushed narratives about extreme exploitation at grand scale to the forefront.

For example, a ‘raid-and-rescue’ operation at a brothel can easily be portrayed as a short-term success – owners handcuffed and sex workers paraded in front of cameras – without any regard for what the workers want or the help they need to sustainably achieve that. In some cases, workers – domestic workers and sex workers, in particular – are ‘rescued’ from their place of work just to be locked up ‘for their own good’ and further exploited by their ‘rescuer’. Although many ‘rehabilitation services’ provide crucial support to victims of trafficking, few are sufficiently funded to analyse and address the structural inequities – casteism, gender injustice, poverty, racism – that created vulnerability to exploitation in the first place. As a result, many trafficking victims remain at risk of being trafficked again, since ‘rehabilitation’ rarely changes their material position and other injustices.

The philanthrocapitalist preference for quick and visible results has also helped push narratives about extreme and sensational exploitation at grand scale to the forefront. These largely fail to acknowledge more mundane but far more entrenched and widespread forms of exploitation. This explains in part the focus on sexual exploitation over other kinds of labour exploitation, and lets both philanthropy and companies off the hook for not addressing the structural issues of low wages, unorganised workers, and unenforced labour regulations that sit at the core of their business model.

As a result, we see the kind of frenzy that has led otherwise serious media to proclaim absurd numbers of trafficking victims with scant evidence. These narratives also influence governments and other public institutions. For instance, in November 2020, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) issued a General Recommendation on human trafficking that was littered with unsubstantiated assertions and recommendations. These included the suggestion that states ought to “cooperate with technology companies in creating automated tools to detect online recruitment and identify traffickers”. In practice, ‘automated tools’ involve extensive surveillance, sting operations, and other harms to marginalised workers. These kinds of recommendations exacerbate rather than address the underlying and structural forms of economic and gender discrimination that women and gender-nonconforming people face on a daily basis.

Twenty years ago, the dot-com bubble had just burst and the Palermo Protocol on human trafficking had just entered into force. It should have made us think twice about venture capitalist approaches in human trafficking philanthropy. Alas, here we are in an anti-trafficking venture bubble, where lives and resources are wasted on ineffectual and often harmful vanity ‘solutions’. Victims of trafficking are individuals who deserve dignity, power, and voice – not the patronising response of rescue.

This debate has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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