Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

How ‘evidence-based’ anti-trafficking campaigns make facts and mismeasure freedom

Sensational, sexualised imagery is often held up as the greatest sin of anti-trafficking awareness campaigns, but bad data masquerading as authoritative fact is far more insidious.

Lyndsey P. Beutin
20 March 2017
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Policy debate

Do the hidden costs outweigh the practical benefits?

We asked 10 people who work with human trafficking awareness the following: 'Campaigns to raise public awareness of human trafficking may have flaws, but their overall impact is positive. YES OR NO?'


Elena Shih & Joel Quirk

Elena Shih is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University.

Joel Quirk is Professor in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa).

Introduction: do the hidden costs outweigh the practical benefits of human trafficking awareness campaigns?


Anne Elizabeth Moore (NO)
Author of Threadbare: Clothes, Sex & Trafficking

Katherine Chon (YES)
Director, Office on Trafficking in Persons, US Dept. of Health and Human Services

Joanna Ewart-James (YES)
Advocacy Director at Walk Free

David Feingold (NO)
Director of the Ophidian Research Institute

Matthew Friedman (YES)
CEO for The Mekong Club

Zoe Trodd (NO)
University of Nottingham

Cris Sardina (NO)
Director of Desiree Alliance

Marilyn Murray (YES)
Creative Director at Love146

Sameera Hafiz (NO)
Advocacy Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance

Ima Matul (YES)
Survivor of Human Trafficking


Borislav Gerasimov (NO)
Advocacy Officer at Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women

Jamison Liang (YES)
Digital Programme Officer at IOM X

Kelli Lynn Johnson (NO)
Associate Professor, Miami University Hamilton

Dina Haynes (NO)
Professor, New England Law|Boston

Tryon P. Woods & P. Khalil Saucier (NO)
Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts; Associate Professor, Rhode Island College

Lyndsey P. Beutin (NO)
Doctoral candidate, University of Pennsylvania

The University of Nottingham recently offered a free and open online course – known as a ‘MOOC’ – entitled Ending Slavery. According to the course conveners, the solutions offered in this course focus on bottom-up, ‘evidence-based’ approaches to resisting exploitation, which holds out the prospect of a welcome departure from more sensational and paternalistic anti-trafficking programmes using rescue-based remedies. This comparative moderation, along with cutting-edge methods of presenting data-driven outcomes and the MOOC’s academic home, are designed to offer an attractive alternative when it comes to ‘raising awareness’ of both problems and potential solutions. However, as I shall attempt to explain below, it is precisely this presentation – the packaging if you will – that helps to conceal the severe methodological flaws and ahistorical, acontextual nature of what the Nottingham MOOC is ultimately ‘selling’.

Ending slavery

Ending Slavery sets the stage for its proposed solution to severe exploitation using historical slave uprisings in the Caribbean as a foil and comparative for discussion. The instructors present these prolonged and highly organised slave rebellions as powerful and inspirational but ultimately failed revolutions, which sets up the call for more seemingly reliable paths to liberation, such as training and education. In the comments left following the slave revolt module many students admitted to not having heard of the massive resistance of the enslaved in the nineteenth century, but also expressed discomfort with the key role of violence in bringing about social and legal transformation.


Francisco Osorio/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

As students wondered aloud about the utility of this history lesson for today’s exploited people, the course responded by offering participants a more comfortable solution: Free the Slaves’s (FTS) model for freedom as an empirically-tested tool for liberation. This community-based model, in short, emphasizes capacity building (for local NGOs and governments) and behaviour change through increasing education and access to resources (for at-risk populations). FTS’s program is presented as the answer to the MOOC’s assertion that: “the anti-slavery movement very much needs evidence-based models that yield significant, sustained declines in the prevalence of slavery”.

Histories of resistance are rendered as symbolically inspirational but limited and no longer necessary – a lesson for how ‘modern day abolitionists’ can do liberation better.

Collecting data is presented as more effective than massive uprising. The MOOC, in effect, enlists the history of black resistance to racial chattel slavery into the anti-trafficking cause by using it as a cautionary tale. Histories of resistance are rendered as symbolically inspirational but limited and no longer necessary – a lesson for how ‘modern day abolitionists’ can do liberation better.

The MOOC ‘raises awareness’ about how to effectively end slavery by turning an advocacy organization’s tools and awareness raising materials into course texts. Those materials, though, are riddled with their own empirical and representational biases.

Counting progress

This raises the question: If FTS offers an evidence-based model for tackling ‘modern-day slavery,’ what exactly is being measured? To address these concerns, FTS has posted its outcomes, indicators, and monitoring and evaluation variables on its website. While this is a welcome step in transparency, a close look at the document reveals that in many cases, measuring freedom comes down to counting the number of rights trainings, awareness sessions, capacity building workshops, “rescue” efforts, and arrests and prosecutions that FTS and its local partners participate in.

In a telling example, one way the number of ‘freed slaves’ is calculated (indicator 2.11) is by counting how many people “directly received information about their rights”. While this indicator will no doubt be positive, it may or may not relate to actually improving conditions on the ground (and notice the distance between ‘improving’ and ‘freeing’).

The presentation of the data in FTS’s literature and in the MOOC, however, serves to obscure the shaky assumptions and definitions that underpin it (and that are briefly laid out above). The numbers are abstracted into generalized categories such as ‘fostering resilience’ which are in turn represented in numbered tables, official-looking flowcharts, and an authoritative tech-start-up-style animation, which gives the model an aura of ‘objectivity’ and of being ‘scientific’ through its aesthetics. This is a type of performance, what I call the performance of facticity, but it does nothing to address the underlying quality of the data.

FTS is hardly the only group guilty of this, nor is the practice only found in the anti-slavery sector. This is generally true of outcomes and indicators, which are how NGOs are able to (and are often required to) prove their usefulness and expertise. Be that as it may, we must still ask if the indicators actually lead to the outcomes suggested. If so, do these outcomes actually address the root causes and structural issues underlying the problem being targeted?

This is a type of performance, what I call the performance of facticity, but it does nothing to address the underlying quality of the data.

Activism for the YouTube generation

The reassuring presentation of data is enhanced by the MOOC’s other main tool of education: friendly, short, highly-stylised videos of South Asian and African communities conducting and participating in FTS trainings on the ground. These videos were produced by the NGO to demonstrate and promote the effectiveness of its programs. They are advocacy tools incorporated into the MOOC’s teaching materials as scholarly texts that provide the ‘visual proof’ that FTS’s Model for Freedom works.

However, the videos suffer from stereotypical representations: poor black and ‘exotic’ brown Others from the global south trapped ‘in slavery’ and in need of outside help. The community members are portrayed not as the prisoners of global capitalism or histories of dispossession, but of irrationally exploitative and sadistic employers (also local, also brown or black) as well as their own ignorance and poverty. After participating in a FTS-based training, those same communities are then shown smiling and expressing their newfound contentment and hope for the future. These videos thus draw on the same ‘saviour’ tropes used by the rescue industry: at one level we have the local black or brown authentic hero of her own people, and at another the omniscient Western, usually white, concerned citizen whose dollars and sentiments make it all possible.

The community members are portrayed not as the prisoners of global capitalism or histories of dispossession, but of irrationally exploitative and sadistic employers (also local, also brown or black) as well as their own ignorance and poverty.

But by distancing themselves from the more egregious forms of sensationalism within anti-trafficking, by wrapping themselves in seemingly factual data-driven outcomes, and by situating the class within a respected university, the MOOC is able to assume a position of authority when arguing for solutions and correctives that continue to suffer from a lack of attention to the historic and contemporary structural forces that produce exploitation and vulnerability.

This points to a very disturbing trend: by adopting the language of social science and the performance of authoritative expertise, NGOs like FTS are finding ways to insert their promotional materials into institutions that produce knowledge through social science methods. This is abetted by universities’ current scramble for demonstrable relevance, public engagement, and impact, all of which help them sell themselves to funding bodies and students. A sexy, if misguided, topic like ‘modern day slavery’ – authenticated in trade books published by academic presses – is ideally placed to fill this need. That the solutions dominant anti-trafficking campaigns offer do not challenge, and in fact bolster, neoliberal approaches makes the marriage run even more smoothly.

The danger, then, of awareness raising campaigns’ often problematic representations and assertions lies less in their sensationalism than in their circulation and legitimation within institutions of authority. In an era of ‘fake news’, we need to be even more vigilant about how facts are made.

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