Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The wastefulness of human trafficking awareness campaigns

There is no evidence that public awareness campaigns help victims of human trafficking. Instead of continuing to waste funds on public service announcements we need to prioritise direct assistance.

Dina Haynes
20 June 2019
Ira Gelb/Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This is a response to the above debate.

In any conversation about ‘raising awareness’ it is necessary to make use of quotation marks, since we don’t have evidence that these campaigns raise awareness to any degree necessary to reduce human trafficking. In addition to questions about effectiveness, we have even more troubling questions about the degree to which campaigns are actually counterproductive.

As I have written elsewhere, it is now well established in marketing sciences that after seeing a ‘short spot’ on human trafficking – such as a public service advertisement or poster – a majority of people can feel subconsciously satisfied with what they have contributed to the cause, with no further action undertaken on their part. Awareness campaigns can therefore make people feel good without asking much if anything in terms of a real contribution.

Finally, these ‘short spots’ are typically framed in the most superficial ways – for example, the US government produced a campaign that showed a young girl, with garish lipstick, swinging on a perch in a birdcage, being menaced by a man with a mouth full of gold teeth; another shows a photo of a naked woman with a barcode on her back – and therefore too often sidestep both complexities and systemic issues. Expert knowledge is rarely applied, so the picture of human trafficking presented remains at the shallowest possible level of understanding.

Reaching the victims? Reaching the public?

‘Awareness raising’ campaigns are typically aimed at two main audiences, namely potential victims of human trafficking and the general public. Campaigns aimed at both types of audiences suffer from serious problems, but for different reasons. To begin with the first of these, while specifically targeting potential victims of trafficking might appear to make sense in a context of limited pools of funding, there is little empirical data demonstrating that public service announcements (PSAs) such as posters in bus stations and airports are effective mechanisms for trafficked persons to access help. The organisations that receive vast sums of money to create these PSAs claim they are successful, but as long as the data does not exist to back up such claims we cannot know if that money is indeed well-spent.

As long as the data does not exist to back up success claims we cannot know if that money is indeed well-spent.

Campaigns aiming to educate the general public are even more problematic. As before, there are numerous organisations spending great deals of money to produce and distribute PSAs without the empirical data to back up this strategy. These ads often rely on images of sexual exploitation, and their ‘further information’ links or phone numbers are often either non-functional or do little more than refer you to law enforcement. A Google search of ‘human trafficking’ will also result in a number of websites clearly created 10-15 years ago – and never updated – leaving you uncertain about the core objective of the organisations involved or their capacity to take effective action.

Both types of campaigns share a common tendency to utilise scare tactics and voyeuristic, often sexualised images. In addition to being ethically questionable, these can actually redirect our attention and resources away from more common forms of exploitation, such as children engaged in child labour, workers picking fruit, catching fish or packaging chicken. Few campaigns concentrate on these types of labour exploitation, preferring ‘sex trafficking’ instead, even though the empirical evidence we have suggests the former is far more common than the latter. In doing so they neglect what should be arguably their largest target group, thereby missing the opportunity to inform migrant labourers of the risks of unscrupulous labour recruiters and entrapment through debt.

It is also essential to keep in mind that we live in an era where refugees and migrants are increasingly scapegoated for social and economic ills. PSAs asking the public to report suspected trafficking should give us pause in a context where migrants and refugees serve as a proxy or foil for collective anxieties. Certainly, private citizen tips have led to the arrest of traffickers and the rescue of their victims. But how many tips have led to the arrest and/or deportation of only the victim? Encouraging vigilantes in an age of racism and xenophobia is fraught with peril.

Toward evidence-based awareness

The caveats to this position are as follows. First, I assume that good journalistic reporting is not equivalent to “awareness raising”. Journalism that uncovers, for example, the horrific human trafficking, exploitation, and murder of people in the shrimp industry is essential. Factual and empirically grounded stories that identify a previously unrecognised supply chain problem are absolutely crucial.

Encouraging vigilantes in an age of racism and xenophobia is fraught with peril.

While this type of journalism does raise awareness, it is a factually grounded type of awareness regarding a specific problem. It is not a more generalised and sensationalised claim designed to invoke fear and panic among readers. Additionally, campaigns directed at consumers that inform them of their role in trafficking when they purchase certain goods or services should not be considered ‘mere’ awareness raising, if they contain specific, verifiable, and useful data.

We also need to keep in mind that the United States is presently in free fall in relation to human rights. The US has never been good at recognising labour exploitation as a problem, or even consistently recognising severe labour exploitation as human trafficking. Given recent events, holding out hope for this viewpoint to be raised in law or policy would now be like waiting for Godot.

In spite of this, all countries could improve their disclosure and reporting methods with respect to labour trafficking, not just on the supply side (which too often conflates refugees and asylum seekers with ‘economic migrants’), but on the demand side as well. I do not wish to see public service announcements, information campaigns, or celebrities talking about the plight of exploited labourers. I would, however, endorse more solid reporting and writing about labour exploitation, about the prosecution of recruiters and employers for labour exploitation, and about valid attempts by countries to enact labour laws that protect the migrant work force from labour trafficking.

If you have money to allocate, use it to fund legal advice – from a lawyer – to a trafficked person. Playing the numbers game, as donors have been known to do, does not help. Reaching a million viewers who do nothing to help end trafficking, and may even undermine the cause by understanding the problem too superficially, is less valuable than helping a handful of people to avoid being trafficked or to access support after it has taken place. Assistance and awareness have too often been confused or conflated, with the later taking up energies that could have gone to more useful projects.

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