Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Why (and how!) we need to talk to ‘the victims’

We’ll never overturn the trafficking narratives backed by big (and bad) data unless we take the time to speak with the workers and ‘victims’ themselves.

Neil Howard
4 December 2015

Boys in the artisanal gravel quarries of Abeokuta. Photo by author. All Rights Reserved.

It is now commonly accepted that we possess generally poor quality data on the triumvirate of exploitation that is ‘human trafficking’, ‘forced labour’ and ‘modern(?) slavery’. The United Nations admits it, the US State Department admits it, and large swaths of the field’s scholars have publically decried the state of research in this area.

In this article, I will use my qualitative research with young migrant labourers identified as ‘victims of trafficking’ in West Africa to reflect on why this is the case. I will then detail some of the possible negative consequences of poor quality data, and then explain one potential, very simple means for reducing the data deficit.

Not just the institutions

It has been widely documented that ‘estimates’ found in reports like the Global Slavery Index are ridden with methodological flaws, so much so that they could never successfully run the gauntlet of peer review. This critique has also been levelled at measurements made by the ILO, UNICEF and the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking. Individualised sensationalism too has come under fire, as un-representative stories of suffering tend to inflate the ‘problem’, distort the picture, and detract from what critics believe should be the real causes of concern.

It is important to underline that the scourge of poor quality or sensationalist data affects more than the governments, international organisations, and NGOs that academics routinely criticise. It also affects academics themselves, even the very good ones motivated by a desire to reframe common wisdom and unveil the powerful economic interests underpinning most severe exploitation. This happens because ‘big picture’ scholars examining the world with a wide-angle lens—the economists, political economists and political scientists amongst us—too often rely on un-verified, inaccurate and sensationalist reports of exploitation in their valiant attempts to hold the holders of social and economic power to account. Nobody can study the whole world first-hand, so to take the big picture necessarily means drawing on information from many different data sets, which were collected for various reasons and to different standards of quality.

Collateral damage

This inaccuracy is important for at least two reasons. The first is what political or development anthropologists have long referred to as ‘collateral damage’. Acting on the basis of poor quality data and un-checked assumptions, policy-makers and even well-intentioned humanitarians have a historic tendency to pioneer interventions that make life worse for the very people they are trying to assist. I have seen this myself in Benin and Nigeria, where the explosion of the child trafficking discourse in the early 2000s led to a perfect storm of donors, UN agencies, NGOs and (non-anthropological) scholars effectively tarring all underage mobility as the equivalent of child trafficking. The policy consequences of this gross generalisation included a draconian anti-trafficking framework that effectively illegalised unaccompanied child migration and rendered any adult ‘accomplice’ a de facto trafficker. Many innocent people were arrested at the borders, many willing young migrants were either obstructed in their migratory projects or forcibly repatriated, and hundreds of thousands of dollars were essentially absorbed into Quixotic civil society efforts designed to convince the Beninese that they should stay ‘at home’.

The second reason is that bad data that misrepresent the complexity of ‘real life’ serve to naturalise problematic, reductive, and ultimately de-politicising discourses about how people ‘should’ live and about what legal measures are necessary for them to do so. This has been most clearly documented when it comes to young people and the movement against child labour. Anthropologists from around the world have revealed the ethnocentric bias at the heart of the UN child rights framework, relying as it does on a liberal, capitalist and irredeemably Western understanding of social, cultural, and biological maturation. This framework characterises under-18s as inherently vulnerable and lacking the agency (and thus the rights) that comes with adulthood, leading inescapably to the conclusion that they require ‘protection’ from the dangers of the labour market. When this vision of childhood is operationalised, this protection almost always takes the form of complete exclusion from legal work, turning poor children into ‘collateral damage’. This approach furthermore systemically disempowers all children and communities whose livelihood practices do not conform to the dominant norm in western countries, leaving them all open to the possibility of intervention down the road. By reproducing mis-representative discourses of ‘child labour’, many otherwise radical big picture scholars contribute to these problems.

‘Talk to us’—the importance of qualitative research

So what would help? Quite simply, talk directly to the very individuals who are aggregated into the statistics that shape laws, policies, and projects! This is not a revolutionary suggestion. Indeed, anthropologists have been making it ad nauseum for the past 80 years. If we wish to avoid the pitfalls of tarring all child workers as victims of trafficking, or of further impoverishing poor families by taking away the jobs that are the best of the bad options their children have, we need to spend time with them and talk to them at length. Ultimately, the plea I am making is a simple one—to complement quantitative methodologies with qualitative research, to triangulate our big numbers with ethnographic investigations, and to invest the time necessary to gain trust and access to people themselves. In short, we need to mate stories with numbers and turn big data back into individual people.

This is not easy. Most researchers face both time and money limitations, qualitative data is difficult to generalise, and it takes skill and more than a little courage to gain access to certain sites of the informal economy. But these can be overcome, even in the context of small-money projects like a PhD.

What can researchers do? To take my own limited case as an example, I began my research into anti-trafficking discourse and policy in West Africa by identifying a paradigmatic case study of a putative trafficking flow from Benin to Nigeria—that of boys from the Za’Kpota region to the artisanal gravel quarries of Abeokuta. Reams of reports have been written about this movement, and World Bank economists have even run large-scale surveys of Za’Kpota mothers to ascertain relevant causal trends.

Incredibly, however, nobody had ever spoken directly to the migrant boys or visited their places of work. I decided to find them with the help of a local research assistant, travelling to and spending substantial time in four villages identified by the World Bank as highly affected by ‘child trafficking’. There I used snowball sampling techniques to interview mothers and fathers, local political figures, and most importantly boys returning from Abeokuta and boys considering going there. Subsequently, I complemented this work with additional research in the quarries of Abeokuta. Once again, I used snowball sampling techniques to successfully conduct semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with dozens of important local figures and working adolescents. Crucially, as with the sending villages, I spent large chunks of time in each place, observing as well as asking questions.

Needless to say, what I found flatly contradicted the dominant discourse that these youngsters had been forced or tricked into work and mobility. Instead, my data pointed to the complex structuring of socio-economic relationships—many of which were both exploitative and supportive—and suggested policy or project interventions very different from those of the reigning orthodoxy. More than one young person saluted me for being the first person to directly to seek their account of their experience, and many suggested I tell my fellow white intruders to ‘come and talk to us’. I’m now making good on my promise to do so.


Qualitative and ethnographic research is not, and cannot be, a panacea for all that is wrong with research in the shadow economy. Qualitative research can be difficult to scale up and often fails to convince the powerful, for whom numbers are the stock tools of trade. Yet qualitative research is essential to understanding the nuances of both the lived experience of exploitation and the conditions that lead to it. It is essential to the project of overturning the assumptions of both policy elites and well-meaning scholars, who at times unwittingly exacerbate the problem. Most importantly of all, qualitative research is necessary for developing situated and effective interventions that are more likely to avoid collateral damage. Anyone interested in understanding or addressing severe exploitation and unfree labour should begin by doing everything possible to speak with workers themselves.

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