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Human Trafficking Center

Funding Priorities in Human Trafficking


Apr 2014



by David Esarey, HTC associate

One of the greatest challenges in the field of anti-human trafficking is the misallocation of limited resources and funding. Because the anti-trafficking movement is relatively new – the initial legislation was only passed in 2000 – there is a lack of methodologically sound research showing which anti-trafficking efforts are ethical and effective and which are not. This lack of research has caused already scarce resources to be used in ways that don’t yield progress or change. Therefore, as we move forward, funding should be allocated to two types of organizations: those conducting research that is methodologically sound and those implementing evidence-based programs.

Human trafficking is a powerful emotional trigger, demanding action and outrage in equal measure. Faith organizations, community groups and concerned individuals have rallied to the cause and given voice to this monstrous, hidden crime. When we contribute time and money to support anti-trafficking efforts, we do so out of a sincere desire to make a difference. Unfortunately, when private donations and government funding flow to anti-human trafficking organizations not backed by research, initial altruistic intentions can lead to detrimental outcomes. 

In the absence of sound analysis, programs that are flashy and seem to offer immediate solutions can have dangerous outcomes. Take the raid and rescue model — although raids are promoted by many anti-trafficking organizations, poorly conducted raids often fail to distinguish between victims and non-victims and can further traumatize trafficking victims.

Another danger is that uninformed organizations can draw attention away from more important issues. The recent media attention surrounding the supposed link between the Super Bowl and sex trafficking demonstrates how well-meaning but unfounded claims can divert our efforts from better verified issues, such as the use of forced labor in preparation for major sporting events.

Research may not seem as exciting as direct intervention or outreach, but it is the foundation for all effective programs (and imperative to any new field of work). Solid and objective research gives a fair and accurate assessment of what works, what doesn’t and what the real problems are. Rather than building interventions on sentiment and hope, organizations relying on facts can be confident they are truly making a difference and that resources are well-spent. We at the Human Trafficking Center see research as the cornerstone of affecting real change.

As you look to support efforts against human trafficking, I implore you to seek out organizations that contribute most to the field by producing research and objectively assessing whether or not their practices are effective. When looking at an organization, you might consider these questions:

  1. Do they cite statistics on their website? If so, from what source? How did they arrive at those statistics?
  2. Do they take steps to evaluate their programs?
  3. Do they present human trafficking realistically or sensationalize it?
  4. Do they acknowledge forced labor (which comprises the majority of human trafficking) or focus on sex trafficking exclusively?*
  5. Are services provided to all victims or only to a narrowly defined victim profile (such as minor girls)?

In the fight against human trafficking, we are all guided by our principles and convictions. While this conviction is a strength, we need to move from naïve idealism to informed assessment, embracing research as the key for meaningful progress. As such, when you consider funding or supporting an organization, critically examine its mission and methodology, contact its members and reach out to other organizations to broaden your knowledge of the issue. Be intentional with who you support and your reasons why. Only by asking the tough questions can we move from blind hope to real progress. 


*The fact that an organization focuses on sex trafficking is not necessarily problematic. However, some organizations incorrectly insist that sex trafficking is the only form of human trafficking worthy of attention.

**The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC


What do you think? How have you decided which anti-trafficking organizations to support? Have you encountered any organizations whose work is grounded in sound research?


6 Responses to “Funding Priorities in Human Trafficking”

  1. mafadzwa mapfumo

    it is really true that humans are being trafficked year in and year out. the probable cause of that poverty is hitting people hard due to high levels of unemployment. The government, NGOs and the community as whole should spread the gospel of self-reliance and being content with one is acquiring. this because many who are trafficked are being lured by the offer they get from the trafficker

  2. Clark

    Could not disagree more…
    – Researching a black market enterprise is nearly impossible. Funding for such ventures would add to the waste of funds going to organizations for conferences and papers and not going to help victims on the ground.
    – Sensationalizing raises awareness toward cultural outcry… which has happened to allow for the likes of HTC to exist.
    – There is no evidence that bringing a non trafficking victim out of the brothel somehow traumatizes ‘real’ victims.
    – Evaluating prevention programs is very hard because it forces a organizations to prove a negative.
    – Evaluation of intervention and after care should focus on quality of care.
    – What should be funded are value driven, victim centered approaches to aftercare.

    This article seems to be advocacy for funding HTC couched in scholarly writ.

    • David

      Clark, first, I apologize for the delay in my response.

      I genuinely appreciate your input. I’m always glad to see people engaging with the material, even when we ultimately disagree.

      As to your criticisms:

      -As an illegal and hidden market, human trafficking is absolutely a difficult area to study. However, it is by no means impossible. We already study organized crime, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and any number of other illicit markets. Will we be able to achieve perfect numbers? No. But that does not mean we should not try. We use the resources, data, and methods available and do the best we can, which serves as a starting point for future work. If we don’t understand the problem, we cannot affect a solution. The fact that it is difficult does not give us a pass to skip ahead.

      -Perhaps I ought to clarify what I mean when I talk about sensationalization. I have absolutely no problem with claims that appeal to the emotions. That is a very real and valid form of persuasion. Sensationalization, on the other hand, misrepresents the situation to elicit an emotional response. It is, by it’s definition, manipulative. It is lying in the name of a good cause. And it garners attention, but it does so for an issue that does not exist as presented. Ultimately, it undercuts the integrity of the field.

      -The reference in the article to the raid and rescue strategy included a link to another article specifically dealing with the dangers of that model. The author of that post also wrote a full research paper on the subject, which is posted on the Working Papers section of our website. Because she has already addressed this issue in detail I will let her work stand on its own. I will briefly clarify that the indiscriminate “rescuing” of nonvictims is damaging to those individuals, but the ways in which raids are carried out can lead to further traumatization of victims themselves. Those using this form of intervention ought to be aware of the dangers.

      -Evaluating prevention programs is indeed difficult, but can certainly be done. By comparing the targeted population to otherwise similar populations that did not receive services (or received the next best services) one can track the effectiveness of prevention efforts. Natural experiments, such as this, are not as ideal as controlled experiments, but are frequently used by social and political scientists because it is necessary when operating in the real world. As an example, before working for the HTC, I worked for an organization that targeted the cycle of abuse (specifically, child abuse) through prevention efforts aimed at keeping one generation’s victims from becoming the next generation’s perpetrators. Not only did they conduct program evaluation on a regular basis (making their research freely accessible), but they were able to review and revise their programs to ensure best practices were being utilized.

      -I agree that intervention programs ought to be evaluated according to quality of care. And quality of care is based on effectiveness, not intentions.

      -As to your feeling that this post is simply my attempt at peddling for our own funding, I think you’re putting the cart before the horse. I do not say that research is important because that’s what we do; we focus on research because we believe that it is important. I made a point of not mentioning the HTC in the post specifically because I did not want our own interests to get in the way of the point I was trying to make.

  3. Bobby

    I agree with the author and as someone working in the anti-trafficking field for over a decade, I’ve noticed that the most funded organizations are those that go out with bombastic and unverified or outright false claims such as “every year 100000 to 300000 children are trafficked into the USA” or “the average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14 years” or the Super Bowl craze, or Real men don’t buy girls or whatever. The child card and the sex card are only used to arouse indignation, sympathy and outrage and attract Christian and conservative dollars. As the author points out, forced labour is far more prevalent in the world than sexual exploitation and girls make up, let’s say,10 percent of victims – far less than adult women and men. This sensationalism and focus on sexual exploitation impedes efforts to combat forced labour and identify and support male victims and even victims of sexual exploitation, since every voluntary sex worker is wrongly considered a victim of trafficking.. Thus organizations like those of Demi and Ashton (which is probably not even active anymore since their divorce), IJM, Shared Hope and to a lesser extent, Polaris, get disproportionately much funding because they love shouting about child sex slaves and so on…

  4. Dana

    Sheila, I agree with what you said. My concern as an anti-trafficking researcher is that at this point there is nearly a complete LACK of money going toward research-oriented organizations. I think it’s to the entire anti-trafficking community’s benefit for funds to be allocated in a more balanced manner. I also think it’s important that money going to the other angles — the faith community, law enforcement, service providers, etc. — goes to organizations whose efforts are backed by strong, ethical research. In current anti-trafficking efforts there are many strategies that are supported by the general populace, but in practice, they don’t really work and are sometimes even unethical or re-victimizing to individuals who have been trafficked. Strong research has the ability to fix this!

  5. Sheila

    While I support the author’s contention that sound research is a needed and foundational element, I do not support the view that people should only send their dollars to research-based organizations. The fact is that trafficking is a global, complex, and compelling issue that will take everyone from every angle to solve. This includes the faith community, law enforcement, first responders, social services, restorative care, government, small business, education, research, etc. When we all decide to stop competing for dollars and rather enable our joint success by leveraging our strengths across the board, then we will see the step-change we are all after.

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