Posted by: B Gourley | June 19, 2009

A Strategic Approach to Ending Human Trafficking

Source: Kay Chernush for US State Department

Source: Kay Chernush for US State Department

The State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report was released on Tuesday (June 16, 2009.) The TIP is part of a laudable effort to fight one of the most heinous stains on the current state of humanity, which is that the buying and selling of human beings continues to take place around the world. Released with the report was an online photo album of pictures taken by Kay Chernush. Most of the photos, like the one above of a Nepalese mother in search of her daughter, show the human dimension of this injustice. 

The idea behind the TIP is simple. States are ranked into tiers according to their level of compliance with a stated set of standards for combating trafficking. Those in the lowest group are subject to possible sanctions in addition to the potential national embarrassment of being seen as one of the most backward countries in the world (and the presumed indirect effects of this status, such as the fact that people are less likely to want to be tourists in, do business with, or generally associate with your country.) The report states that measures with concrete effects like the number of prosecutions, convictions, and length of prison terms are given deference over symbolic activities like conference-hosting or information campaigns in determining in which of the three tiers a nation is placed (compliant, partially compliant, or not compliant).

I do have one potential concern about the TIP report itself. Despite the fact that the report lays out the ranking criteria and discusses methodology (though vaguely), I remain worried that the TIP classification is politicized. While countries like Cuba, North Korea, and Iran offer a wide variety of defects and challenges to global security, from what little I know of the trafficking issue, they don’t come to mind as the worst violators as their Tier 3 rankings imply. There is a great danger in politicization of the list because it must be seen as legitimate to have any influence on behavior. If the TIP report is seen as just another outlet for the US to badmouth the countries it has problems with in general while saying nice things about those it likes or is courting the favor of, then no one will take it seriously, and states in violation will feel no compulsion to change their behavior. My worries stem from an observation about the State-sponsored Terrorism list, and how it is sometimes used in ways that are unrelated to terrorism. I fear that we will be negotiating bumping North Korea and Iran up a level in coming years in exchange for changes in their nuclear policies without any discernible change to their policies on trafficking.

My skepticism may be falsely rooted, due both to the fact that there can legitimately be a great disparity between volume of trafficking and ranking, and that the methodology of how various criteria are weighted or scored is not clear. The first issue revolves around the fact that countries are being graded on perceived compliance efforts, and not the scale of the problem in the country. There are good reasons for doing it this way (besides the fact that if volume of traffic were the primary criteria I suspect the United States would have to place itself on the bad boys list.) The idea is to reward moves in the right direction, and punish lack of rules and enforcement on trafficking. Therefore, you don’t want to keep countries with high trafficking volume but active campaigns for defeating trafficking in the 3rd tier, neither do you want to reward small countries who are not effective in fighting this crime but whose trafficking level is small because of reasons unrelated to the government’s efforts.

However, if there are many high volume of trafficking countries among those on the full and partial compliance (Tier I and II) lists, it might be telling about the efficacy of these enforcement efforts. It might tell us that, for the past nine years the activities to increase arrests and prosecutions have not staunched the flow. The report shows each country’s tier rank over time. It would be interesting to know: a.) how the trafficking level of countries that have moved up to Tier I have changed over time; b.) what has happened to the overall level of trafficking (i.e. is it being reduced or just shifted into other countries?) Unfortunately, I think it is probably difficult to have faith in models projecting trafficking amounts because it is not like these criminals are filing monthly reports to some data clearinghouse, and projections based on interdictions and arrests may be confounded by more effective criminal methods or any number of other causes. Even indications gleaned from interviews or interrogation with arrested criminals may not be trustworthy if there is an incentive for the prisoner to be deceptive.

How would one strategically combat human trafficking? The idea is to recognize and realign the incentives. In other words, one needs to get an accurate and honest picture of what is driving this behavior, and then restructure the costs and benefits so that the incentives no longer remain conducive to engaging in these activities. While the increased enforcement activities by governments realigns incentives by increasing the costs of trafficking, there will never be enough resources available to eliminate the problem in that way.

 The TIP report, and accompanying sanctions, recognize STATE incentives (e.g. to be a member of the global community in good standing) and may potentially realign them. There has been success in recent years in states heavily utilized (as origins, destinations, or transhipment points) for trafficking in making efforts to combat these activities, and some portion of this progress may be attributable to US and global pressures. However, the problem remains alive and well because the core motives are not recognized or eliminated.

While the State Department report is a positive step as far as it goes, it (when combined with public policy more broadly) does not leave me sanguine about the fight against modern day slavery. This lack of optimism is rooted in the fact that deep structural incentives exist to engage in this behavior that are not countered by existing activities.  One of these structural drivers is poverty, and, the fact is, we don’t have a good idea of how poor nations and regions can be brought to significantly higher standards of living. The few countries that have succeeded in going from Third World to First World are anomalies, rather than the product of well-understood Macroeconomic policies. Another structural factor is that many countries, including the United States, have extremely untargeted approaches to sex trade regulation. I suspect that this has greatly exacerbated the sex slavery problem by eliminating a prostitution labor supply of willing adults of sound-mind who stay out of the market solely because they consider themselves law-abiding citizens.

By an “untargeted” approach to sex trade regulation, I mean one akin to the Prohibition Era with respect to alcohol. This is in contrast to a much more effective present-day policy that is targeted toward preventing usage of alcohol that creates a danger to the health and well-being of those other than the (uncoerced) drinker. Prohibition, as we all know and most will admit, was an unmitigated disaster. Prohibition spawned its own violent crime, people died drinking low-grade “bathtub gin”, and, most importantly, people still drank alcohol because the demand was still there. On top of that, the few unscrupulous characters that were most willing to break the law were handed a very high profit margin oligopoly. Fortunately,  the country learned its lesson vis-a-vis alcohol prohibition and rescinded the law with the 21st amendment. Unfortunately, we haven’t made the leap to applying the lesson very similar issues.

While I am skeptical of its feasibility of implementation on the grounds of the deeply rooted religious mores of the US and other countries, I would advocate an approach similar to that taken with alcohol. Instead of trying to prohibit every sexual act of a commercial nature, you put your limited resources into a targeted fight against exploitation, slavery, and abuse. In other words, a woman or man who society would deem capable of making sound decisions for themself (i.e. a mentally-competent adult) would be able to choose prostitution as a job or career path. If they thought they needed assistance, they could hire security or an agent and pay them a pre-negotiated rate as any other employer would pay an employee. What would not be legal would be for any person to force a person to select this job, or to insinuate themselves as a “protector” or “manager” who would dictate what pay is received by the working party. Like other businesses, the prostitute would be free to determine what clients he or she took on, how many in a period, to set a price on a take it or leave it basis, and to cancel the transaction for cause. In essence, regulations would exist to prohibit force, fraud, or the illegal use of third-party property (conducting this business in a place against the owner’s wishes.)

What does this do for society? First, given a demand that we have no reason to think will go away soon (sex drives are pretty much biological imperatives, and some fraction of the population will either be undesirous, or unable, to meet these needs with a person with whom they share a relationship), the influx of voluntary participants would reduce the incentive for abducting and enslaving people. Second, if someone were trying to force another person into prostitution or to exploit them, the victim would have a clear legal recourse. Third, the vast sums of risk premium money associated with illicit activities that attract violent criminals into the market would not exist, and we might expect a few less shoot-outs in the world. Finally, if there were activities resulting in societal costs remaining, you could tax them to regulate them.



  1. […] Kay Chernush, a leading U.S. photographer, has released her photos along with the report. Photographs from across the globe showing sex trafficking and slave labor can be viewed on her website. Read more about the State Department’s report and human trafficking HERE. […]

  2. Tech Question:

  3. […] Human Trafficking?, click here. […]

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