What I hate most about the annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) is the very idea: that one country should presume to judge all others vis-a-vis some topic and then publish a report card with simplistic, childish rankings (all the world fits into 4 classes). Then, not content with simply judging Rest-of-World, the USA threatens to cut off aid and social programming to countries that do not toe its line. It’s the worst kind of cultural arrogance, and it would be if any other country presumed to do it, too. My first writing on this appeared as an Op-Ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2007.
However, let’s imagine that such a report could be of great use to many people. In that case, I want to know how the data was gathered, which sources were consulted, who was allowed to give information, whose estimates were deemed authoritative and how data were confirmed. I want to know precisely how researchers handled the considerable international muddle over definitions, since the fact that people mean different things when they say the word trafficking is a notorious source of conflict and confusion, not to mention that a lot of the English keywords cannot be reliably translated into all other languages (for example, abuse, exploitation, force, coercion). Yet every year since the beginning the Report has fudged explaining how it’s compiled. Instead of concrete information on methodology we get the vaguest of statements, really worthy of a Cold War spy operation. This is what the 2009 document says about this contemporary Crusade:
The Department of State prepared this report using information from U.S. embassies, foreign government officials, nongovernmental and international organizations, published reports, research trips to every region, and information submitted to [an email address]. This email address allows NGOs and individuals to share information on government progress in addressing trafficking. U.S. diplomatic posts reported on the trafficking situation and governmental action based on thorough research that included meetings with a wide variety of government officials, local and international NGO representatives, officials of international organizations, journalists, academics, and survivors.
No, a list of nameless institutions and groups does not qualify. The vaguer and longer the list, the more impressive it appears, but we have no way to know how the particular people were chosen and who was not consulted. Research studies can never be completely objective but they can and must address their own biases, and one of these concerns Gatekeepers: Who is chosen to tell researchers whom they should talk to and believe.
To compile this year’s report, the Department reviewed credible information sources on every country and assessed each government’s antitrafficking efforts. In prior years a “significant number” (defined to be 100 or more) of trafficking victims had to be documented for a country to be ranked in the TIP Report. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA of 2008) eliminated this requirement, thereby expanding the scope of countries included in this year’s report.
Let readers judge the credibility of sources: Who were they, exactly? Some local informants don’t want their names revealed, fine; list everyone else. Local readers can then judge which political groups informants belonged to, which officials were consulted, which NGOs. This is called Transparency. Again, if it’s judged better not to name all names, name as many as possible, and if not of individuals then of groups.
Some countries have held conferences and established task forces or national action plans to create goals for anti-trafficking efforts. While such activities are useful and can serve as a catalyst toward concrete law enforcement, protection, and prevention activities in the future, these conferences, plans, and task forces alone are not weighed heavily in assessing country efforts. Rather, the report focuses on governments’ concrete actions to fight trafficking, especially prosecutions, convictions, and prison sentences for traffickers as well as victim protection measures and prevention efforts.
So the evaluation is completely focussed on criminal-justice actions: that’s clear, anyway. It’s not as though a lot of proclamations condemning slavery ought to qualify as real efforts, but everything mentioned here is about criminals and victims except the extremely vague and silly term ‘prevention efforts’.
Although critical to increasing anti-trafficking efforts, the Report does not give great weight to laws in draft form or laws that have not yet been enacted. In general, the Report does not focus on governmental efforts that have indirect implications for trafficking, such as general efforts to keep children in school or general economic development programs, though the Report is making a stronger effort to identify trafficking vulnerabilities and measures taken by governments to prevent trafficking that may result from such vulnerabilities. Similarly, this report attempts to identify systemic contributing factors to particular forms of human trafficking. These include particular policies or practices, such as labor recruiters’ charging of excessive fees to prospective migrants and governmental policies allowing employers to confiscate passports of foreign workers—factors that have been shown to contribute to forced labor.
Well, honestly. So they’ve got no interest in underlying causes but are probably paying a bunch of US civil servants to compile a list of them and another list of how smuggling works, which everyone already knows. It’s egregious, self-benefiting, colonialist interference, on top of which they can’t accept research that’s already been done but have to pay themselves to do it. Humbug.
More take-downs of the TIP report are available by searching on this website.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist