Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Politics of Evidence 4/6

The significance of ideology in anti-trafficking efforts noted by Doezema earlier in this Editorial speaks to a broader concern that is addressed in this issue: namely the manipulation, misuse and, at worse, neglect of existing evidence altogether. In Singapore, for example, I have witnessed firsthand the ways in which film screenings and other public events by NGOs to raise awareness about human trafficking resulted in a privileging of the ‘child sex slave’ as the valid frame of reference for characterising human trafficking, even when some research began to indicate the prevalence of human trafficking amongst other groups and in other sectors outside the sex industry.18 Gender and age bias in anti-trafficking efforts are certainly not restricted to the Singapore context, but they do provide a stark reminder of the oftentimes growing chasm between actual situations of trafficking and the self-perpetuating myths that come to form the basis of much action in the field. Indeed, the power of (mis)representations to take the place of empirically informed evidence was well acknowledged in an earlier issue of Anti-Trafficking Review.19 Others have noted with concern the ways political and other agendas, including conservative and moral ones, have influenced the construction and use of ‘evidence’ in anti-trafficking efforts.20 These observations urge us to undertake a more critical introspection of both the absence and manipulation of evidence in anti-trafficking work, and the continued investment in projects and policy stances based on thin evidence at best or no evidence at all.

The Singapore example above demonstrates how resources continue to be poured into criminal justice responses targeted at the sex industry, despite growing evidence of the prevalence of trafficking amongst male workers in the construction and shipyard sector, migrant fishers, and foreign domestic workers. Undoubtedly political interests in narrowing the parameters of victimhood so as to exclude large populations of migrant workers who form an important crux underscoring Singapore’s economic miracle provide an important explanation for the discounting of evidence in this context.21 On a larger scale, numerous studies have indicated time and again that some of the foundational assumptions that form the basis of anti-trafficking efforts are flawed to say the least. Whilst images of dark, shadowy figures associated with transnational criminal networks persist as ‘traffickers’, studies from a range of regions have revealed the significance of individual, small scale local recruiters/ traffickers operating with some familiarity with victims themselves.22 Similarly, a large number of studies have now been published suggesting that criminal justice responses are less than effective in curbing trafficking, and should be tempered in favour of a greater focus on prevention. However, by its very nature success in prevention is far more difficult to measure and evaluate, making it less attractive to governments and international organisations alike.23 These examples suggest then that there is often a significant amount of evidence available to inform and (re)direct anti-trafficking policy and practice, but that it is often maligned in favour of responses that are based on pre-existing assumptions, political interests, or support a particular ideology and morality.

Scholars of human trafficking could do well to consider the substantial critiques that have emerged in related fields, such as development, in questioning these prevailing logics of intervention. Over two decades ago James Ferguson,24 for example, examined how ‘development’ projects were divorced from the political realities that undergird them, rendering them technocratic interventions that gave the impression of being politically neutral. Importantly, as Ferguson noted, power and political proclivities often provided the key in explaining why certain projects failed, and indeed why particular programmatic interventions continued to be pursued despite limited evidence of their success.25 A more robust critique of anti-trafficking evidence would do well to consider the conceptual aids provided by these types of critiques. To date, researchers of trafficking have noted the ways political interests centred around (exclusionary) migration policies have invoked a protectionist/prevention discourse around vulnerability—particularly for women—in tightening their borders against entry of particular types of migrants.26 This type of critical scholarship could be extended to explore the politics of other anti-trafficking measures and, in particular, the ways evidence is ignored or manipulated to perpetuate such exclusionary and unhelpful stances.

Anti-Trafficking Review, Issue 8, PP 1-13 - http://www.antitraffickingreview.org/index.php/atrjournal/issue/view/16

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