Well-constructed public awareness campaigns on human trafficking can enlighten and challenge public perceptions. The positive impacts of such campaigns may include: a more informed society – preferably one that pressures companies to examine their supply chains – shaping attitudes about ‘victims’, challenging prejudices, and mobilizing government leadership to take the issue seriously. But for these best case scenarios to come to fruition, they must be built on a strategic and considered approach.
In its response to the newly-published US Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report, the Singapore Government highlighted that in Singapore: ‘…the concept of “human trafficking” is not widely understood, or misunderstood…’. The TiP report recommended that the Government: ‘continue public awareness campaigns to inform citizens and residents of the penalties for involvement in trafficking for sexual exploitation or forced labor.’ But, if human trafficking is not widely understood here and, as noted in previous posts, limited research is being carried out on this issue, how do we know what to raise public awareness about (and shouldn’t awareness-raising extend beyond educating the public about penalties)?
In an environment where so little is known about trafficking, our primary concern is that campaigning be well-informed, clearly messaged and evaluated for impact. First, is there a need to ‘spread the word’? Are campaigns educated about the current trafficking environment, including not only the problem itself, but professionals in the field of anti-trafficking? How are campaigners informing themselves? Importantly, what are the aims of any existing campaign or public education initiative?
Second, campaign messages need to be clear in their objectives and appropriately targeted. How is the problem being defined: are we telling traffickers not to traffick, are we getting the word out to potentially exploited workers, or is the aim to inform the public at large? And how can your audience take action? There is limited point in urging people to ‘be aware’ of trafficking if one fails to provide relevant sources of information for follow-up action (obtaining additional resources for assistance to someone in need, for example), or if there is a lack of infrastructure to assist those who have been exploited. In Singapore, there is no trafficking-specific funding to assist NGO service providers; not to mention a law to define trafficking or the relevant protections needed for trafficked persons.
Third, trafficking is complex – how can we ensure the right message is being sent (and received)? Campaigners need to not only carefully plan their messaging strategy, but ensure that their efforts are evaluated for impact.
In Singapore, the lack of current expertise in human trafficking means that the potential for campaigns to be misdirected, and actually cause more problems than they solve, is very real. As an example, a campaign focusing on trafficking female Asian children for the purposes of sexual exploitation ignores potentially greater at-risk groups, such as male construction workers. Subsequently, to the general public, trafficking becomes the sexual exploitation of Asian girls, which may result in a lack of interest or attention to incidents of abuse the public may actually see, but which does not conform to the image created by the public campaign. In other words, poorly thought-out campaigns can shape public opinion to the detriment of individuals who need assistance. We would strongly caution against public awareness-raising until preliminary research has been carried out to ascertain the nature of trafficking in Singapore. However, this situation may not be tolerable for those who wish to develop a more urgent response.
The TIP report notes:
The government increased efforts to educate the public through television and print media campaigns about the dangers of trafficking. The government installed posters in a fishing port providing information for exploited workers to contact the government for assistance. During the year, the task force produced a newsletter and brochure for work permit holders, which provides a checklist for workers about situations in which they should approach the MOM for assistance.
Despite being Singaporean-focused human trafficking researchers, we were not aware of such efforts; which may be indicative of a low level of publicity. Not having seen these campaigns, we cannot comment on their quality, however, on its face this appears to be a prime illustration of one kind of ill-informed awareness-raising. Primarily, we are skeptical about educating the Singaporean public at large about the dangers of trafficking via TV and print media (warning them of what, we wonder? Don’t be trafficked? Don’t be a trafficker?). It is interesting the Government would advertise assistance to trafficked fisherman, when the MOM appears adamantly against doing so. Moreover, these efforts appear to target legitimate routes of employment. We would be keen to know how many exploited workers have been referred to the MOM via brochure.
Unsurprisingly, the Government is not alone in raising awareness. As part of a recent global campaign, the Body Shop and ECPAT developed a joint campaign in Singapore on the issue of sex trafficking in children and young people. This campaign was driven in part by a research report, undertaken by Dr Sallie Yea on behalf of ECPAT, which, interestingly, found very little evidence for trafficked children in Singapore (although the report does go into detail regarding problems of trafficked adult women and child sexual exploitation). We are left wondering about the impact of this campaign, since it was driven by an emphasis on child trafficking – a problem which appears not to really exist in Singapore. Moreover, once awareness has been ‘achieved’ (I’ve signed a petition and purchased hand cream), how am I assured that I’ve made a real impact? More broadly, how is public interest in the issue sustained and developed? And how do campaigns such as this one, which embrace a very specific kind of trafficking, impact the availability and types of funding to local NGOs? Campaigns such as this may boost fundraising in the short-term, but NGOs need sustainable programmatic support – for all programs, not only the vulnerable ‘de jour’.
Awareness-raising generally appeals to the public (which is, to their credit, usually genuinely altruistic) often because it is perceived to be the most tangible level of activism: What can I do? How can I help? How can I spread the word? Individuals can raise awareness in a variety of ways – unfortunately, this commonly ranges from innocuous activism to proactive do-goodery. While it is possible for volunteers to contribute meaningfully to anti-trafficking efforts, a lack of professional knowledge, about both campaigns and human trafficking, can direct attention in the wrong way and create images of victims that are sentimental to dangerously stereotypical.
Amateur awareness-raising finds itself in good company. A 2010 report by GAATW commented:
To a large extent, anti-trafficking efforts operate without a sufficient evidence-base. …Although much money has been spent: hundreds of projects at national, regional and international levels have been carried out and recommendations formulated; identification-checklists and standards for victim protection have been developed; training material has been produced and national plans of action crafted; countless conferences, symposia, and meetings have been organized; a continuing stream of commentators, researchers and analysts have informed on the intricacy of the problem; and, many policy tools have been applied – surprisingly little is known about the impact of anti-trafficking responses, efforts, measures and activities.
In this respect, evaluation cannot be under-valued. In the UK, the Blue Blindfold campaign, focused on human trafficking, ran for a number of years, but the level of its impact remains a mystery as there are no plans to evaluate it. This raises issues of resource allocation and appropriate usage of funds; considering this was the major government campaign on this issue to date, the lack of interest in its success is worrying. We would encourage funders, and indeed the NGOs themselves, to include the campaign evaluations as a distinct budget line to ensure that campaigns can be both sustainable and a positive learning process. A good starting point for the development of evaluations can be found here.
Finally, and perhaps a post for another time, the question arises: do campaigns actually prevent trafficking? More often than not, they are deemed to be a solid component of any ‘prevention strategy’, but they usually target the public at large, focus on migrants, and rarely consider traffickers. As Ann Gallagher notes, this is an:
Unproven “prevention” practice. The TIP Report […] argues that “[p]ublic awareness of human trafficking – including awareness of warning signs and required responses – is critical and must be ongoing.” (p. 18). However, I am not aware of any research demonstrating that public awareness campaigns (including those funded by the U.S.) are effective in preventing people from deciding to migrate for work. While campaigns might have a temporary role in raising awareness and causing people to think twice about migrating, this only lasts for the duration of the (typically brief) campaign. Since people are usually trafficked by someone they know, they ignore ‘warning signs’ and if they need to migrate for work, they may be willing to take risks despite warning signs. This is not to say that some campaigns might not actually work briefly. There simply is no evidence on which ones work and which ones waste money.
Clearly more needs to be done both in Singapore and globally to ensure that campaigns are both better designed and evaluated. As interest in human trafficking grows in Singapore, we advocate caution about awareness-raising activities until a more concrete evidence base has been established, alongside an infrastructure capable of appropriately addressing the needs of potentially trafficked and exploited persons.