Home » Research » Ethnographic evaluation in sexual health – a useful method for improving the impact of preventative trafficking policy and programmes?

Ethnographic evaluation in sexual health – a useful method for improving the impact of preventative trafficking policy and programmes?


Today we are pleased to welcome the following guest post from Stephen Bell. For the past 11 years Stephen has been working in academic, non-governmental, public and private sector-based research and evaluation, with a focus on HIV prevention, sexual and reproductive health, and community-based social development. This post is written from a personal point of view.

He is keen to emphasise that he does not know very much about trafficking. However, he is interested in exploring how gathering local grassroots knowledge can help governmental and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) design and implement more relevant, meaningful and effective programmes and policies. Based on a recent publication about ethnographic evaluation, we contacted him to see if he would be interested in applying some of these ideas to trafficking.

The issue. Several developments have implications for understanding and measuring change in human trafficking in the UK. These include

  • a recent effort by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) to describe the full extent of human trafficking nationally;
  • knowledge that while trafficking affects families living in interconnected societies worldwide, accurate statistics on numbers affected by trafficking are difficult to produce due to its hidden nature;
  • a growing concern among some involved in international development to find ways of monitoring programmes and assessing impact that are more grounded in people’s everyday lives.

This blog post discusses the potential use of ethnographic evaluation – which has been defined elsewhere as qualitative research underpinned by ethnographic principles for evaluative purposes – to enable practitioners and policy makers to strengthen victim-centred trafficking prevention policy design and programme delivery.

Background. Last month, SOCA – a non-departmental public body linked to the Home Office in the UK – released a report entitled ‘Baseline Assessment on the Nature and Scale of Human Trafficking in 2011’. SOCA stated that their report is the first attempt to describe the full extent of human trafficking in the UK. They also suggested that the report could function as a baseline data collection platform to monitor progress of efforts to decrease trafficking, and identify gaps in understanding about trafficking.

Limits of statistical measures. We should commend SOCA for starting this new initiative, but it is also useful to recognize the challenges experienced in trying to estimate numbers of people involved in trafficking. For example, estimated numbers of trafficking victims will vary if a definition of ‘victims’ in one study is different from that in another. Furthermore, estimated numbers are likely to be lower than reality for several reasons: coercion and control may mean that potential victims are unwilling or unable to disclose their experiences or cooperate with assessments for fear of retribution from traffickers; some victims may not consider themselves to have been exploited as they are earning more money now than when at home; a lack of awareness of trafficking among those who encounter potential victims means that victims may not be correctly identified at the point of contact.

In addition to these data collection challenges, quantitative measures of trafficking often do little to help us answer some big questions which may inform and improve the design of victim-centred prevention policy and programming. What impact do prevention efforts have on the drivers of different types of trafficking? How do the experiences and circumstances of people involved in different forms of exploitation change as a result of preventative work? How do victims of trafficking understand the impact of prevention efforts on their own experiences? How can lessons learned from understanding the daily realities of victims and traffickers be better incorporated into the design of prevention policy and programming?

Preventative policy and programming could be informed by and based upon a systematic process of learning about the experiences of people who are, and have been, involved in trafficking. Given the various data and information challenges, ethnographic evaluation could be used – in conjunction with quantitative-based trend analyses – to increase our knowledge and understanding of the problem of trafficking in the UK and worldwide.

Ethnographic evaluation. Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) research aims to understand the success of programmes and policies. M&E research serves several purposes, to: contribute to the design of new programmes and policies; attribute cause and effect to measure and understand the impact of programmes and policies; frame accountability and credibility for organisations delivering programmes; and develop an evidence base for advocacy for new, improved policy and programme development.

Ethnography is a methodology whereby a researcher participates overtly or covertly in their subjects’ daily lives, typically for an extended period of time. It aims to describe and comprehend cultures and experiences of people’s lives from within, including the social mores that affect people’s daily lives.

Ethnographic evaluation adapts the methodology of, and aims for, the purpose of programmatic decision-making. For people working in research and evaluation, a more detailed explanation of the principles underlying the method can be found here. In summary, ethnographic evaluation uses research methods – such as participant observation, key informant interviewing and participatory techniques – to collect in-depth qualitative data to aid programme decision-making. It is specifically based on spending time with people affected by programmes and policies, and understanding their own interpretations of programme and policy efficacy and impact. For example, it might aim to explore how trafficking victims construct and interpret a trafficking prevention programme and its effects on their lives, in the light of their own social realities, experiences and meaning systems.

Parallels between sexual health and trafficking evaluation? I do not know enough about M&E processes used to monitor and evaluate trafficking programmes, but wonder whether the adaptation of methods used in sexual health research might assist with the improvement of trafficking programmes.

Ethnographic evaluation research with young people in rural Uganda involved in HIV prevention and sexual health programming enabled NGO practitioners to better locate programme design and implementation within the reality of young people’s lives. A more detailed summary of findings is found here and here. However, as examples, these methods uncovered secret sexual practices and enabled NGO staff to rethink how best to facilitate young people’s access to local sexual health services. This is particularly important in contexts where adults think young people should not be in need of sexual health services because young people should not be having sex in the first place. These methods also highlighted that young people need more holistic support from NGOs to support them with the possible outcomes arising from unprotected sexual intercourse. These might include school dropout, early marriage without income generating opportunities or livelihoods, and single motherhood. Both were important aspects of sexual health programming that were not previously identified by using typical quantitative M&E research.

In my experience, ethnographic evaluation offers an opportunity to respond to the limits of quantitative M&E practice by offering new ways of capturing the depth and complexity of initiatives designed to improve people’s lives. It does this by, for example, tracking and understanding unexpected changes in people’s experiences, rather than focusing on predicted outcome indicators in a logframe (an analytical tool used to plan, monitor, and evaluate) or ‘theory of change’ common in programmatic M&E.

Enhancing trafficking policy and programming?

In relation to the example above in sexual health and HIV prevention, there is ‘added value’ by incorporating ethnographic evaluation into NGO M&E research. When carried out sensitively and effectively, ethnographic evaluation enables practitioners to get closer to the everyday lives of programme participants to understand the programme from their point of view. If it works in the area of sexual health work, then perhaps it might help in the area of trafficking too.

I want to conclude by suggesting some opportunities for the use of ethnographic evaluation to enable practitioners and policymakers to strengthen victim-centred trafficking prevention policy design and programme delivery. These may be naïve, and work may already be being done in these areas, but I write them with the aim of starting some discussion and triggering some new thoughts. Possible areas where ethnographic evaluation could be used in relation to trafficking might include:

  • Generating a better understanding about how programmes and policies can reduce the vulnerability of victims of trafficking prior to being trafficked, or influence and disrupt processes of ‘deceptive recruitment’ and ‘debt bondage’;
  • Exploring why trends in different types of trafficking – sexual, labour and criminal exploitation, domestic servitude, and organ harvesting – are changing, from the perspectives of those involved;
  • Developing more appropriate programmes and policies – based on the daily realities of those involved – on areas of trafficking about which less is known, such as domestic servitude, and the sexual, criminal and labour exploitation of children;
  • Developing advocacy efforts about new ways of preventing trafficking by building an evidence base about what works best in anti-trafficking initiatives, from the perspectives of those involved in trafficking;
  • Creating more relevant campaigns – based on lived experiences of victims of trafficking – targeting people who leave their home countries and might be unaware they are being trafficked, people who don’t currently identify themselves as victims of trafficking, and people who come into contact with both traffickers and victims of trafficking.


  1. […] My new guest contributor blog has been published today on The Trafficking Research Project. I discuss the potential use of ethnographic evaluation to enable practitioners and policy makers to strengthen victim-centred trafficking prevention policy design and programme delivery, and conclude with some suggestions about how this method might be used to complement existing trafficking M&E processes… […]

  2. […] We also received posts from Stephen Bell, who provided us with a thoughtful consideration of the potential of ethnographic evaluation, and from Jeni Page, who explored the vulnerability of children and young people in the care system […]

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