There is a massive challenge running through all of our efforts to combat human trafficking. Our challenge is that we do not yet know how to measure the impact of our work.
Most of the measurement that has been done in our field has centered around measuring activities. We measure how many hours of training occurred, how many beds in a shelter, how many people were exposed to an awareness campaign, or the number of calls a hotline received.
This is not a criticism of the early years of this work. We stand on the foundation laid by those early advocates today. We had to first convince people that the issue mattered and try quick interventions to prove that we could protect survivors.
On May 20, the Trafficking in Persons Office partnered with the University of Georgia African Programming and Research Initiative to End Slavery to host the Prevalence Reduction Innovation Forum, in a virtual environment. The Prevalence Forum affords our movement the opportunity to take a serious look at how to improve our measurement as a whole. With an improved ability to measure impact, we can significantly grow our capacity to defeat traffickers and secure freedom for all.
In conversations I’ve had with many traffickers in my prior work as a prosecutor, it became clear to me that traffickers do not share our measurement challenge. They are not confused about how they measure impact. Traffickers have great clarity about how they define success. They want to maximize their illegal profits by minimizing their victims’ freedom.
What we measure matters. To date, there have been efforts to measure prevalence, usually centered around either global or national prevalence. While these measurements have spurred passion for the fight against trafficking, these measurements have limitations when measuring impact.
The challenge for both global and national estimates is that they often rely on a single survey instrument to identify a wide variety of different types of trafficking.
We would never rely on a single survey instrument in other critical areas of research. For example, we would never expect one cancer screening test to identify all forms of cancer. The test to measure the presence of lymphoma is not best to identify skin cancer or liver cancer. Just because these are all “cancers” does not mean that researchers should employ a single screening instrument.
Likewise, we can expect that the survey instrument and methodology used to identify victims of sex trafficking in an urban environment will not successfully identify victims of labor trafficking in a factory. The methodology designed to measure adults who traffickers compel to work in agricultural fields will not be effective to measure boys compelled to engage in commercial sex.
Traffickers recruit, groom, and coerce their victims in very different ways. Victims inhabit different, often tightly woven social networks. The widely varied sectors involved in human trafficking do not necessarily overlap, and therefore any single methodology seeking to capture the vast variety of sex trafficking or forced labor operations would be deeply flawed.
This is why we believe the future of human trafficking prevalence measurement lies in focused estimates. Prevalence measurements must be both industry-specific and geographically-restricted. Through “focused prevalence estimates” we could develop an estimate of ￼￼adults ￼￼ to work in restaurants in a specific city, or an estimate of nurses coerced by traffickers
A focused estimate allows us to operate programs, conduct awareness campaigns, train service providers, expand services, and improve the criminal justice delivery system around a specific type of trafficking. Then, we can measure again using the same methodology. Using a focused estimate, we could know if there was a reduction in prevalence and if we introduce a treatment and control, we can tie these results or show a relationship to our methodology.
Measurement of this sort might also show that our well-intentioned interventions did not have an impact on prevalence. We should not fear this possibility. Such a finding would allow us to adapt strategies, adjust our thinking, and persevere to find success in the future.
The bottom line is this: With the launch of this Prevalence Forum, we are committing to move beyond measuring activities to measuring actual impact. A focused estimate and good data will strengthen our argument to right-size the world’s approach to this crime.
This is the time to engage. We are not powerless to do something about human trafficking. And I believe that research can generate hope. People of good will want to draw near to people in pain if they think there is something they can do about it. Showing progress toward our big goal of freedom can generate tangible hope that inspires engagement.
This is hard work, and there are no easy fixes. If we value freedom, we must measure our progress. With the innovative new research of the Prevalence Forum launching, we can meet this huge challenge before us: we can measure for impact.
About the Author: John Cotton Richmond serves as the United States Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and leads the Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.