Broader Lessons from Cambodia and Faith Based Actors

Responding to: Faith and Trafficking in Cambodia

By: Mark Lagon

May 3, 2013

There are several reasons for the special attention human trafficking in Cambodia gets. First is sex trafficking of children, seen as especially vulnerable and the subject of no cantankerous debate about volition like that on adults in the sex trade. Still, many people are exploited in Cambodia, and Cambodians are exploited in other nations for labor, too.

Secondly, Western outsiders as sex buyers justify or necessitate—in the eyes of some—external intervention to help. Nonetheless, the 2012 State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report states what has long been the case: “Cambodian men form the largest source of demand for child prostitution, though a significant number of men from the United States and Europe, as well as other Asian countries, travel to Cambodia to engage in child sex tourism” (emphasis added).

Lastly, the situation of poverty, corruption, and poor rule of law facilitating trafficking in many developing nations is exacerbated by genocide’s legacies.

There are also multiple reasons for special attention to faith-based organizations (FBOs). Questions include: Can Christian actors work well with those of the prevalent faith, in this case Buddhist ones? Can FBOs coordinate well with secular actors? Do FBOs and particularly evangelical ones improperly seek to, well, evangelize—proselytizing with trafficking survivors they serve?

Despite these unique considerations, one sees a lot of the same patterns, problems, and pathologies of interventions against trafficking raised in the October 2012 World Faiths Development Dialogue report in other nations and secular organizations.

First, the report is right to observe that: “Despite the successes of partnership efforts, there are ample issues of poor coordination among actors, both faith inspired and secular” (emphasis added). As former director of the State Department’s anti-trafficking office and leading US anti-trafficking NGO, I can say that is true worldwide and of secular actors.

Moreover, there are tensions between international actors swooping in and local actors, and preserving ownership and building autonomous capacity of the latter in other countries and secular institutions.

The propensity of some to starkly prioritize sex trafficking and others labor trafficking is true globally and in secular actors. The international community must focus on both, a theme of my tenure at the State Department office.

Approaches also diverge on whether to focus on human trafficking or broader systemic, root causes related to poverty, gender, and discrimination. This is not uniquely true of Cambodia and FBOs. Disagreements in this case on whether the sex industry is by nature an enabling environment for trafficking, and about the degree of volition of adults are not unique.

People disagree on emphasizing protection of victims, or prosecution of perpetrators, or prevention as the UN Palermo Protocol‘s 3 Ps. Moreover, within the “protection” area, long-term economic empowerment of survivors (read: employability) is neglected vis-à-vis short-term shelter, feeding, and care. FBOs in Cambodia are not alone in tilting toward one dimension.

Many interventions take survivors who have been objectified (dehumanized by trafficking as commodities), and then further objectify them with intrusive display of their identities, stories, and images. Retraumatization and undue influence on victims asked to testify for non-state actors’ good works are more generalized hazards of consciousness-raising.

Finally, lack of data on baseline incidence of trafficking and for evaluating interventions’ impact is ubiquitous. To say FBOs have a far greater reliance on acts of faith than fact than other actors is unfair.

These widespread problems show that the anti-trafficking movement—dare I say, an effective abolitionist crusade—requires more effective partnerships with:

  1. Very intentional coordination more like Humanity United’s NGO Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking than UN Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking
  2. A focus on programmatic impact rather than mere rhetoric, fundraising, gala glitterati events, and “slacktivism” (social media readers offered means to donate more than substantive ways to advance change); 
  3. Business joining states, international organizations, and NGOs as co-equal actors to achieve solutions, like the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking; and 
  4. Revitalized Left/Right and secular/faith-based coalitions to match those driving the Trafficking Victims Protection Act through Congress in 2000 (which I had a small hand in as a Senate staffer).

These lessons from FBOs in Cambodia inform other actors operating in all developing countries. The dignity of minorities, disadvantaged castes, migrants, females, children, and other overlapping vulnerable groups will be the beneficiary of following them.

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Broader Lessons from Cambodia and Faith Based Actors