A picture is seen on the roof of a house in Medellín as part of an initiative to prevent the recruitment of children by illegal
A picture is seen on the roof of a house in Medellín as part of an initiative to prevent the recruitment of children by illegal groups, January 30, 2012.
Albeiro Lopera / Courtesy Reuters

The buying and selling of humans is big business -- and an enormous development challenge. It is estimated to generate anywhere from $32 billion to $150 billion a year and affect tens of millions of people: the International Labor Organization believes that nearly 21 million men, women, and children are currently victims of some form of slavery, forced labor, or human trafficking. The Global Slavery Index puts the number at 29.8 million, which, if accurate, is over twice the number of Africans enslaved between 1525 and 1866, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Of course, real numbers are difficult to come by; governments have different ways of keeping records, and many do not keep them at all. Since 2008, when the U.S. State Department began tallying numbers on identified victims, it has found only 246,798 trafficking victims worldwide, and since 2006, it has found an average of only about 6,675 prosecutions of human traffickers worldwide annually, with an average of fewer than 4,000 convictions.

With so much money being made and so many people involved, it is surprising that the movement to end slavery has not reached the sort of tipping point one finds with other causes and campaigns; think of the global movement to fight AIDS or the campaign in the United States to advance the rights of the LGBT community. To be sure, on occasion, the world pays attention to those enslaved. Most recently, a wave of protest followed a Boko Haram raid in Nigeria in which the group captured 276 schoolgirls and purportedly sold them into slavery. In 2012, Kony 2012, a film about the Lord’s Resistance Army, which uses child soldiers, generated a similar reaction.

Before too long, however, public interest inevitably shifts to something else. This summer has been no exception, with an especially crowded array of horrors: the Ebola virus, beheadings of journalists and aid workers, the shooting down of a civilian airliner, which disintegrated into a million pieces midair. Put crudely, when it comes to generating public attention and outrage, the buying and selling of people has a lot of ghastly competition.

In the next year, however, the small but dedicated community that is combating trafficking could get an enormous boost from an unexpected and rather undramatic source: the Outcome Document of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals.


In the developing world, the Outcome Document and the Sustainable Development Goals are a very big deal. Since 2000, the international development community has been organized around fulfilling the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- or getting as close as possible. These goals, crafted after years of negotiation and campaigning, have driven the allocation and spending of billions of donor dollars. For some, the goal-oriented outlook that came with this exercise has been a boon, helping the development community prioritize and coordinate its activities. For others, the MDGs led to the exclusion of some important issues from the agenda.

For example, to date, the donor community has not made combating trafficking a priority along the lines of eradicating extreme poverty, decreasing HIV infection rates, or improving maternal health. Although there are a few bilateral development agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, and private philanthropies, including Humanity United, NoVo, the Oak Foundation, Walk Free, and the Freedom Fund, working explicitly to end human trafficking, in my travels around the world while working at USAID, I often heard the phrase “We are not interested in trafficking” or “We do not work on trafficking.” Each organization had its own explanation for why, but I came to believe that if trafficking had been included in the MDGs back in 2000, many more development agencies would have dedicated staff to the issue and more foundations would be investing in solutions to this complex development challenge.

Even at USAID, when we were writing a new policy on combating trafficking in 2012, we took a hard look at our own budgets and found that the agency had invested only about $16 million a year in the issue between 2001 and 2012. (The State Department was funding around another $20 million a year, and other U.S. government agencies had sizable domestic and international programs.) In our new policy, among other objectives, we advocated “integrated programming” for combating trafficking. The idea was that sectors such as health, education, and agriculture, which were getting more funding thanks, in part, to their inclusion in the MDGs, should consider including an anti-trafficking component. A girls’ education program, for example, might integrate lessons on trafficking awareness. A project targeting the cocoa sector could also focus on the prevention of child trafficking. In a world of shrinking foreign assistance budgets, especially for assistance relating to democracy, human rights, and governance, this seemed like a logical, if not entirely satisfying, way to increase actual dollars devoted to the issue. It also seemed like a smart way to grow expertise on the issue inside the agency.

Of course, we worried that integrated programming would be hard to accomplish, and people would need to be trained on how to do it. Because the inclusion of trafficking programs in other efforts would be essentially voluntary, we didn’t know whether it would result in any substantial increases in funds devoted to combating human slavery. In fact, we feared, it could actually shrink the funding. Policies take time to implement, and it is too soon to actually know the impact inside the organization or indeed the influence on the work of other agencies. I have been told that because USAID elevated human rights in this policy and other strategies, other development agencies are considering doing so as well.

But there is an important opportunity to address some of these problems and refocus the efforts of the development community. With the MDGs coming to an end in 2015, the international community is now close to agreeing to what comes next, referred to as post-2015, the post-MDGs, or, simply, the Sustainable Development Goals.

And here, there is some good news for those working to end trafficking. In several places, the Open Working Group’s heavily negotiated Outcome Document explicitly and implicitly addresses what U.S. President Barack Obama has labeled “one of the great human rights causes of our time” -- that is, combating human trafficking and ending modern slavery.

How the language first got into the document is unclear; certainly there is more recognition in 2014 than in 1999, when the MDGs were coming together, that trafficking is a threat to development. There are also more organizations engaged in combating it. Apparently, the language on trafficking was not controversial or contested during the many hours of negotiation this July. If the international community agrees to what is laid out in the Outcome Document, more donors, more funding, more organizations, and more people will flow to the movement to end trafficking.


The Outcome Document explicitly calls for eliminating “trafficking” in several places. Under proposed goal five -- “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” -- the drafters call for the end of trafficking of women and girls. Under proposed goal eight -- “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all” -- the document urges the end of the trafficking of children, including child soldiers, by 2025. Finally, under proposed goal 16 -- “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” -- the Outcome Document references bringing the trafficking of children to an end.

There are also subgoals or targets that appear to have nothing to do with trafficking but could have important knock-on effects. Three key examples include “provid[ing] legal identity for all including birth registration,” promoting “sustainable tourism,” and “sustainable transport systems . . . with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities . . .”

People without legal identities are more vulnerable to victimization in general and to being trafficked specifically. Meanwhile, the tourism and transportation industries have been important partners in combating trafficking. Carlson and Hilton, for example, have been first movers in their industry, training staff to recognize trafficked victims. And nonprofits such as Airline Ambassadors International have partnered with U.S. airlines for the same purpose: to educate personnel to recognize human trafficking. With more money and focus, such efforts could be scaled up.

In numerous places, the Outcome Document also reflects the growing profile of what used to be called the anticorruption movement but is now known as the less punitive and more expansive transparency and accountability movement. And there, too, the effort to combat trafficking could benefit. Efforts to “significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows . . . and combat all forms of organized crime” could have a major impact on the second-largest form of organized crime of all: the buying and selling of humans.

With 17 goals and 169 subgoals or targets, agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals is by no means a done deal, and countertrafficking might run aground on that barely hidden shoal: metrics. What are meaningful targets, indicators, and measurable outcomes that countries will agree to? How do we measure progress when there is no agreement of the size of the problem right now? And there, experts will have to work with the donor community to agree on what an achievable vision for 2030 is. Luckily, there is no need to debate the definition of trafficking: the UN General Assembly adopted “the Palermo protocols” defining the crime in 2000. But be on the lookout for active efforts to dislodge the language, and remain clear-eyed about the lack of urgency with which many view the issue.


As this year’s UN General Assembly opened, the Walk Free Foundation, an Australian organization, commenced an online campaign to get the UN to make ending slavery a stand-alone post-MDG goal. So far, that has not happened. But with anti-trafficking targets included in other ways, the movement is still bound to get more attention.

If the language in the current Outcome Document sticks, donors will sit up and take notice. The next few years will thus be a critical time to build robust donor coordination, particularly with donors who have previously been reluctant to address trafficking. Countries with good human rights records and lots of dollars can no longer steer clear of this issue. Private philanthropies will have new incentives to allocate funding to this issue. Best of all, we might actually see a serious and measurable decline in the buying and selling of children, women, and men and a significant expansion of the movement to end slavery -- surely a goal worth aiming for in a post-2015 world. 

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  • SARAH E. MENDELSON is Senior Adviser and Director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She was Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID from 2010 to 2014 and the agency lead on combating trafficking. Follow her on Twitter @SarahMendelson.
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