Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery

In his book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Slavery, author Siddharth Kara presents a business and economic analysis of sex trafficking. Though such a study may seem heartless or dehumanizing, Kara argues that analyzing sexual slavery through the lens of economics can reveal short- and long-term solutions to end trafficking, and that, in fact, without this type of analysis intervention attempts may do more harm than good.

Kara, a former investment banker with an MBA from Columbia University, left his corporate career to pursue anti-slavery research and work. He is a board member of Free the Slaves. In his book, he argues that ending sex slavery will necessitate ending the demand for sex slavery, and that the most effective way to decrease demand is to increase risk. He presents suggested ways to increase the risk/cost of slavery to traffickers, and uses basic economic concepts, such as elasticity of demand, to evaluate the effectiveness of anti-trafficking efforts.

Many of Kara's findings are more suggestive than conclusive, which he readily acknowledges. For example, he argues that increasing the costs of using sex slaves will dramatically decrease the demand for these slaves due to the elasticity of demand for commercial sex. Though his conclusion aligns with my own beliefs and the beliefs of many NGOs, the analysis is based on an extremely small sample size that may not be representative. While this example points to some of the challenges in conducting research on human trafficking and its causes, it also points to the need for more research and data.

Kara extensively researched sex trafficking around the world, and
he contextualizes his economic analysis within his firsthand interviews with sex trafficking victims and survivors, and his experiences with the market for sex slaves. While many of the most compelling parts of his books spring from these experiences, his analysis of slavery in the United States is somewhat anemic and does not discuss the sex trafficking of US citizens.

Throughout the book, Kara discusses the role that globalization has played in creating situations rife for exploitation and slavery. He demonstrates the ways that governmental policies and corrupt greed help perpetuate human rights abuses and poverty. He argues that vulnerability to trafficking can often be traced to unequal distributions of power and wealth that are only increasing as a result of globalization.

Though his book focuses mainly on sex trafficking, Kara does touch on labor trafficking issues and acknowledges the need for a similar analysis of the business of labor trafficking. Many of his insights about the economic factors that contribute to the demand for slavery and the need to increase the economic costs of slavery for producers and consumers will prove useful in such an analysis. At the same time, the causes of labor trafficking and the factors that fuel its demand are different from sex trafficking, and more research on this form of trafficking is vitally needed.

Kara's research and analysis provide a useful foundation for further efforts to effectively end slavery that is grounded in an understanding of the economic and business realities that fuel this crime.

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