Celebrating 10 Years of Anti-Trafficking Efforts

By Amanda Finger

This year, we celebrate 10 years of concentrated efforts to locally address human trafficking. One decade is a significant amount of time and is a point for reflection as well as an opportunity to look forward. For the history and our founding or the programs we operate, I’ll refer you to the Who We Are section on our website. For now, I’d like to take the time to reflect upon our impact, big and small, and the lessons we have learned.

In the 10 years that we have sought to make an imprint on the anti-trafficking movement, I am most proud of our work with future leaders (i.e., interns) as well as our wide variety of collaborations with organizations, agencies, and individuals.  Perhaps this is because collaborations and leaders are made of people. It is humbling to facilitate meetings where the table hosts law enforcement agents, feminist activists, secular nonprofit and faith-based leaders, academicians, corporate leaders, politicians, interns, and survivors. Once the table is set, it is how we maintain these relationships that I believe will make the movement sustainable. Intensive, respectful dialogue and collaboration among people from many different disciplines is key to addressing any crime as immense as human trafficking. As I reflect on my involvement over the years, I’d like to note some of my own lessons learned:

1)    Respecting survivor voices. When I have listened – taking the time to really listen – to people share their lived experiences, I have become a better person and a better leader. I am not referring to someone sharing personal traumatic details; rather, I refer to the co-learning that occurs in these conversations. For example, I have learned ways to more sensitively train and educate, to pay close attention to the language that I use, and to not over-intellectualize a topic that is emotional but to not sensationalize it either. Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that people are resilient; human trafficking is just a part of one’s story.

2)    Mentorship of future leaders. Since 2005, we have supported 106 interns. I have spent 10 years reframing the phrase, “I’m just an intern,” to one that denotes confidence and deserving of a place at the table. We have been able to accomplish many meaningful projects because of these future leaders and they have gone on to contribute their skills and talents to become foreign aid officers, lawyers, teachers, police officers, social workers, and film directors. They are critical to sustaining the momentum of this movement.

3)    Research matters. As a nonprofit that conducts research, I share an immense respect for the blending of rigorous research design with practitioner expertise. I believe that we must respond to this global issue locally – we must seek ways to comprehensively address human trafficking, and to leverage existing resources in our communities. Our research projects are designed locally, and can be replicated by other cities and states around the country, reinforcing the idea of collectively sharing and learning. Researchers can help us make sense of what we’re seeing and hearing on the ground. Survivors and first responders can help guide us to the to the right questions.

These lessons provide a fundamental compass for the next 10 years: Keep survivor voices central, teach the next generation how to comprehensively address human trafficking, and integrate collaborative, and research-supported actions to effect long-term systemic change.

Next Blog: Looking Forward to the Next 10 Years


The Fall of Somaly Mam from Grace: Deception & Integrity in the Non-Profit Sector

By Ryan Goehrung

For many, she is a source of hope and inspiration, a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and the epitome of selflessness. The Cambodian woman who escaped a life of forced sexual exploitation and went on to found a multi-million dollar charitable foundation supported by celebrities and business moguls alike, which publicly claims to have rescued hundreds of girls from brothels and “touched the lives of over 100,000 women and girls.” Somaly Mam has always been the face of this organization and a leader in the anti-trafficking movement, bolstered by undeniable charisma, and a heart wrenching personal account of her own experience as a survivor of sex trafficking. She has been a powerful force, charming the hearts and wallets of philanthropists, activists and politicians across the globe. The only trouble is the life-story on which her organization was founded, may be a fabrication.

Following a highly critical expose published in Newsweek this past May, Somaly Mam resigned from her own organization. Doubt over Somaly Mams story is not new. Accusations from former employees and fellow Cambodians have quietly circulated the internet for several years now about embellishments and even fabrications. However, until Newsweeks cover story last week, her reputation and the faith of her powerful following effectively insulated her against criticism.

The media coverage, if accurate, provides convincing and damning evidence that Somaly Mam may have built her reputation on falsities and made a career of misleading donors. The allegations against perhaps the worlds most renowned anti-human trafficking heroine, therefore, raise some difficult questions both for the non-profit sector and those working specifically in the anti-human trafficking field.

Some may criticize the media for the fervor with which they attempt to tear down giants who are doing good work. Indeed, the degree of criticism that those in the humanitarian sector face is at times reminiscent of a witch-hunt. The very title of the Newsweek article “The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking” reveals the overly simplistic moral dichotomy by which we view those in the non-profit sector. The standard to which we hold them is that of a saint, but at the moment their human fallibility is revealed, they instantly become sinners.

However, there are also very good reasons for a high standard of moral accountability. Some may argue the good work of an organization outweighs the slippery moral slope of manipulating data or falsifying stories to stir-up sympathy (and by virtue donor dollars). After all, some might argue good done through questionable means is still good, right? Indeed, amongst all the accusations lodged against Somaly Mam, few argue with the general sentiment or even outcomes of her campaign to help neglected and sexually exploited Cambodian girls. However, this ends-justify-the-means mentality is not only ethically questionable, but it also undermines the integrity of the entire non-profit sector. Charitable organizations survive almost entirely on reputation. Donors small and large give money because they believe in the cause, but just as important is their belief in the integrity of the organization and those conducting the work. Few donors – whether they give $10 or $10,000 – will ever know for sure where their money goes. While charity watch dogs like “GuideStar” attempt to increase the transparency and accountability of non-profits, faith often goes further than facts.

As such, when one organization, or its figurehead, is revealed to have misled the public or made false claims, it can damage the entire non-profit sector. When trust in one charity is shaken – particularly one as well-renowned as the Somaly Mam Foundation – all other such organizations fall under public scrutiny. Those who might fabricate stories or falsify data to improve the “worthiness” of their charitable causes, undermine the integrity on which the entire non-profit sector is based – the trust that donor dollars are going to the causes and outcomes they claim. Fierce competition for philanthropic funding creates significant temptation to embellish a cause or overstate an organizations efficacy. But when one organization gives into this dynamic, it threatens the genuine and honest work of all other charitable endeavors.

Even more unsettling about the allegations against Somaly Mam, are the implications for other survivors of human trafficking.  The field of anti-human trafficking is one that is notorious for relying on heart-wrenching images and stories to stir up sympathy for its cause. Somaly Mam is not the first one to use the stories of survivors to incite pity. She is not even the first one that may have embellished or fabricated stories of survivorship to help raise money. However, this approach compromises the value of anti-trafficking efforts by “victimizing” survivors and undermines the true experiences of other trafficking survivors. Capitalizing on an individuals trauma to raise money in order to ostensibly help other victims/survivors of trafficking is not so different from the logic that allows human traffickers to justify the exploitation of vulnerable individuals in the first place. Exploitation of survivors or their stories to meet fundraising goals or draw attention to a worthwhile cause is still exploitation. Helping the many at the expense of the few, does nothing to further the causes of greater equality and human empathy which might actually help to deter exploitation.

Whether or not the end goal is well-intentioned, whether or not the work of an organization makes a positive difference in other ways, strategies relying on falsities undermine the value of social justice causes. Therefore, it is important to hold non-profits and their leaders to high ethical standards. The current dynamics of fundraising in the non-profit sector create significant temptations to follow the same path as Somaly Mam, but those that give in risk undermining the very causes they set out to address. While the ideal solution is greater accountability and transparency in the spending, programs and outcomes of charitable organizations, or a restructuring of the system through which we raise money, in the mean-time those of us in the non-profit sector must work to ensure our own integrity. We must hold true to the value and understanding that donor funds or organizational renown is not worth the price of compromising an entire social justice movement.