Getting to the Root: Poverty

As promised, here is our first edition of the Getting to the Root blog series!

Getting to the Root: Poverty
By: Elizabeth Gerrior, TAT Intern 

In their 2005 Special Project on Poverty Statistics, the United Nations (UN) noted that poverty is a complex issue that can be very difficult to define. It is largely subjective from country to country, province to province, city to city, and even people group to people group. In an attempt to more accurately measure and address poverty, the UN classified it into two types: absolute and relative. These two types of poverty, though both very real, are subtly different in the ways they expose the poor to the forces of human trafficking. 

Absolute Poverty
Those in absolute poverty are the poorest of the poor around the world. Regardless of the fact that income levels of the absolute poor can vary -- and are often disputed -- the reality is that those in absolute poverty are vulnerable to trafficking, because they are in need of the most basic human necessities. They may be homeless, hungry, or unable to access clean water or even the simplest medical care. 
In some cases, men or women in absolute poverty find themselves in situations where they suspect they could be entering exploitative circumstances but feel they have no other choice or option, because they or their family are in need. In his 2010 TED talk, Kevin Bales explains that often those in poverty who are offered “jobs” by traffickers do what most of us would do in their situation, “They [say], ‘That guy looks sketchy. I was suspicious. But my children were hungry. We needed medicine. I knew I had to do anything I could to earn some money to support the people I care about.’” 
Additionally, many of the absolute poor in the world are permanently stuck or born into situations of slavery and trafficking. In his book The Locust Effect, Gary Haugen shares stories of people who find themselves in situations of indentured servitude where they are bound to continue working for a trafficker for their entire lifetime because of a debt as small as $10. In many cases, their children are born into this trafficking and, even after their parents’ death, are forced to continue working to pay off these debts.
    Much of this vulnerability exists because, despite aid efforts to end poverty, there is often a great deal of corruption or institutional systems of inequality that keep the poor in situations of trafficking. In many of the world’s developing countries, police protection is really only available to those who can “afford” it. Because the poor cannot pay off local police, even those kidnapped, beaten, tortured, raped, or killed never escape or receive retribution. Worse still, many officers of the law in these countries are complicit in traffickers’ crimes and can be bribed for only a few dollars a day to turn their back on clear violations of the law or to help “keep victims in line” through rape, beating, victim blaming or fear. 

Relative Poverty
On the other hand, those in relative poverty around the world may not fall under national or global poverty lines or thresholds, but they are low on the spectrum given the relative standards of living in their countries.  This type of poverty is also very real and a powerful vulnerability traffickers have learned to use to their advantage. Though many in relative poverty may be able to meet their basic needs, they are drawn into trafficking situations because of a desire to make their lives better.
In his book, Human Trafficking: A Stakeholders Perspective, Veerendra Mishra discusses how lower and middle-class men and women are drawn into trafficking through the desire for new and better things. “Alienation [coupled] with Aspiration and Ambition of the have-nots … are major causative factors drawing victims’ attention toward demand. They falsely presume that there is … eventual empowerment once they move to the glossy world, falsely created in the world of demand.” Though his book specifically discusses Indian men and women, it is easy to see how this hopeful movement toward a better life can lead men and women all around the globe to places of unexpected destitution. 
This exploitation of aspiration takes on many forms. It can lead to situations where individuals are physically or financially unable to leave because of threats or debts owed. It can also create invisible chains of emotional control that are often just as powerful as these physical or monetary chains. Traffickers are often expert manipulators and, particularly in cases of sex trafficking, can convince victims that the exploitative and violent life of prostitution is actually better than the lives they left. Loyalty can sometimes be “bought” for as little as a visit to have hair and nails done at the salon or a trip through the McDonalds drive through. Though these cases may not be entirely predicated on the poverty of the victims, aspiration of have-nots is often at least a contributing, if not primary, factor in their vulnerability to exploitation. 
Though at the end of the day there is some value in understanding techniques of manipulation and control through the lens of the two types of poverty, it does not mean that any of the above-mentioned control tactics are used solely on the poor or on those who fall into the “type” of poverty the tactic was listed under. It is also not to say that certain types of trafficking or certain “levels” of poor are more or less deserving of programs and intervention. 

Become Involved with Solutions
The real value in seeing the world of poverty through the more specific lens of absolute and relative poverty is in crafting responses and preventative measures to trafficking that most accurately remove the types of vulnerability faced by the absolute and relative poor. The good news is that despite the vulnerabilities of the poor, in many places around the world, service organizations are doing amazing work to effectively respond to the unique needs of these individuals. Three of the many effective programs and organizations fighting poverty in the world follow.
First, Ashoka’s Full Economic Citizenship Initiative seeks to address the issue of absolute poverty by working to bring all of the world’s citizens into full inclusion in economic cycles. They do this by engaging the citizen sector in business ventures by creating partnerships with complementary business which helps eliminate exploitative middlemen and provides stable agriculture, healthcare, and housing in even the poorest communities. 
Second, International Justice Mission, a long-standing, anti-trafficking organization, focuses on the issue of violence against the poor. They work closely with national actors at their numerous IJM locations to fight for legal and political justice for the poor in their countries. They recognize that many of the aid programs targeted at the poor overlook the violence they face. IJM works to stamp out that violence, making it easier for the poor to improve their living conditions and escape exploitative situations. 
Third and finally, Youth Villages, a domestic organization that works with at-risk families, has made significant strides in keeping children out of the foster-care system and in stable and positive family environments. Their methods have been shown to be highly effective in improving the standards of living and satisfaction for their clients, and their work is highly effective in communities of relative poverty. 

Practical Steps Anyone Can Take
In addition to the work these organizations are doing, there are significant things everyday citizens can do to help alleviate poverty and the accompanying vulnerability to trafficking. There are more people who want to stop trafficking than there are traffickers in this world, so let’s not let apathy and lack of information lead us to stagnation. Here are some practical steps we can all take:
Educate yourself. Make it a point to learn more about the issue of poverty. This blog entry barely touches the surface of poverty and how it plays into human trafficking. Looking for recommendations of where to start? Consider reading The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen. Watch or read Half the Sky and A Path Appears.
Consider your consumption. The consumption choices we make every day really do impact workers all around the world. Start buying fair-trade coffee, tea, chocolate, and more. If your local grocer doesn’t supply fair-trade items, ask them to start and consider shopping online! 
Support global initiatives. There are impactful global initiatives currently in place. Support those initiatives financially or otherwise. Caring about the world doesn’t always mean starting your own nonprofit; sometimes it’s as simple as sponsoring a child. 
Support local initiatives. We all know poverty doesn’t just happen globally, so what are you doing to fight it in your home town? Support your local food bank and give nutritious, much-needed foods, not just the can of creamed corn at the back of the pantry. Mentor youth in your area by volunteering for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Consider becoming a foster parent or adopting. Invest in the people and programs around you, and you will be amazed at the difference you can make.