Last week I mentioned that my team and I are thinking about starting up a new branch of our work, focused on rescuing Vietnamese people who have been trafficked into China.
We've already completed a few rescue trips - the first was in 2007, and the most recent was in December - but it's always been in response to a particular call for help rather than part of any plan. We don't have any funding for these trips, or staff. We just do them when we need to, and so far they've worked really well.
From our earliest days, I've always seen Blue Dragon's role as looking out for the kids who nobody else is looking out for or nobody else can help. These girls and young women we've rescued so far definitely fit into that definition; in each case, we've been certain that if we didn't go to get them, nobody would have. And for me, that's enough justification to go and help.
The strange thing is, though, that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of charities, NGOs, multilateral programs etc etc throughout this region that have 'anti-trafficking programs'. The United Nations estimates that the human trafficking industry is worth about $10 billion a year. I can't help but wonder: what is the 'anti-trafficking' industry worth? I suspect it would be far more than $10 billion. Are charities thriving on the back of the trafficking industry?
From where I stand, there seems to be a spectrum of 'anti-trafficking' programs. At one end, there are the small, hands-on initiatives where charity workers roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work. These organisations aren't usually well known, and their budgets are small. But they're doing the work and they can show you the people they have helped. Here in Vietnam, one such charity is the Catalyst Foundation. I'd like to believe that Blue Dragon falls into this category too.
At the other end of the scale are the organisations with massive marketing power behind them, huge funding, and fantastic websites... but which can't really point to anyone they've actually helped. These are the organisations which tell you "We don't get involved in individual cases," and work on mass campaigns which, by no coincidence, heavily feature their name and logo.
My own view, which I hold passionately, is this: Mass campaigns are a waste of time. And yes, MTV Exit, that includes you!
I have no doubt that they get the message to many people, but their impact is minimal. I mention MTV Exit because, curiously, so many NGOs have jumped on this bandwagon... but who does it reach? None of the 157 boys, girls, or young adults we've rescued so far have even heard of MTV. Many don't have TV at all. The concerts and videos are brilliantly produced and very compelling, but provide no call to action and don't reach the people they need to reach. All at a massively high cost. That money could have much greater impact elsewhere.
The MTV Exit website declares: "40,000 youth joined in the fight against human trafficking with After School and The Click Five." No they didn't. 40,000 youth enjoyed a concert. And if it was anything like the Vietnam concert a couple of years back, it was meant to be free to the public but scalpers were selling the tickets outside for $10 each.
Apart from my own rantings, I haven't found much criticism of this campaign, or others. The NGO world here in Asia is soaking it all up. Why could that be? Well, for starters, the numbers look great. 40,000 people attended a single event in Cambodia! The donors will love that! Sadly, that's how much charity work is designed - around numbers rather than results.
Some of the greatest successes that I have seen, though, have come from small group discussions, chats with villagers, often over a cup of tea or a bowl of rice. No slick marketing, no mass appeal, just a heart to heart talk from one human being to another. And you know what? That approach is massively effective.
Blue Dragon has been rescuing trafficked kids from central Vietnam 2005. They get taken to Ho Chi Minh City and put to work under the pretext of "training", but it's just slave labour.
Our experience is that, except in one case, we need to organise just 2 rescue trips from any one commune (a collection of villages) in central Vietnam before the trafficking from that commune stops. Two rescue trips are enough for the local people to realise the dangers of sending their kids away with the traffickers. Once the trafficking has stopped, the people need ongoing support to send their kids to school, and to earn an income. That's all it takes to end trafficking, which has been going on for decades.
The anti-trafficking industry needs to take a long hard look at itself. This addiction to campaigns needs to end. NGOs, charities and governments need to stop talking about 'programs' and start talking to people.
Yes, it's dirty work, but the only way to stop trafficking is village by village, and sometimes house by house. Everything else is just fluff.