Review of An Evaluation of IJM’s Project Lantern by Andrew Jones et al.

It has been many years since I first learned about the International Justice Mission (IJM), a Christian NGO dedicated to fighting human trafficking worldwide. I remember being amazed to hear that they were able to fight corrupt legal systems, since that had always struck me as one of the most intractable obstacles to ending human trafficking. I asked an IJM representative for more information, and he told me about Project Lantern (PL).

An Evaluation of the International Justice Mission’s “Project Lantern” is not a book, but a 122-page report on a very interesting five-year anti-sex-trafficking project in the Philippines, conducted by IJM. It is a remarkable document, because it is not often that an NGO makes a concerted effort to measure the efficacy of its projects and then publishes such a detailed report. I am sure that we can thank the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded PL starting in 2005, not only for providing the money but for pushing for the results to be made available to the public.

The Philippines passed the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act (RA 9208) in 2003, but it was an open question whether the law could be enforced, given the limited resources available to the Philippines National Police (PNP) and the longstanding problem of corruption in the legal system. The idea of PL was for IJM to carry out its mission in the city of Cebu for five years, and for an external evaluation to be conducted to assess the impact.

When I first learned of this report, I expected that it would largely validate the effectiveness of IJM’s methods. After all, it is in IJM’s interests to be able to provide some kind of “scientific proof” that its approach is a good one. Indeed, the report “found considerable evidence of an observed reduction in the availability of minors in commercial sex establishments in Metro Cebu since the start of Project Lantern and connects Project Lantern-supported improvements in the public justice system’s enforcement of RA 9208 to this change.” There was also evidence that IJM strengthened the legal system, both through the establishment and development of the Regional Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force (RATTF), and through the prosecution of human trafficking crimes in the courts. IJM also significantly improved the aftercare services for rescued victims of human trafficking. All this is heartening news.

However, what I found most interesting was that the report was surprisingly frank about the caveats that should be attached to the above positive findings. For example, the reduction in the availability of minors in commercial sex establishments may just mean that the activity has been driven “underground” and is less visible, but is still happening.

There is limited anecdotal evidence that increased law enforcement activity has driven sex trafficking activity to other areas outside Metro Cebu, further “underground,” and/or bled into more informal markets, such as home-based web-porn other cottage industries. The primary point of corroboration between the quantitative and qualitative data is the decreased visibility of trafficked minors for commercial sexual exploitation. For example, law enforcement reported seeing fewer minors during raids and DSWD [Department of Social Welfare and Development] reported receiving fewer minors at the Haven Shelter. However, the majority of respondents who commented on the three-wave study results were dubious that minors’ involvement in commercial sexual activity had actually decreased. As such, it is not clear to what extent reduced visibility is evidence of actual decreased sexual exploitation of minors.

A related problem is re-trafficking. Will minors who are “rescued” end up being re-victimized after they leave protective custody?

We got frustrated over a girl who stayed in our center for a year. When she was released, she stayed with her uncle for two days and then returned to previous work. She was traced by IJM social worker. They were the ones who retrieved the girl…She said she went back to sex work “because it had a bigger income.”

In the Philippines, of course, IJM is an outside organization. This status can be both an asset and a liability. IJM can act as a mediator to bring about cooperation between organizations that may not have been cooperating very well before.

Credit was given to IJM for smoothing relations to the point that PNP and DSWD now have agreed protocols and are working in coordinate fashion on operations leading to arrests and rescues. One police officer concurred, “IJM has been very helpful. They made us closer with DSWD. We have been cooperating with DSWD. The number of operations that we do, DSWD is always with us.”

On the other hand, there is no guarantee that IJM will get along with the local authorities. In particular, if part of IJM’s mission is to combat corruption, then those accused of corruption will naturally not react kindly.

From 2006 to 2008, close collaboration with NBI [National Bureau of Investigation] produced tangible results. Following an incident of alleged corruption reported by IJM to the government for investigation and follow-up, however, the relationship soured and remains tense.

Similarly, IJM’s role as a watchdog can be useful (“we just tell them that the NGOs knew about the case, and it sort of cut the conversation right there…it is good to have specific NGOs watching over, helping around”), but what happens when funding runs short and the NGO is no longer around? For permanent change to happen, it has to take root in the local legal system and culture, but this is difficult. Moving cases through the courts is a particularly slow and arduous process; “the bottom line is that there is heavy reliance on PL to move prosecutions through the system and no sign of that abating in the foreseeable future.” Moreover, even with IJM’s assistance, PL secured its first conviction only in August 2010. The original target was five convictions over the five years 2005–2010.

With respect to rescued victims processed through DSWD, when IJM leaves, who will assist in taking their affidavits and work with law enforcement to file well-prepared complaints with the public prosecutor’s office post-Project Lantern? The only legal aid groups mentioned by respondents were Childrens Legal Bureau or CLB and LAW, Inc., and, with IJM, they have agreed on a division of labor and referral system by which IJM handles sex trafficking, CLB child abuse, and LAW, Inc. labor abuse cases. In the longer run, it will be important for IJM to seek to engage a Philippine NGO like one of these and build up their commitment and capacities to provide such assistance to the victims of sex trafficking.

In some cases, it seems that IJM fills a niche that simply cannot be fulfilled by a local NGO. “Community-based aftercare NGOs feel they must delicately balance the need for community access and trust with the need to take steps to protect victims and/or secure justice.” As one aftercare worker said:

No, no, not that we don’t want to be identified with IJM. With the kind of work we had, we cannot expose our identity. If these people knew that we worked with IJM, that’s the end of our work, we cannot anymore work in our communities.

One finding that particularly surprised me was the attitude of the “rescued victims.” Western donors to IJM typically view themselves as heroes, and imagine that rescued victims will be extremely grateful. In reality, this need not be the case.

The aftercare system is, according to service providers, is generally viewed by those in its care as punitive to the victims while the traffickers and customers suffer no consequences. All focus group respondents agreed that girls in aftercare shelters view themselves as prisoners.

Police raids are also very traumatic for the children.

One caveat to what is overall a highly positive assessment of Project Lantern’s impact on law enforcement operations is the view expressed by some aftercare stakeholders that the police raids, supported by IJM, are still traumatic experiences for rescued victims. One organization working with street children reluctantly shared the concerns the children they care for have with IJM (equating police raids with IJM). They said that children find the “IJM experience” [the police raids and rescue operations] “traumatic, very traumatic. They are supposed to be the rescuers or friends of the children, but the children are afraid with IJM. It’s supposed to be more caring perhaps.… The point is to reduce the trauma in the children. If there is a way to minimize the traumatic experience…” This perspective (on IJM) is not shared by all clients, depends on individual situations, and, according to aftercare providers, is mitigated in time.

Despite these numerous caveats, my overall feeling remains that IJM is carrying out an important mission, and generally doing so effectively. At the same time, it is important for NGO workers and donors alike to be aware of some of the pitfalls that may not be obvious from a casual read of the promotional literature that IJM puts on the front page of its website or mails out to donors. This report is must reading for anyone who is serious about combatting human trafficking worldwide.
Posted December 2020

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