Is Best Practice Possible in Anti-Trafficking Work?

Is best practice possible in anti-trafficking work? In my most recent post, Survivor Inclusion in Anti-Trafficking Work, I discussed the priority of elements that might comprise best practice. I proposed that the most critical aspects to consider in developing best practices were the lived experiences of survivors and communities at risk of exploitation.

I used the term “best practice” because we all have a responsibility to use the best practices possible.

But is best practice actually possible in anti-trafficking work?

I recently discovered an analysis framework that I feel is helpful for understanding the challenges presented by exploitation, human trafficking, and modern slavery. This framework, Cynefin, helps put the idea of best practice into perspective.

A friend shared the Cynefin framework with me a few months ago. It helped me understand and make sense of the challenges we face in addressing exploitation, trafficking, and slavery, and dealing with the complexity of those issues.

The video below is about 8 minutes long and provides an excellent introduction to the Cynefin framework.



To briefly summarize the information provided by Dave Snowden in the video, the Cynefin framework is a “sense-making model,” not a categorization model.

A sense-making model focuses on understanding data and situations as we encounter them in our daily routines and what it means in its context. This model intentionally deviates from the more familiar practice of fitting what we see into a category of things we already know.

The Cynefin framework divides problems and situations into five “domains” or categories: disorder, simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.

Graphic by Snowded – CC BY-SA 3.0source

Disorder refers to the state of not knowing which of the other four domains is relevant to our current situation.

Simple Domain

In simple situations and when facing simple problems, cause and effect relationships exist and are visible, predictable, and repeatable. We can easily connect what is happening with past experiences and remember how we need to respond. There is often one clear answer that is the best solution to the problem. In simple situations, it is possible to define best practices.

How we should interact with simple situations and problems:

  • Sense – categorize – respond
  • Apply best practice – only one correct way of doing things

Complicated Domain

In complicated situations, cause and effect relationships exist but are not easily visible and require specific expertise to detect. For complicated situations and problems, there is more than one acceptable solution. In these situations, we need to rely on subject matter experts to help us determine the best response. The goal is to use one of the established “good practices” to address the problem. A determination of best practice is not possible.

How we should interact with complicated situations and problems:

  • Sense – analyze – respond
  • Utilize experts to make the right decision
  • Apply Good Practice – There are several legitimate ways of doing things if you have the right skills and expertise. Forcing people to adopt one way is dangerous.

Complex Domain

Complex situations are systems without clear cause and effect relationships and result in unpredictable “emergent outcomes.” These situations are the result of many interrelated emotional, social, economic, and political factors that affect the outcomes. The same mix of factors will result in different, unpredictable outcomes in each new situation. This unpredictability means that there is no established good or best practice and the process of developing “good practice” is ongoing. What is possible is generating and refining “emergent practice” and engaging in iterative development and refinement of practice.

How we should interact with complex situations and problems:

  • Probe – sense – respond
  • Emergent practice – new ways of doing things that are different and unique

Chaotic Domain

In a chaotic situation no cause and effect relationship can be determined. Innovation occurs in chaotic environments and aims to stabilize them. New “novel practices” are tried in this environment, which aim to stabilize the situation and move it from the chaotic domain to the complex domain.

How we should interact with chaotic situations and problems:

  • Act – sense – respond
  • Novel practice – any practice will be new and unique

How does this apply to human trafficking and anti-trafficking work?

Let’s explore the application of the Cynefin framework to the problems of exploitation, trafficking, and slavery.

In the early years of the modern anti-trafficking movement, selfless humanitarians entered chaotic environments to help people who were suffering. For example early abolitionists were acting to establish order and stop immediate suffering. Due to the lack of research and knowledge of the problem at the time, anti-trafficking work was a chaotic domain.

In a rush to make sense of the chaos and bring order, simplified understandings of the causes and effects of trafficking were used to understand what was happening. In particular, the causes of human trafficking and sex trafficking were attributed to simple concepts that offered simple solutions.

The primary cause of trafficking, especially sex trafficking, was and often still is understood to be evil, immoral actions by criminal elements and social deviants that victimize innocent people against their will. While this is true in some cases, it presents an oversimplified view of exploitation, trafficking, and slavery. In many cases, traffickers suffer from the same social and economic inequalities that make people vulnerable to trafficking. They just end up on the other side of the exploitation equation, trying to survive.

The temptation to move from a chaotic domain to a simple domain is appealing, especially when people are suffering. As humans, we are wired to seek simple answers that align with our experiences and beliefs. However, research has shown that oversimplifying exploitation and trafficking results in inadequate solutions that often fail to prevent exploitation and trafficking and leave survivors vulnerable to re-exploitation. (Source:

Let’s take a closer look at the four core “domains” as described by Dave Snowden and how they can be seen and understood in the context of exploitation, trafficking, and slavery.

Simple problems and solutions

Are there elements of human trafficking that are simple?

Are there things that we can say for certain are best practices?

I believe there are problems that occur within the boundaries of exploitation, trafficking, and slavery that have simple solutions. Hunger, thirst, a safe place to call home, and access to medical care are all simple needs with relatively simple known solutions that deliver a known result. Providing food to hungry people is a proven solution, as is water for the thirsty, a home for the homeless, and medical care for the sick. We can categorize these needs as falling in the simple domain and select the appropriate simple solution.

Complicated situations

There are many elements of exploitation, trafficking, and slavery that are complicated where qualified experts have been able to develop good practice and can help us continue to grow and refine that practice to serve survivors better and prevent exploitation.

Where can we see complication in the sphere of human trafficking?

A few examples would be the prosecution of criminal offenders, the process of tracing corporate supply chains, and providing adequate mental health care for survivors. These processes cannot be performed by untrained professionals. Prosecution and mental health care require professional licensing and extensive experience to legally practice and to be successful. Tracing supply chains requires professional knowledge, experience, and access to supply chains and their data.

There are certainly more aspects of anti-trafficking work that are dwell in the complicated complicated domain than fall in the simple domain

The complex dynamics of human trafficking and anti-trafficking work

Exploitation, human trafficking, and slavery are complex issues because their root causes cascade across the core elements of human social interaction. Emotion, health, education, interpersonal social dynamics, economics, politics, free will, and many other factors contribute to exploitation, trafficking, and slavery. With complex situations and problems, there are no apparent cause-and-effect relationships. There is no single defining cause-and-effect relationship for exploitation, human trafficking, or slavery. The lack of specific, measurable causes is also a defining characteristic of vulnerability to exploitation and trafficking. We understand that there are factors that contribute to trafficking. Still, we cannot predict the actual triggers or combination of triggers that will result in exploitation, trafficking, or slavery for any one person.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the complexity of human trafficking through the lens of one of the core areas of anti-trafficking work, prevention.

Exploring Prevention with the Cynefin Framework

To prevent human trafficking, we first need to understand what trafficking is and what causes it.

Over the last 20 years, the anti-trafficking movement has clearly defined the actions and outcomes we associate with exploitation, trafficking, and slavery. While those definitions are foundational to the legal processes that allow governments to prosecute and convict traffickers, they remain vague and leave considerable room for interpretation by the criminal justice system and anti-trafficking NGOs.

While we have legal definitions for what trafficking and slavery are, we have not yet developed a clear cause and effect understanding of what causes a person to be trafficked. Vulnerability to trafficking is a complex equation of factors for which the variables and calculations differ for each person. Below are a few examples of the factors that affect vulnerability to exploitation.

  • A person’s personal health
  • The health of their family members
  • The educational opportunities available to them and their family members
  • The economic opportunities available to them or their family members
  • Their citizenship situation
  • Personal or family addiction and/or mental health issues
  • Past trauma
  • Collective trauma in the community
  • Gender
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Discrimination
  • Marginalization
  • Abuse

All of these factors can affect a person’s vulnerability to exploitation, trafficking, or enslavement.

Currently, the most common approach to prevention is educating school children and communities that are vulnerable about the dangers of trafficking and teaching them how to recognize unsafe situations. This approach applies a solution from the simple domain to a complex problem. If the answer were as simple as recognizing dangerous situations and avoiding them, there would be significantly fewer trafficking victims in the world.

Oversimplifying trafficking to a person’s situational awareness and choices ignores the complex web of challenges and forced choices people who are vulnerable face every day. People who are marginalized and vulnerable often must navigate a minefield of factors that threaten to overwhelm them and force them into situations where they are at the mercy of systemic factors and opportunistic people waiting to take advantage of them.

The Complexity of Economic Opportunity

For the sake of space, let’s look at the complexity of economic opportunity, just one of the factors that increases vulnerability to exploitation and trafficking.

On the surface, economic opportunity seems simple. Can a person find a job that pays enough to meet their needs?

To find a good-paying job, there are several factors that make affect a person’s eligibility:

  • Practical skills
  • Education
  • Legal eligibility to work
  • A person’s health or physical ability to do the work
  • Language fluency
  • Availability of transportation to the work location
  • Their ability to make a memorable impression on a potential employer
  • The potential employer’s perception of their ability and value

These are just a few of the possible factors that can either secure a job or prevent a person from getting a job. This matrix is complex enough, as we are all aware from our own experiences of looking for the right job. But this is also where the complexity begins to increase. Skills and education are the top two factors because we understand their importance in being awarded a job.

However, many people around the world are either ineligible to attend school based on their citizenship or immigration status, or cannot afford to attend school because they do not have enough income to pay the basic costs associated with going to school. Costs like books, school uniforms, lunch, and transportation to and from school are often much more than a family can afford.

Lack of education can limit a person’s ability to secure a job that adequately provides for themselves and their families. Lack of access to education and the resulting limitations in job opportunities quickly become a cycle that affects families generation after generation.

Lack of citizenship also affects a person’s eligibility to work. If a person does not have legal status that allows them to work, they are often forced to work illegally in the margins. In other cases, their movement may be restricted to a small geographic area where they are limited to the jobs available in that area. These jobs in the margins often pay less and are more likely to be unregulated and allow for the exploitation or mistreatment their workers. If a worker is injured in the course of illegal work, they likely have no legal recourse, and their impaired ability to work further reduces their ability to earn money.

If one family member is injured or becomes ill and is unable to work, it can quickly force a family to take risks in an attempt to make money. A child may need to leave school to find work, or older family members may need to take a second job or migrate to neighboring cities or countries to seek higher paying work. When families struggle to survive, larger salaries promised by traffickers seem more attractive, and the desperate need makes the risk easier to accept.

All these factors and more can exist simultaneously, placing enormous pressure on a family.

Is best practice possible in these situations? Is there a single solution?

No. In situations like this, there are no easy answers. What needs are most important and what will help can only be determined by skilled experts in partnership with each person and family.

Which is the most important challenge that needs addressing first?

  • Education?
  • Citizenship?
  • Job skills?
  • Health care?
  • Labor regulation?

Working with each person, and family affected to understand their specific needs and consistently monitoring the situation is essential to reducing the family’s risk of exploitation, trafficking, or enslavement.

To reiterate, to understand how to help, we first must recognize and respect the complexity.


What does the Cynefin framework have to offer as we work to prevent human trafficking?

First and foremost, it helps us recognize the different domains of complexity involved in the various situations we encounter in anti-trafficking work. It can help us slow down to analyze the situation and choose the appropriate response. If we can acknowledge the complexity of what we are facing and understand that prevention must be approached on an individual and small community group level to be relevant, we then have a starting point that will allow us to collaboratively try different approaches through which an evidence-based good or best practice can emerge.

Second, it helps us learn to understand the problem for what it is and shift our thinking and approach to what will be most effective for the current problem.

We tend to have a default response when encountering new situations or problems. We will most likely use our default response if we do not have a framework for evaluating problems and intentionally responding. Often the default response is to look for the simplest explanation and solution. Applying this approach before we make decisions or act will limit our reliance on simple solutions.

So how does this relate to best practice and the framework for understanding best practice that I described last week?

If we accept the conceptual framework of the Cynefin model, we are admitting that best practice cannot be determined for solving complicated and complex problems.

How do we reconcile the framework of best practice that says best practice occurs within the confines of the lived experiences of survivors and communities at risk, with the understanding that we can at best only hope to achieve emerging practice in complex environments?

I believe that the Cynefin framework forces us, as an anti-trafficking community, to stop looking for a one size fits all solution to exploitation, trafficking and slavery.

We need to separate and critically evaluate the cause and effect relationships of the various problems we encounter, diagnose the level of complexity, (from simple to complicated, to complex, or even chaotic) and respond to each aspect of a situation appropriately. Trafficking is not a one-dimensional problem. Our thinking and response must reflect the nuance and complexity inherent in the problem.

The application of the framework demands that we honor the complexity of the individual situation of each survivor and each person at risk of being exploited, trafficked, or enslaved.

We must abandon the idea of simple, scalable solutions and instead improve and scale the anti-trafficking movements’ ability to recognize the different types of situations, environments, and problems that are encountered every day.

We need to scale our ability to collaborate with communities on a micro-level to adapt research, emerging practice, good practice, and best practice, when possible, through an iterative process that honors and prioritizes cultural awareness and the needs and experiences of survivors and people at risk of exploitation.

We need to invest time and energy in moving clockwise around the framework domains, starting with the chaotic domain.

Graphic by Snowded – CC BY-SA 3.0 Modified by Bryon Lippincott – source

We cannot move directly from chaotic domain problem to simple domain solutions.

We must innovate to bring order to chaos, then use iteration to refine emerging practice in complex environments with the goal of supporting more local experts that can deliver good practice to complicated situations and problems.

To summarize, we must abandon the idea that we can develop best practices that apply to every situation.

“Instead of seeking to scale simple solutions, we must pursue scaling one principle that becomes the unchanging standard of the anti-trafficking movement. That principle is understanding, valuing, and meeting the felt needs of survivors and communities at a micro-level.”

If we begin with that definition of best practice, it will lead us to collaborate with survivors, communities, and experts to determine which good, emerging, and novel practices should be used to improve the situation. From there, we can constantly measure and evaluate what is working in collaboration with survivors and community members. Within that process we will constantly look for ways to collaboratively improve practice or innovate new practices.

Check out the resources below to learn more about the Cynefin framework.

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