The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, was adopted by the General Assembly in 2000, ushering in a new regime of norms and guidelines that reshaped action by states, NGOs and international organizations around human trafficking. I draw on three years of multi-sited fieldwork in Tokyo, Manila, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. to analyze why these efforts fall so spectacularly short of their stated goals despite having dedicated considerable resources toward achieving them. I show that as the intent to address human suffering meets the bureaucratic forms and institutional logics of global governance, the paradoxes that emerge are more than logistical and administrative ones. Building from Hannah Arendt’s understanding of banality as a rote thoughtlessness in political life, I argue that globalized political projects aimed at doing “good” can also be wrought by such a thoughtlessness when they trade official gestures of institutional compliance for more trenchant strategies of political-economic change.
Lieba Faier is an ethnographer whose research explores the relationships between transnational political economic processes and the making of lives, laws, communities, and landscapes. Her forthcoming book, The Banality of Good: The UN’s Global Fight against Human Trafficking to Japan, will be published by Duke University Press in 2024. She is the author of Intimate Encounters: Filipina Women and the Remaking of Rural Japan (University of California Press, 2009) and co-editor of Matsutake Worlds (Berghahn Books, 2021) with Michael Hathaway for the Matsutake Worlds Research Group. She has additionally published essays in American Ethnologist, Cultural Anthropology, Annual Review of Anthropology, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Gender, Place & Culture, Environment and Planning A, and the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. She holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology (Gender Studies) from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and she is currently Associate Professor of Geography and Gender Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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