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New Cannibal Markets

Jean-Daniel Rainhorn
Samira El Boudamoussi

Part 6. The Bigger Picture

From Colonization to Neocolonization: New Forms of Exploitation

Firouzeh Nahavandi

Texte intégral

Inequality and exploitation of the human body, phenomena as ancient as the world itself

1Inequality has existed since the world began. Plutarch already noted in his time, “Disequilibrium between rich and poor is the most ancient and fatal sickness of Republics” (Galbraith 2011, 22). Inequality continues to be a global problem. The last Oxfam Report still states that almost half of the world’s wealth is owned by just one percent of the population, and seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years (Oxfam 2014). In the same way, exploitation of human beings is an old phenomenon.

Slavery and self-sale

2Slavery—a condition in which one human being is owned by another—best illustrates the prototype of a relationship defined by domination and exploitation. Furthermore, dehumanization, as a form of objectification, has always been intrinsic to enslavement (Sharp 2000; Patterson 1982). It has been a main component of the past societies, existing as early as eighteenth century before Christ in China or having been treated as a prominent institution in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Greeks considered chattel slavery as a necessity, and Aristotle mentioned the phenomenon in his book Politics: “And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.” In Rome, slaves were individuals without any right, often with a hereditary status. Therefore, slaves have been present in all civilizations for a long time. Slaves were procured in many ways, capture in war being probably the most frequent in ancient times. However, kidnapping, slave-raiding, and piracy expeditions were not unusual. Some people were even enslaved as a punishment for crime or debt and others sold into slavery by parents, sometimes to escape starvation. Also, property rights to slaves could be bought and sold by market transactions.

3Along with submission by violence, self-sale into slavery should also be emphasized. It often occurred as a result of poverty, a phenomenon exemplifying what human beings can be pushed to do as the result of inequality and distress, quite similar to self-sale of human body parts.


4Colonialism, whereby European nations explored, conquered, settled, and submitted various lands, reflects another example of international exploitation by way of dehumanization and objectification. It has mainly been the disparities in the level of technology that permitted the expansion of European powers, especially the inequality in armaments and ship constructions. This phenomenon can be compared to today’s inequality in wealth, and superiority of technological possibilities between world’s regions. Colonialism was also a period of violence, when some native people of colonies were constrained to forced labor, especially in colonies such as those held by Belgium under Leopold II, and worked in inhumane conditions.

5Slavery and colonialism are paroxysmal examples of commodification of the human body and exploitation of resources. However, each period has its specific features, and nowadays globalization has introduced more insidious and subtle forms of exploitation of inequalities and disarray, a new form of neocolonialism, as will be illustrated below.

6In what follows, some features of the commodification of the human body will be reviewed, and then discussed in order to demonstrate why the phenomenon can be considered as a new form of exploitation of international inequalities and why it is a development-related issue.

Some features of today’s commodification of the human body

Hair trade

7Although trade and use of natural hair is not a new phenomenon, it has recently become a juicy business, as wealthy consumers are willing to pay enormous prices to fulfill their dream of beauty using either wigs or hair extensions. As a result, the human hair trade has spread across the globe, and the United States (US), China (for treatment and then export), and the United Kingdom (UK) are the biggest importers of human hair in the world (Turner 2011). Most of the latter comes from developing countries, where long natural hair remains a badge of beauty, but where the women are poor enough to consider selling the treasured asset, or giving it away because of traditions.

8In Great Britain, hair extensions usually come from India, as Indian women’s hair quality is closer to Western women’s and not altered by coloring or treatment. That is the case at Great Lengths, which supplies hair extensions to more than 1,000 salons in the UK, and has reported a staggering 70% growth in the past five years. The Observer (Sunday, June 25, 2006) has uncovered evidence that village women across India are being increasingly targeted for their sought-after waist-length tresses, mainly by unscrupulous agents hired by small-time exporters who are offering husbands less than $10 a time for their wives’ hair and, in more extreme circumstances, forcing women to shave their heads. Out of India, the hair business is also giving way to all sorts of traffic. In Brazil, hair attacks on women are growing. In Russia, there has been evidence of prisoners shaved in order to use their hair. Nowadays, the transnational trade of human hair can be considered as “a business in body parts, multiple strands that contribute to global capitalism’s exploitation of Third World women and their labor” (Berry 2008, 80).


9Surrogacy is another case whereby women’s bodies, mostly from the developing countries, are commoditized to give birth for wealthy couples or individuals. For more than two centuries now, trade with colonized or developing countries has existed, and purchasing cheap labor and goods from abroad as well as outsourcing has become a feature of international relations. However, today, a new type of transaction has entered everyday life: renting out wombs to gestate another’s child, which is the sign of a world where increasingly everything has a price, including motherhood and parenthood.

10Although a fairly recent phenomenon, in our rapidly globalizing world, increasingly women and couples from the US and elsewhere are traveling overseas, especially to high-tech low-cost countries like India, to hire women at discount rates to gestate and deliver babies for a fraction of what it would cost in their countries. “They are, like companies that outsource labor to other countries, traveling to purchase a cheaper source of reproductive labor” (Twine 2011, 1).

11Furthermore, selecting surrogacy instead of adoption as a way for acquiring children is becoming the rule. As a result of a growing demand, commercial surrogacy in developing countries has become a profiteering business. That is the case in India, where there are an estimated 1,000 clinics practicing commercial surrogacy, with an annual earning of $1 billion (some figures mention $2 billion). Furthermore, it entails an organized activity by which most pregnant mothers are kept in “shelter homes”—which are also called “baby factories”—during their days of confinement. Therefore, surrogacy has become a real business with organized services, advertisement, especially sophisticated on the Internet, and competition between agencies.

12Examples abound. Among others, Sensible Surrogacy, “employing” women from Thailand and India, presents itself on Internet as “The only agency with complete and affordable service” that makes “in vitro fertilization simple and affordable for loving couples to create complete families. This includes the best prices for services available in the region, and the best care for you and your new family.” The prices are listed on its website. Los Angeles-based Planet Hospital started a surrogacy program in 2006 with the “Indian bundle,” advertised as a service that included “an egg donor (often from the United States), four embryo transfers into four separate surrogate mothers, room and board for the surrogate, and a car and driver for the parents-to-be when they travel to India to pick up the baby.” However, it had to stop its surrogacy activities in early 2014.

Organ transplant

13The success of transplant technology, along with the commercialization of health-care and the increasing polarization between rich and poor, have created conditions for an illegal but thriving trade in human organs that occurs at the crossroads of the neoliberal state and the commercialization of health-care and involves actors like states, media, health specialists, and organ buyers (both recipients and brokers). At the heart of this issue is kidney transplant. All over the world, the national transplant waiting lists, and the waiting time spent on these lists, are growing, and therefore the increasing “shortage” of suitable kidneys available for transplant has led many people on waiting lists to seek kidneys outside of legal channels. Consequently, a black market for organs has developed by way of which slums in developing countries are being transformed into organ farms.

14According to World Health Organization experts, 10,000 black-market operations involving human organs take place each year. Patients, many of whom will go to China, India, or Pakistan for surgery, can pay up to $200,000 for a kidney to gangs who harvest organs from vulnerable, desperate people, sometimes for as little as $5,000 (Campbell and Davison 2012). Recently, in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, gangs began working in the human organ trade, especially targeting kidneys, and nowadays many groups of refugees compete to provide organs, causing the prices to fall. This is also the case in Bangladesh and the Philippines. According to the United Nations, Egypt is becoming one of the countries most affected by organ trafficking, right after China, Philippines, and India. In recent years, Pakistan has also emerged as one of the largest centers for commerce and tourism in renal transplantation. Prior to the adoption in Pakistan in 2007 of a law prohibiting such surgeries on foreigners, the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation estimated that 75% of the beneficiaries of the approximately 2,000 annual kidney transplants were tourists. In Turkey, selling organs by Internet is growing. In China, demand is often met by harvesting organs from executed prisoners, despite criticism from human-rights advocates who question the degree of consent (Campbell and Davison 2012). Also the shortage of organs due to the tradition of burying the whole body has given way to a parallel economy. An online plea can put a desperate patient or a donor short of money in touch with agents exploiting a shortage of human organs who deal with corrupt doctors and hospitals.

15The Islamic Republic of Iran is the only country that has a regulated market of organs among nationals. People can sell and buy kidneys under the state-regulated surveillance of non-profit organizations as the Charity Association for the Support of Kidney Patients (CASKP) and the Charity Foundation for Special Diseases that facilitate the process by finding potential vendors, introducing them to the recipients, and checking the compatibility of a possible donation. In Iran, there is no shortage of organs, but a lot of competition among sellers. To bypass procedures, non-official direct negotiations have transformed the Iranian system into a kidney market where would-be sellers advertise their kidneys by writing their blood type and phone number on posters or walls in the streets close to several of Tehran’s major hospitals. Economic crisis has increased such behavior, and donors are not really more protected, as they are deprived of post-operation care and are not able to work for a couple of months (Kamali Dehghan 2012).

Attraction of brains

16When, in the context of today’s globalization and immigration policies of the wealthiest countries, regulations are designed to attract selectively “brains” from abroad, then attraction of “brains” becomes an issue that can be considered as part of the process of commodification of the body, resulting from disparities between countries and a process by which the strongest and wealthiest regions use the “brain” of citizens of poorest and weakest parts of the world to their advantage and benefit. Nowadays, selective migrations regimes are strong signs of the rise of a global “race for talent” (Shachar 2011) as a way to secure its rank in a growing competing world. The current wave of economic globalization has opened a window of opportunity for human capital to agglomerate where it is already abundant and yet best rewarded, i. e., in the most economically advanced countries (OECD 2002). The percentage of highly educated among the immigrant population has been growing over the past decade in most OECD countries (UN 2013). As it mirrors a global increase in education levels of roughly the same level that is observed among the total resident population in OECD countries, in some countries it also reflects shifts in migration policy with a stronger focus on skilled labor migration (OECD 2012).

17Moreover, in contrast to both permanent migration and temporary labor migration, there is a strong tendency to encourage foreign graduate students to stay in developed countries. Recently, many countries have changed their rules in this regard. Since 2011, graduates from Austrian universities may be granted a visa to look for a job in Austria. Family members also receive full labor market access, and New Zealand awards international students points for residence under the skilled-migrant category (OECD 2013). Meanwhile, Canada invites foreign nationals currently studying for a PhD or recently graduated to apply under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (MacDonald 2013).

A new form of exploitation of international inequalities

Commodification of the body and development theories

18Commodification of human body epitomizes all the issues found in development thought. Modernization theories define underdevelopment as a matter of backwardness. As mentioned in the above section, the “global race for talent” is a phenomenon that mostly affects less-developed regions that in some way are backward compared to others in offering job opportunities or better standard of living or optimal conditions for creation and research. Moreover, a lack of education, no state protection, the absence of regulations, and growing poverty add to the possibilities and opportunities offered by globalization and new technologies to facilitate the attraction of talents. For radical theories, underdevelopment is the direct result of the expansion of capitalism. In this interpretation, peripheral societies, mostly former colonies, are exploited and participating in an unequal international economic exchange because colonialism froze their development and transformed them into extravert countries taking advantage of their resources and their labor force and specializing them as primary product producers. For the empirical approach, poverty and inequality remain the core issues of underdevelopment, and dual development a problem to be resolved. The two latter approaches give powerful insights into commodification of the human body as they focus on remaining poverty and inequality and specialization of some areas. In a new distribution of resources, less-developed areas are deprived of one of their most valuable resources to the benefit of the wealthiest areas or the wealthiest people mostly in the wealthiest areas. Post-development theories in turn see underdevelopment as a matter of strategy of power and discourse. In light of this approach, the discourses about remittances, scientific advantages for the donor countries in case of brain drain, and advantages of commodification of the human body for sellers are no more than discourses of power permitting a reallocation of resources and legitimating and normalizing inequality and poverty. The market-driven view and neoliberal stance focusing on privatization, liberalization, deregulation, and flexibility has introduced international rules and market procedures that permit, facilitate, and normalize the spread of phenomena such as the commodification of the human body.

Unequal exchange and exploitation

19As we saw above, the migration of highly skilled individuals is both growing and encouraged by rich countries, and furthermore, in the developed world it is taking the form of a global race for talent. This trend could be seen as a serious loss for the source country, and it is still unclear whether the benefits fully compensate the country for the potential negative consequences from the talent migration (Kerr 2013). It thus is a development-related issue stimulated by economic disparities between developed and underdeveloped regions and by the new levels of mobility and marketing produced by globalization.

20Many reports emphasize the advantages of brain drain for the donor country while arguing that negative effects are difficult to point out. However, meanwhile, an increasing number of reports detailing how to deal with brain drain and the multiplication of recommendations regarding the issue demonstrate that it cannot be ignored and that it is considered as a problem. Notwithstanding, the ongoing race for talent is a phenomenon that is debilitating for the education and training of professionals in the developing world. The gains from money sent back home (remittances) or from expatriates coming back later in their careers and educational links that they establish may be of some benefit and considered as brain gains, but it’s hard to imagine how it would replace or be more useful than doctors, nurses, and teachers staying in place where they are lacking, as there can be little question that the emigration of physicians is also a loss to the health systems in the source countries.

21The Indian subcontinent provides the largest absolute number of physicians to the recipient nations, but the relative draw on nations, as measured by the emigration factor, is actually greater for sub-Saharan Africa and is very pronounced for Caribbean countries. It entails the transfer of scarce human resources for health from the least developed countries in the world with the greatest health needs to the richest countries with the most health resources. Sub-Saharan Africa harbors about 14% of the world’s population, but has only 3% of the world’s health professionals (WHO 2006; Clemens and Pettersson 2008). The paradox is that at the same time, to fill the gap created by skills shortage, African countries spend an estimated $ 4 billion annually to employ about 100,000 non-African expatriates. Analyzing the process, some authors (Boeri et al. 2012) have factored many externalities for developing countries: increase of the burden on those left behind, negative impact on low-skilled workers’ productivity and wages (intragenerational spillover), and increase of domestic inequality, negative impacts on a country’s growth prospects, inasmuch as human capital formation is now viewed as a central engine of growth (intergenerational spillover), and contribution to the concentration of economic activities in specific locations, at the expense of origin regions.

22In turn, the resurgence of trafficking has prompted the World Health Organization to suggest that humanity is being undermined by the vast profits involved and the division between poor people who undergo “amputation” for cash and the wealthy sick who sustain the body parts trade. That said, organ transplant is a life-saving technology, and organ trafficking is supplying people with the money to pay for a new life. Yet, the phenomenon involves the harvesting and sale of organs from unwilling donors or donors who sell their organs out of despair and poverty. In Indonesia, after the tsunami, many inhabitants of Banda Aceh sold a kidney in order to rebuild their house. This is happening in many places throughout the world and is transnational, as organs are traded across borders of countries. A national survey in Pakistan (Naqvi et al. 2007) relates that most kidney vendors belonged to Punjab, the agricultural heartland, where 34% of people live below poverty line; 90% of the vendors were illiterate, 69% were bonded laborers, 12% laborers, 8.5% housewives, and 11% unemployed; 93% vended for debt repayment, 88% had no economic improvement in their lives, and finally 98% reported deterioration in general health status. For the authors, kidney vendors from Pakistan, many in bondage, are examples of modern-day slavery.

23The key issue is exploitation. Bodies of the poor in developing countries are being turned into raw materials, thus extending the exploitation of some regions through the process by which the impoverished populations become suppliers of the wealthiest, mostly from the Western world. Economic constraints cause the seller to give up organs to the scientifically advanced and powerful developed nations’ citizens or the wealthiest in the developing world. Furthermore, it is an unequal transaction as the price paid to the sellers is ridiculously low compared to what the receivers pay, and as selling may affect them adversely. And last, the market being often underground, it is not subject to institutional regulation that could ensure proper pre-transplant and post-transplant for donors.

Commodification of the human body as neocolonialism

24Since the end of the twentieth century, in addition to neoliberal globalization, emergence of new technologies of information and communication and new international regulations, we can conclude that a new form of exploitation, more insidious and subtle, has appeared: commodification of the human body. Facilitated by the opening of borders and unprecedented progress of science—particularly in medicine—phenomena such as attracting talents, transplant of vital organs, and using surrogate mothers are becoming “normalized.” The first deprives donor countries of people who could contribute to the development of their homeland while benefitting wealthier countries; the latter two allow rich people to use organs taken from the poor and often leads to more poverty and worsening of health of the donors: a form of neocolonialism. To the extent that the current system permits an unequal exchange to the advantage of those who are strongest, commodification of the human body is a development-related issue. Therefore, in the name of free trade, and freedom of movement and work, today’s market system has implemented new forms of exploitation of vulnerabilities and inequality, which are the extension of the commodifications of nature (Mrozowsky 1999) and of human labor that have always existed and are embedded in the culture of capitalism, and in the process whereby through colonization land became an abstract space that was measured and then sold and people became commodities for exchange.



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PhD in social sciences. She is full professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), where she is in charge of the Research Center on International Development and Cooperation (CECID). She currently is the director of the Graduate School of Development Studies of the French community of Belgium, and a regular member of the Royal Academy for Overseas Sciences (Brussels). Her research focuses on development issues, particularly in Islamic countries.

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