Since we made our very first grant in northern India in 2014, all of the Freedom Fund’s programs to combat modern slavery in zones of high prevalence have been carried out through what we call our “hotspot model”.
Anyone who has engaged with the Freedom Fund will have heard us talk about this model of investing in networks of frontline organisations, because it’s the main way that we achieve direct impact in communities affected by slavery.
Nearly five years on from starting our first hotspot, the model’s core elements – concentrating resources on a tightly defined geographic area, funding a diverse group of primarily grassroots organisations to provide a range of support to the target population, and employing staff on the ground to support grantee partners and encourage the sharing of best practice – remain central to how we work today.
But we have also adapted it in several key ways.
We have placed increasing emphasis on systems change over service delivery: we now ask our partners to devote more of their resources toward sharing lessons with, and influencing, government, media and business – and we put more of our own staff time toward supporting their efforts. This is to ensure we are addressing the root causes of slavery and not limiting our focus to the individuals we can reach directly.
We’ve increased investment in the NGOs’ organisational development, because we know that a strong, sustainable civil society that can fight for the rights of the vulnerable requires strong organisations.
And we have adopted a set of global metrics to track progress, and are bringing in academic partners to draw out lessons that can be shared internationally.
What we love about the hotspot model – which is based on a design that Geneva Global, a philanthropy consulting firm based in Philadelphia, developed to manage the Legatum Foundation’s anti-slavery investments in India and Nepal nearly a decade ago – is that it provides a cost effective way to reach frontline organisations with funding and help them do more than they could do individually. Although it’s a truism that small community-based NGOs can provide incredible value for money, many donors shy away from supporting them because of the costs and risks involved. We believe the hotspot model helps to overcome those barriers.
We recently reviewed what we have learned about the model since 2014 and identified four areas in which the model makes particular contributions to overall program effectiveness, as well as lessons for how it can be improved.
Each quarter, our staff convene a one- or two-day event which all partners attend. These “community of practice” meetings provide an opportunity for the NGOs to hear from each other about what is working or not working in their programs, to share intelligence about new trends they are seeing in communities or in the government’s response, and to strategise together. Sometimes we arrange training by outside experts on topics where there is common need.
This intensive convening role is unusual amongst donors but is having a big impact on the ground. In each hotspot there are numerous examples of knowledge transfer between partners as a result of the communities of practice. In Ethiopia, the NGOs have adopted one partner’s high quality curriculum for educating girls about safer migration and are now using it throughout their program areas, instead of each having their own set of materials. In Northern India, hotspot learning has resulted in improved approaches to legal work, as well as advances in the way partners provide non-formal education to children and income generation activities for vulnerable families.
As I have written about previously on this blog, our experience is that one of the most reliable indicators of whether a program will achieve systemic change is the strength of the civil society network: To what extent are NGOs willing to collaborate with each other? How much trust and goodwill is there? We call this quality “network capital” and see it as one of our most important contributions. The reality is that in many places, NGOs are distrustful of each other and fiercely competitive, even when they share the same goals. This is in part due to having to compete for scarce donor funds.
By funding many organisations in close proximity to each other and bringing them together regularly – and by making collaboration a prerequisite for funding – we are able to build network capital. The result is that partners become more willing to be open about challenges and weaknesses, and seek joint solutions.
Increased network capital also creates the conditions for perhaps the most impactful aspect of the hotspot: collective advocacy for policy change.
Marginalised groups such as migrant workers, poor rural communities, and lower castes tend to have comparatively weak lobbies representing their interests to powerholders. By organising our partners into advocacy coalitions and encouraging them to plan together, map their key targets, and develop common policy goals, our hotspot programs help them to dramatically increase their impact at local, state and national levels – and give less experienced organisations a chance to learn from those with stronger advocacy skills.
The fourth main area in which the hotspot model adds value is its cost-effectiveness. Many donors are interested in funding frontline organisations, as they are rightfully seen as both impactful and underfunded. But as I have mentioned, donors often hesitate because of the costs involved in close monitoring or because they are concerned that funding a few small NGOs here and there is unlikely to add up to systemic impact. We believe the hotspot model provides a solution to these challenges, because the clustering approach significantly reduces monitoring costs, and our intense focus on coalition building and systems change adds up to transformative impact.
There is no substitute for building grassroots pressure for change. Equipping communities with the practical and psychological tools to resist exploitation, and supporting civil society organisations to represent them and advance their cause, is one of the surest ways to make a truly lasting difference in the fight against slavery.
That said, the “bottom up” approach requires patience and a long-term time horizon. And it is not the only way to achieve impact for our target groups. Where appropriate, it should be complemented by other strategies to achieve systems change. For example, in Thailand, in addition to working with local civil society organisations who are defending the interests of migrant workers in the seafood industry, we are supporting private sector efforts to reform supply chain practices, and helping to generate diplomatic pressure and incentives for the Thai government to better regulate the industry.
However, not all of our hotspots have such obvious points of leverage. In these instances, we need to look for more creative ways to complement more traditional bottom up efforts to bring about systems change. As we are setting up a new hotspot in Rajasthan to eliminate child labour in its capital, Jaipur, we have been working with partners to secure buy-in from the state governments of both Rajasthan and Bihar (where the majority of trafficked children come from) around a multi-stakeholder campaign for a ‘Child Labour Free Jaipur’. Making the business case for ethical production as a way to further boost the city’s tourist credentials, and establishing cooperation structures with relevant authorities from the start, represents a departure from our ‘trickle-up’ approach and is expected to both accelerate impact and produce new insights for replication elsewhere.
In sum, we believe our hotspot programs are at their most effective when they are multi-dimensional, and that we can and should do more to bring a diverse set of partners into hotspots to complement our efforts at the community level.
Dan Vexler is the Freedom Fund’s Director of Programs.
Photo credit: Atul Loke, Legatum Limited, 2018