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Over 35 million adults and children are victims of modern slavery – how can foundations and communities fight together to eradicate it?

December 2, 2015 / Media, Op-eds Nick Grono / @nickgrono

Read the op-ed on the European Foundation Centre‘s website or below.

Today [2 December] is International Abolition of Slavery Day. This should be a day to celebrate past heroic efforts to end this unconscionable crime – but sadly modern slavery still exists today, in every country around the world.

Over 35 million men, women and children are enslaved globally. This is despite the fact that slavery is a crime under international law, and illegal in every country. It is vociferously condemned by faith leaders, most notably Pope Francis, and political leaders. But still it thrives.

One key reason it continues to thrive is that it is hugely profitable to those willing to exploit vulnerable children, women and men around the world for financial gain. Slavery generates profits of $150 billion a year for its perpetrators. And the resources devoted to combat this most evil of crimes are paltry compared to the scale of the atrocity.

The richest countries in the world – members of the OECD – between them spend perhaps $120 million each year to fight this evil. Governments need to significantly scale up the resources they commit to fight slavery if they are to match their rhetoric and their commitments. There is now a specific target in the Sustainable Development Goals for states to:

“Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”

In the meantime, private foundations are rallying to the cause. In 2013 three leading foundations – Humanity United, Legatum Foundation and Minderoo Foundation – each committed $10 million to create the Freedom Fund, the world’s first private donor fund dedicated to ending modern slavery. Former US President Bill Clinton celebrated this achievement, declaring, “This is a huge deal and we should all support this.”

The Freedom Fund launched in January last year, and quickly attracted very generous additional support from three other foundations: the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the Stardust Fund and C&A Foundation. Each of these foundations made multi-year, multi-million grants to this anti-slavery effort.

These joint commitments are a powerful demonstration of donor collaboration to support a pressing cause. Almost all the funding provided by these foundations is core funding, and the foundations sign up to the Freedom Fund’s strategic plan, overseeing their commitment through their representation on the organisation’s board.

The Freedom Fund uses this support to build collaboration at the grass-roots level in countries with a high concentration of slavery. We currently support over 60 local community-based organisations, encouraging them to work in clusters – which we call hotspots – in high prevalence countries such as India, Nepal, Ethiopia and Thailand. Partnering with these frontline organisations is key, because they work at the very heart of the problem and are often staffed by those formerly enslaved. They work in the vulnerable communities and among the marginalised populations that the perpetrators prey upon. They know the victims, the traffickers, the corrupt and the honest officials. They work close to the brothels, factories, quarries, brick-kilns and the myriad of other places where the victims are exploited.

Yet despite their commitment and impact, these local organisations are often under-resourced, too overwhelmed to effectively coordinate, and often lacking the training that will enable them to scale their work. That is the reason the Freedom Fund brings these organisations together in hotspots, so they can work more effectively together to advance the cause of freedom. It also monitors their work and measures their impact, and commissions some of the world’s leading research institutes – such as the Harvard’s FXB School of Health, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Health, and the Institute of Development Studies – to rigorously evaluate these efforts and report publicly on their findings, to the benefit of the wider anti-slavery community.

This work is already demonstrating its impact. In Northern India, our longest running hotspot, the Freedom Fund’s programmes have helped liberate over 4,000 people from slavery during the first 12 months of operation, and placed over 15,000 at-risk children in school, a major life-change which will significantly reduce the risk of them falling into modern slavery in the future.

These are important results, most obviously for those liberated from bondage and servitude. But given the size of the crime, these efforts will need to be scaled very significantly to drive a measurable reduction in slavery. Much more research is needed to measure the size of the problem globally and from country to country; to identify the most impactful interventions; and to improve efforts continually to stamp out this crime. And much greater resources will be needed to replicate the most successful implications around the world.

All of this requires more funding, both private and public. Given the abhorrence which all right-thinking people have for slavery, and the limited funds currently available to fight it, this should not be an insurmountable problem. Western governments are certainly well-placed to increase the funding they provide, particularly in light of the SDG commitment against slavery – and thereby match the rhetoric of their leaders on this issue. However, they have been slow to respond.

In the meantime, as with the fight to abolish the transatlantic slave trade in the 1800s, private funders will continue to provide leadership in this most historic of human rights causes – the movement to end global slavery.

Credit:Sanjit Das (c) Legatum Limited 2015
Caption: A day wage labourer carries a load of bricks in the brick kiln in Baruhuaa village in Chandauli district of Uttar Pradesh, India. The workers are entitled to get INR180 ($3) per 1000 bricks but the contractor only gives INR 80 – INR 100 ($1.25 – $1.70).

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