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How not to achieve a sustainable development goal

Turf wars, unrealistic targets, and misconceptions of the problem. What else could go wrong in the quest to end 'modern slavery' and provide decent work for all?

My name is Mike Dottridge. I describe myself variously as a human rights consultant or a human rights mercenary. For the last 20 odd years I've focused on the world of exploitation, but particularly the human rights of people who are exploited. Although I'm a consultant and I'm nominally independent, a lot of my background stems from becoming the director of an NGO in London called Anti-Slavery International back in the nineties.

Neil Howard (oD): You are very much tapped into the networks that matter within this field. I'm wondering if you could reflect on how you see Alliance 8.7, the central institution emerging around the eighth sustainable development goal. How are you seeing the alliance work and its evolution?

Mike: The one that the ILO is trying to develop on 8.7 looks, I won't say spectacularly unsuccessful, but certainly not to have taken off so far as anything other than the ILO wanting to be the patron of a certain area of work and co-opting others to join it. So the word alliance isn't really right. Maybe even the target isn't right. No, certainly the target isn't right.

Once you have a target which is intrinsically unachievable, everything thereafter is building on sand.

I haven't attended meetings, but I did listen to a formal launch back in September 2016, with a fair amount of disillusionment I suppose, because I'm a British national and the British minister that took part seemed to me to have the wrong end of the stick on all the issues that were mentioned. The thought that stopping migration was a real way of stopping exploitation – given that migration happens for all sorts of reasons it's a nice formula for pouring water uphill, I suppose.

So, at the moment I'm not wildly optimistic that there is an alliance or that it's going to achieve much. Indeed, once you have a target which is intrinsically unachievable and hasn't been thought out in a professional way, everything thereafter is building on sand – or mud rather – than on solid foundations.

Neil (oD): I've heard you say that the sustainable development goal framework, more broadly, is an aggregation of different agendas patronised by different institutions. You see that very clearly with SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth. Could you expand on what's wrong with SDG 8 as a target, and 8.7 in particular?

Mike: I haven't looked widely enough at the other targets in SDG 8 to criticise them in the same way. I am very pleased that one of the targets refers to youth employment, for example, but I haven't looked at all at what's been done to fill it. One of the big problems with 8.7 is it throws a lot of jargon together, which combined cover some issues of exploitation. But these words, certainly the word trafficking, appear in several other goals and targets. That puts them under the patronage of other institutions as well. So immediately there is enhanced competition, in this case between UN organisations. Competition also means – in effect – incoherence at the national level, where you might expect different government ministries to be harnessing their forces to pursue particular objectives. None of that is there.

As long as we have separate interests and no one is thinking about the coherent architecture let alone the feasibility of achieving things, we have a disaster. Very specifically in 8.7, there's a lot of preoccupation from within the ILO, from within its workers representatives, on the child labor agenda. Yet it's so fatally flawed. A nice sounding concept was developed right back at the beginning of the century, which was that there could be a time-bound programme to eliminate either some forms of child labour or all forms of child labour. It was a nice idea but it wasn't well thought out. It fell at the first fence, and since then that fence keeps on being put up. By last year, 2016, we were supposed to have eradicated around 80 million child labourers in the worst forms of child labour, and have hardly touched it.

So those unrealistic targets are built in. It's rather like looking at a first year student's national plan for economic development, except that the first year student might have some slightly more coherent ideas, in some ways.

Neil (oD): I've heard you previously describe the wider framework itself as different fiefdoms coming up against each other. Could you talk a bit more about the fiefdom nature of UN?

Mike: The United Nations sounds to many people, first of all like it's a big, responsible institution, and secondly as something that has some autonomy. Although within it there are independent institutions, most of them are fairly accountable to a set of governments – particularly to wealthy donor governments. But there are, within the UN system, literally independent institutions and they compete. They are, in effect, competing companies. They use the same sort of strategies and tactics found in the commercial world against each other. Very occasionally they are able to cooperate in a positive way, but a lot of time that's not the case. On everything that has to do with human trafficking, it's really been out and out naked, capitalist competition.

Neil (oD): I want to move onto what potential opportunities there are. We both know that the field of these institutions is largely ineffective and that they do compete a great deal against each other. At the same time, what we have seen with the SDGs, at the very least, is a framing for action. What, if any, opportunities exist with regard to SDG 8.7?

Mike: I think there are probably tremendous opportunities. But it's not in looking at the whole thing and saying we now want to become a small cog that is going to achieve these marvellous results by 2030. I think anyone who's vaguely realistic knows that either economic or any other form of exploitation is not going to roll over and suddenly finish. But, the idea of being able to say in 13 or 15 years' time that 'now things are different' – that gives us an opportunity to say we need much more data about certain patterns of exploitation, patterns of violations, whatever it might be. That's a chance to seek funding for particular forms of research.

Neil (oD): Speaking of research, what sort of things do you think we still need to find out in order to progressively advance toward a world of decent work?

Mike: We need a huge amount, not just about exploitation, but about the more positive side. In other words, what works for people. It's also a chance to say their voice is the most important one. Because development goals talk about development plans, that gives us great opportunities to push for research to find out about the situation today. The data collected there could be potentially very useful.

What we've got at the moment is hugely flawed data, ostensibly monitoring the prevalence of something called modern slavery, while in some very specific places there are things that do need monitoring and do need understanding. I think the great gap when it comes to exploitation is looking at what is better than exploitation, and how to achieve that. In other words, how to find ways in which migrants are not badly exploited when they reach a destination – where they are not tricked, are not coerced into doing things they didn't want to do. There is a whole set of things which go beyond the agenda of looking at what is bad.

 

Neil: Almost like selecting good practice examples, positive case studies that can be modelled and scaled up into policy.

Mike: That is a very nicely worded and idealistic way of explaining it. There's a lot of projects which claim they want to come out with that, but by and large they don't. Simply understanding – and it needs to be very much listening to the people concerned, and not to the policymakers or to the experts – and getting to the voices of people who can talk about whether their migration was successful or not is vital. Participatory research.

In a way we can look back at all these UN and international goal planning processes and say this is an elite occupation. There has been nothing more elite orientated than the research and the programmes around the issue of human trafficking. From the start this has systematically excluded the voice of anyone who was called a traffic victim. This is also true for child labourers and a great number of others, but quite extraordinarily obvious in the case of traffic persons.

 

There has been nothing more elite orientated than the research and the programmes around the issue of human trafficking.

I think some of us have been saying this now for a rather long time. It's resulted in the tiny change, but there's still very little off the shelf research. And even those researchers who, for example, go to a shelter for trafficked people to inteview them, they're only looking then at people who have – as it were – had unsuccessful migrations. They're not getting the full picture at all.

Sometimes I can see critics saying, 'oh, I know this is a really dangerous situation', when in fact there's evidence that most of the people going down a particular migration tunnel are having a better time and are feeling positive about it.

From UN 'The SDGs in Action' event. UNDP/Freya Morales/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Neil (oD): On the note of positivity, you know that I'm very much an advocate of basic income as a potential blanket social protection policy. I would like to see it, at the very least, trialled as a way to protect against severe exploitation. The logic underpinning that is that if we know that large numbers of people who end up in seriously exploitative situations have ended up there because they lacked alternatives, surely a simple and discreet policy option would be to give them money. With your decades of experience, what do you make of such proposals? Could basic income be part of the answer?

Mike: The first thing to say is that when I look at the amounts of money that have been spent on projects and programmes to stop human trafficking, I'm very tempted to say that if we had handed a portion of that money out to the migrants and other persons of concern, probably it would have done more good. I'm a great advocate certainly of social protection as a way of reducing extreme exploitation. Whether that takes the form of basic income – I guess my main reaction is to say at the moment that sounds unfeasible.

But clearly once you alienate people from their means of production, once they're no longer able to feed themselves and keep themselves alive, by themselves, and they enter into an industrial economy where there is employment one year and no employment the next – unless there is some sort of safety net that keeps them alive in between, you've created a disaster situation there immediately, where everybody is in debt up to their ears.

Yeah, you have disaster. So whether it's social protection, which then admittedly comes through a lot of bureaucracies and allows for all sorts of corruption to occur, or as I would say your more idealistic solution of basic income, either way there has to be something other than the option of starvation for the worker who's migrated in good faith, been offered a job, but then the cycle of capitalism means they're out of a job three months later and basically on the road to starvation.

About the authors

Mike Dottridge is the former director of Anti-Slavery International (1996-2002). He worked at a university in Nigeria in the 1970s and currently works as a consultant on human rights. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeDottridge

Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.


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