Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Private giving for anti-trafficking hides government inaction

Philanthropy in anti-trafficking has brought about important change. But it has also allowed governments to avoid facing up to the responsibility they bear for tackling exploitation.

Anne T. Gallagher
9 February 2021, 8.00am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved

When I began working on human trafficking more than two decades ago, the exploitation of human beings for private profit lay well outside mainstream public consciousness and concern. The laws were old and muddled, and the issue itself had no home or champion. This suited governments very well, not least because it effectively absolved them of legal and moral responsibility for practices that brought national economies significant, if often hidden benefit. And states were able to neatly sidestep charges of complicity by pointing to the fact that any ‘crimes’ were being committed by private parties. What could they do?

The Trafficking Protocol, adopted in December 2000, changed everything by clearly articulating the problem – and by affirming that governments do indeed have a legal responsibility to prevent trafficking, prosecute perpetrators and protect victims. Over the next 10 years the legal and political landscape around the issue changed dramatically. Under internal and external pressure, most countries introduced strong anti-trafficking laws modelled on new international and regional treaties. Prosecutions increased and, while victims continued to be routinely mistreated by public officials, there was at least some evidence that things were improving for some victims, in some situations. Perhaps most promising of all was the slowly emerging understanding that ‘trafficking’ is not, as originally presented, a rare and exotic criminal phenomenon confined to a handful of unfortunate countries. Rather, the exploitation that is the hallmark of trafficking is woven into the fabric of our lives. We are all complicit in a global economy that relies heavily on the exploitation of poor people’s labour to maintain growth, and on a global migration system that entrenches vulnerability.

Large-scale, private philanthropy began to muscle in on the anti-trafficking movement about a decade ago. This was well after much of the hard graft of developing legal and regulatory frameworks had been done, but right at the beginning of a ‘second wave’ marked by greater attention to structural causes and the need for complex, multidimensional responses. Throughout this time, I have watched the movement shift and change from the vantage point of an academic, opinion writer, lawyer, international civil servant and occasional combatant.

Large-scale philanthropy is now so deeply embedded in the anti-trafficking or ‘modern slavery’ movement that it is difficult to imagine what might have been.

Unfortunately, the breadth of my exposure does not mean that I have a clever and ready answer to the question posed by this debate: ‘has large-scale, private philanthropy helped or hurt the anti-trafficking movement?’. The first obstacle is inbuilt bias. If one has climbed aboard the private philanthropy train, then it follows that the benefits will be both more apparent and more persuasive. But those of us on the outside have our own frailties: “wealth draws envy and philanthropy draws suspicion”. We don’t like it when interlopers muscle in on our turf. It is painful to watch those who so patently lack expertise and insight gain easy and rewarding access to decision-makers. It’s even worse when we are forced to stand by while their vain and foolish pronouncements go unchallenged because money and the promise of money messes with all but the most stalwart of moral compasses.

Such grievances may be real, but they can just as easily obscure our vision – a point that underscores the importance of considering one’s counter-position. In this case that means acknowledging that private giving has likely brought real (if difficult to quantify) benefits.

Large-scale philanthropy is now so deeply embedded in the anti-trafficking or ‘modern slavery’ movement that it is difficult to imagine what is different, and what might have been. But, as Nick Grono and others close to the major philanthropists have written, a massive injection of money, energy and influence has clearly transformed the movement in important ways. For example, it has made possible the kind of resource-intensive, sector-specific research that improves our understanding of how exploitation actually happens; who is involved, and what the possible entry points might be for those seeking to eradicate it. From fisheries in the Pacific to cotton production in Uzbekistan, private funding has helped to expose secret corners of the global economy where exploitation flourishes unchecked. Philanthropy has also highlighted the role played by frontline migrant and worker-led organisations in exposing exploitation and rallying support for systemic change. Significantly, initial investments by the big-name philanthropists have helped to pave the way for more diversified private support to a broader range of civil society actors.

And, while a careful examination of philanthropist-led data collection efforts yields an embarrassment of critical riches, these are at least partly offset by genuine breakthroughs in reporting and analysis. Many of us have come to rely on the media organisation openDemocracy, which counts Pierre Omidyar and George Soros among its backers, for independent and challenging analysis of a wide range of social and political issues. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, a part of openDemocracy, has become a fertile ground for interrogating the sector and challenging some of its most precious founding myths. A recent, 20th anniversary series on the Trafficking Protocol was a particular highlight for me: bringing together a dazzling kaleidoscope of colliding ideas that deserve to be heard. The Guardian’s partnership with Humanity United produced ‘Modern Slavery in Focus’, a series that helped expose new forms of exploitation and generate public advocacy in support of legal and policy reform.

But private philanthropy – especially of the ‘big man / big gesture’ variety that has marked the modern slavery sector – has a dark side that is yet to be openly and honestly explored. The failure of the anti-trafficking movement to interrogate this aspect is itself troubling and indicative of a deeper malaise that deserves our attention. My lonely experience taking on the initially risible Global Slavery Index, produced with the money of the man who widely declared his intention to end slavery by 2020 (public reference of which seems to have all but disappeared), is instructive in that regard.

Ending the exploitation of human beings is a responsibility that must lie, first and foremost, with governments.

Perhaps the most pressing danger of private philanthropy in this particular area relates to the softening of state responsibility for exploitation that it allows and encourages. Put simply, the modern slavery carnival of the past decade, largely directed and funded by high-profile private individuals and corporations, has provided a (too often welcome) diversion from the cold, hard and simple truth about what needs to change and who needs to make sure that change happens. Commitments of faith leaders, expensive corporate gatherings, and even placing modern slavery on the agenda of the World Economic Forum are probably all good, in some way. But they can also operate as a massive and unhelpful distraction.

Ending the exploitation of human beings is a responsibility that must lie, first and foremost, with governments. It is governments that should be leading the way when it comes to securing the kind of corporate accountability that matters. It is the responsibility of governments to ensure that national laws protect vulnerable workers and are properly enforced. Governments should be robustly defending their nationals and persons within their territory, not making sly money from their exploitation. And despite the poor record of police and prosecutors in this area, all but the most naïve must recognise that they are an essential part of any meaningful response: governments should be held to account when they so abjectly fail to support a criminal justice system that protects victims and prosecutes perpetrators.

The question of large-scale corporate philanthropism is a vexed one and fixed views on either side should be treated with caution. The very fact of ‘philanthrocapitalism’ is as much a product of our current economic and political system as trafficking itself – and likely as intractable. Once we acknowledge this, then the path ahead becomes clear. All of us working in the anti-trafficking / modern slavery space, irrespective of what we are doing or how we are being funded, should be demanding transparency and accountability from each other. We should resist being held captive by any special interests. We should be unafraid to question and to criticise. Anything less is just embarrassing and does a grave disservice to those in whose interests we are all claiming to be working.

This debate has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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