Measuring Slavery Encourages Governments To Do Better

<i>A teenage boy breaks rocks at a quarry in India</i>
A teenage boy breaks rocks at a quarry in India

Modern slavery is currently receiving unprecedented attention from political and religious leaders, and in the international media. Yet for all this welcome attention, we can’t answer the most basic question about this horrendous crime – namely, is it increasing or falling around the world? 

We can’t answer this at a global level, or for any country, or for any industry. And this question matters, for two reasons. First, if we are to translate attention into genuine change, we need to be able to measure which interventions are working, and why.  When we know this, we can better determine what efforts should be supported and replicated and scaled. Second, governments respond to credible and high profile rankings – and we won’t make real progress against slavery unless governments prioritise the fight. 

Past efforts to measure everything from HIV/AIDs prevalence rates to levels of corruption to ease of doing business have been highly influential in shaping interventions and influencing government responses. Better measurement of slavery will, over time, do the same.   

The most comprehensive effort to date to measure slavery is the Global Slavery Index (GSI), published by Walk Free Foundation. It provides a global estimate, and estimates for 167 countries. The latest iteration of this index was released in May, and found that there are 45.8 million men, women and children in slavery around the world – toiling in brick kilns in Nepal, on fishing boats in the Gulf of Thailand, in brothels in the US, and in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan.

This is significantly more than the 35.8 million estimated in the previous edition, in 2014. The Index authors state that the increase does not reflect a growth in slavery, but rather improved measurement. Sadly, the data is not yet accurate enough to track changes in prevalence at a country or global level.

The 2016 GSI reflects a very significant investment in measurement, being based on Gallup survey data from face-to-face interviews conducted with over 42,000 individual respondents, across 25 countries, and three non-Gallup country surveys. Yet for all this investment in research, the Index still had to extrapolate from this primary data for some 139 countries. It did this in significant part by clustering countries according to an analysis of vulnerability to slavery and then calculating an average proportion of enslavement for clusters using available survey date, and applying that to all the countries in the cluster.

Ideally, of course, we would have robust survey data for every country in the world. But we don’t, and we won’t for many years yet. Slavery is a hidden crime, and is very difficult and expensive to measure. In fact, when the first GSI was published in 2013, it relied on survey data from just seven countries, which was all that was available then. This latest edition is considerably improved because of the significant resources Walk Free Foundation has invested in generating and publishing the additional data.

The Index is already influencing behaviour. This year, the Indian government rushed out a draft of its new human trafficking bill on the very day the GSI was published – no doubt in part to demonstrate action in response to the finding that India has more people enslaved than any other country.

One of the most important achievements of the Index is its deep commitment to continue to measure and improve, year after year. Another key achievement is that it is encouraging other anti-slavery organisations, such as the one I lead, the Freedom Fund, to invest in prevalence studies. In future these studies will contribute to, and improve, global and country estimates.

Critics of the index often cite the difficulty in measuring a hidden crime, and gaps in the data, as reasons for discounting it. Yet they invariably fail provide an alternative method to estimate slavery - all the while asserting the fundamental importance of measurement.

Looking at the way other related forms of exploitation are – or are not –measured, is instructive. Human trafficking was defined and prohibited in an international treaty in 2000 – but there is yet to be a credible estimate of the world’s trafficked population, let alone at a country level. This may well be because trafficking is a process by which victims enter into exploitation, and hence particularly difficult to measure, whereas modern slavery and forced labour are actual states of exploitation and hence a little more amenable to measurement.

When it comes to forced labour, which forms the vast majority of modern slavery, the International Labour Organization has made commendable efforts to provide and improve global estimates of the problem. Its first estimate, back in 2005, found that a minimum of 12.3 million people were in forced labour. Its second, more rigorous estimate, in 2012, arrived at a figure of 20.9m. The increase was attributed to better measurement, not greater forced labour. The ILO is currently working a new estimate, to be published in early 2017. It is to be hoped that the ILO and Walk Free Foundation will collaborate closely on this new estimate to ensure great robustness and unity in the measurement of these extreme forms of exploitation. 

So we have a long way to go before we can answer the question of whether slavery is growing or decreasing around the world. But we have come a remarkable distance in just three years, and efforts to robustly measure slavery are increasingly. These efforts will encourage governments to do more to fight slavery, and that is something we should all welcome. 

Nick Grono is the CEO of the Freedom Fund, the world’s first private philanthropic initiative dedicated to ending modern slavery. Walk Free Foundation is one of the founders of the Freedom Fund.

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