Slavery was abolished worldwide 33 years ago, but the practice still continues today. Photo by: Peter Miller / CC BY-NC-ND

On Tuesday, the world marked the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, which commemorates the adoption of a U.N. resolution to stop all forms of human trafficking.

But 28 years after this day was first observed in 1986 and 33 years since slavery was abolished worldwide, human trafficking is far from eradicated. It remains one of the development community’s toughest challenges.

While there is no standard way of measuring just how pervasive the problem is, Walk Free Foundation, in its 2014 Global Slavery Index, estimates that there are 35.8 million men, women and children trapped in modern slavery. In June, the U.S. Department of State said there are more than 20 million human trafficking victims globally.

And in its latest report, the International Labor Organization calculates that illegal profits from the forced labor industry alone reach $150.2 billion annually.

Why is this billion-dollar industry such a difficult challenge for the international development community to address?

Beyond the lack of a standard method of tracking and measuring trafficking flows, differing definitions alone contribute to the problem. The U.S. Department of State focuses on trafficking, which has a narrower definition that requires the presence of acts such as recruitment, harboring or transportation of persons, through means of fraud or coercion, for the purpose of involuntary servitude, sexual exploitation or debt bondage.

ILO only looks at forced labor, while Walk Free used the umbrella term “modern slavery,” which encompasses human trafficking, forced labor, sexual exploitation, the sale of children and forced marriage. ILO cautions that this catchall term may be used to label certain practices as “more extreme than is legally accurate.” But Walk Free argues that the bar for human rights must be set higher and that all the practices they include involve control of a person in a way that deprives them of individual liberty or with the intention of exploitation for commercial or personal gain.

There are further obstacles to measuring the problem.

First, many countries track victims based on the number of prosecutions or convictions, which obscures potential victims who cannot come forward or whose cases were not prosecuted. Second, the first point of contact of law enforcement with trafficking or slavery victims is sometimes in a potential crime situation — the latter may be caught illegally crossing borders, begging or working in brothels, and are documented as criminals rather than potential victims. Third, the clandestine nature of the industry masks its scale. Victims and their families are often intimidated into silence. Corruption also makes officials look the other way.

Perhaps because of these challenges — divergent definitions and no one standard to find out the size and extent of the problem — donors do not spend as much on programs to curb all forms of trafficking in persons as they do on other sectors. With many donors focusing on results and value for money, it is difficult to gain more funding for modern slavery efforts when it is challenging to quantifiably measure the impact of donor interventions in the sector.

In a recently published study, the Anti-Trafficking Review looked at the aid spending of 12 donor members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and found that while their cumulative official development assistance averaged $78 billion annually, their contributions to combating modern slavery account for less than 1 percent.

From 2003 to 2012, these 12 OECD donors — Austria, Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States — spent just $1.2 billion on fighting modern slavery. With an annual spend of $68.7 million, the United States topped this donor list, followed by Norway’s $12.7 million and Japan’s $10.3 million.

The good news is that private sector institutions are becoming emerging players in the anti-trafficking space. While there is no systematic data on private sector aid spending for modern slavery, some examples stand out.

Humanity United, for instance, has spent more than $50 million to fund anti-trafficking efforts from 2003-2013. Google offered $11.5 million in grants to 10 organizations working to combat modern slavery in 2011, and in 2013, provided a further $3 million for a joint project with nongovernmental organizations Polaris Project, Liberty Asia and La Strada-Czech Republic to build a global alliance that fosters sharing of data, hotlines, technology and best practices.

And in 2013, Walk Free, Humanity United and the Legatum Foundation established the biggest and most highly coordinated private donor fund to date — the Freedom Fund. The three organizations provided $30 million in initial investment to the fund, but aim to secure an addition $100 million in private donations.

Allocating more funds to combating modern slavery is just one part of the solution, however. Gender and anti-trafficking specialist Sharmila Parmanand spoke to several development experts in the modern slavery sector to find out other ways both donors and implementing partners could increase the impact of their aid interventions, from expanding monitoring to include neglected but equally vulnerable groups such as LGBTs to operationalizing rigorous external impact evaluation of current programs.

“There are grounds for optimism. … But much more needs to be done [in the fight against modern slavery],” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement ahead of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, adding that we “need clear-sighted strategies, strong national legislation and a commitment to coordinate the fight against this crime.”

Parmanand’s findings, while not a definitive how-to for anti-trafficking crusaders, could certainly help create well-defined strategies and improve coordination needed to bolster the fight against modern slavery.

Check back Monday to read our feature — exclusive for Devex Executive Members — on how the development community can improve the impact of aid spending on anti-trafficking efforts.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Aimee Rae Ocampo

    As former Devex editor for business insight, Aimee created and managed multimedia content and cutting-edge analysis for executives in international development.