Stopping Human Trafficking

Addressing the Development System’s Blindspot on Modern Slavery

A meeting of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations on ending human trafficking. ( UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

More than 40 million people were enslaved in 2016 according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery suggests this number has probably grown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite this, the issue is largely ignored by the global development sector and siloed off from key aspects of the UN sustainable development system.

Our study, Developing Freedom, found that anti-slavery efforts directly contribute to over 60 per cent of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Yet, most development practitioners surveyed in the research said that their organizations see modern slavery, forced labor, and human trafficking as social or criminal justice concerns, not core economic, trade, or industrial policy concerns. Modern slavery is more likely to be seen as a project management risk to be safeguarded against, rather than a target for strategic programming, lending, or policy advice.

As a result, we may be missing significant opportunities for growth and development provided by fighting slavery.

The Sustainable Development Case for Fighting Modern Slavery

It goes without saying that ending modern slavery should be a priority, with no justification needed. Yet without a strong case for integrating anti-slavery efforts into global development practice, investment and engagement by development actors seem likely to remain limited.

Between 2000 and 2017, just $12 in official development assistance was committed to anti-slavery efforts per victim annually. At the UN, just 1.3 percent of all country-level development frameworks between 2000 and 2020 involved joint anti-slavery programming by more than one UN agency, often a sign of the system’s commitment to an issue. What programming is rolled out and where has depended on which UN entity is involved. Most anti-slavery programming at the national level is either criminal justice oriented, led by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, or labor policy oriented, led by the ILO. Since there is no UN operational entity addressing “modern slavery” or “slavery,” such programming is rare. Integrated programming has in fact become less likely over time.

There is a systemic cause for this. The development sector has a blind spot on slavery because it fails to recognize that slaves are denied their economic agency. Individual agency is a presumption of contemporary economic theory and development economics. Even the human development approach pioneered by Amartya Sen in his seminal book Development as Freedom assumes people have agency, through which they can develop their own capabilities.

Yet enslaved people’s agency is deeply compromised, if not removed entirely. They cannot control to whom they sell their labor, and often have their consumption, savings, and investment choices constrained. This has many spillover effects, from reduced productivity and innovation to weakening governance, fueling corruption and exacerbating environmental harm. We have identified 10 different ways that slavery drags on development.

Since slavery impedes development, it follows that fighting modern slavery will contribute to sustainable development. We suggest that ending slavery can unleash significant economic growth. Researchers at the International Monetary Fund recently found that eliminating child marriage—just one element of modern slavery covered by target 8.7 of the SDGs—would offer growth of 1.05 percent GDP per capita.

Looking at all the SDGS, efforts to fight slavery connect to 113 of 179 of their targets (63 per cent). Fighting slavery connects especially to targets in SDGs 1 (poverty), 4 (education), 8 (decent work), 13 (climate), and 16 (peace, justice, institutions).

There are illustrative examples of how anti-slavery efforts in various global value chains have contributed to development. In Brazil, for example, government efforts have freed over 55,000 people from enslavement since 1995 and have generated innovations tying access to development finance to sustainable supply-chain management. And in countries such as Qatar, Thailand, and Uzbekistan, engagement by the ILO, development partners, and private sector organizations has helped foster labor market reforms offering greater protection and support for worker agency.

An Agenda for Developing Freedom

What can be done to scale up the lessons from these countries? Based on an analysis of development practice, there are five key areas.

The first is a strong commitment to developing freedom. Few development actors design interventions aimed at reducing modern slavery risks. Thus, making the maximization of economic agency a development goal, alongside economic growth and poverty alleviation, shaping lending, spending, and policy advice, can go far in curbing slavery.

The second is to slavery-proof pathways to development by protecting and nurturing individuals’ economic agency. This requires a more developmental state, fostering a more equal, entrepreneurial, and educational growth model that protects individual agency. Such an approach calls for a more coordinated approach by development actors to interventions along global value chains.

The third relates to the risks that arise for people from poorly managed supply chains. The coronavirus pandemic has especially highlighted these risks, and there are a range of opportunities for development actors to use their lending, investment, leverage, and advisory work to encourage responsible business conduct in supply-chain and labor-force management.

Fourth, development finance actors have a key role to play in using their collective leverage to ensure markets price modern slavery risks accurately. The surge of capital into environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) lending and investing, after the pandemic, offers important opportunities for embedding anti-slavery objectives and practices in financing for development (FFD).

And lastly, anti-slavery initiatives would receive a significant boost if development actors were to create a “Developing Freedom Forum.” This would foster information-sharing, learning, and strategic coordination around substantive reform agendas for specific value-chains.

Putting anti-slavery efforts at the heart of development work will benefit victims, communities, and business. Victims and survivors of modern slavery will receive increased attention and support for their recovery. The communities and countries in which they live will gain in productivity, innovation, good governance, and sustainability. And businesses will have increased resilience and a strengthened social license.

Professor James Cockayne is a Senior Fellow (Non-Resident) at the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, and a Member of the World Economic Forum Global Futures Council for the New Agenda on Equity and Social Justice. He tweets @James_Cockayne. Developing Freedom is available at