The Walk Free Foundation: The Role of Research in Eradicating Modern Slavery

20 August 2018
Research Innovation

Fiona David  | Executive Director of Global Research, Walk Free Foundation
Elise Gordon  | Research Analyst, Walk Free Foundation

Whether we use the term modern slavery, forced labour or human trafficking, the Walk Free Foundation and other members of Alliance 8.7 are trying to tackle serious human rights abuses and crimes. Solutions to these issues need to take into account deeply embedded discrimination, the complexities of legal and justice systems that may be as much a part of the problem as a part of the solution, and factors such as conflict, drought, health crises and financial systems.

Solutions also have to contend with the complexities of the human condition. Throughout history, people have shown time and time again they are willing to take significant risks if it means the possibility of a better life. Unfortunately, there appears to be no shortage of people equally willing to exploit this risk taking for their own gain.

How do we begin to unravel these problems and work toward solutions? What is the role of research in this problem-solving process?

Research books. Unsplash/Jessica Ruscello

Research plays a critical role of helping us “see” the true size and scope of modern slavery, even when so much of it remains out of sight.  Consider the findings of the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, developed by the Walk Free Foundation and the International Labour Organization in partnership with the International Organization on Migration. Based on the best data currently available, the estimates show that modern slavery affects around 40.3 million people at any moment in time. Compare this to the only 66,520 people that were identified as victims of trafficking in 2016, according to the US Trafficking in Persons report. If there was ever any doubt, this confirms we are only seeing the tip of a very large iceberg.

Research enables us to understand what factors cause or enable the persistence of modern slavery. Just as knowing about your family medical history enables you to better manage your own health, an understanding of the connection between certain risk factors in the environment or in a person’s personal situation may help us understand their risk of victimization.

The existing research suggests a connection between modern slavery and related systemic factors, such as corruption, conflict, poverty, discrimination, weak rule of law, poor or declining economic conditions and natural disasters. While this evidence provides an important starting point, we know the relationships between these factors are not linear. The Global Slavery Index uses statistical tests to understand relationships and interactions between these factors to better understand their significance. Through statistical modelling of these relationships, we are increasingly able to predict where modern slavery may be occurring, even before any victims have been identified.

Research plays a critical role of helping us “see” the true size and scope of modern slavery, even when so much of it remains out of sight.

Research also helps determine the impact of our existing efforts, along with “what works” to prevent or minimize the harm of modern slavery. To this end, the Walk Free Foundation tracks enormous amounts of data on what laws, policies and programmes are in place already through the Government Responses Index, which is freely available online and has data for more than 160 countries. The Government Responses Index tracks government progress towards the achievement of five milestones:

  • Survivors of slavery are identified and supported to exit and remain out of slavery;
  • Criminal justice mechanisms function effectively to prevent modern slavery;
  • Coordination occurs at the national and regional level, and governments are held to account for their response;
  • Risk factors, such as attitudes, social systems and institutions, that enable modern slavery are addressed; and
  • Government and business stop sourcing goods and services produced by forced labour.

The Walk Free Foundation is also seeking to learn from existing initiatives. The Promising Practices Database brings together evaluations of, to date, 179 initiatives that target modern slavery in one or more of its forms. The database has been created to identify gaps in knowledge around project efficacy and draws on both the successes and pitfalls of current and past projects in an effort to aid the design, implementation and evaluation of future projects that combat modern slavery. We plan to add to the database over time, as the stock and quality of evaluations grows.

The Walk Free Foundation’s research programme brings together findings on prevalence, vulnerability, government responses and promising practices, as a contribution towards informing global efforts to tackle modern slavery. Nearly all our work is done through partnerships and collaboration. This is the power of initiatives like this knowledge platform and Alliance 8.7; through coordinated, combined action, we have the best chance of finding the data and evidence that will enable us to end modern slavery.

Fiona David is the research chair at the Minderoo Foundation.

Elise Gordon is a research analyst at the Walk Free Foundation.

This article has been prepared by Fiona David and Elise Gordon as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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