Towards Common Ground on “What Works” to End Modern Slavery
It is well known that the deadline to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is fast approaching; and that no country is currently on track to meet the deadline. The task is made more difficult in the face of confluent crises such as climate, COVID-19, and complex conflicts, which increase the pressure on already strained global development resources. In this context, being able to distinguish between actions that create a just society for all and those which do not has never been more important. In particular, understanding what works to unlock the freedom and economic agency of some 40.3 million people living in modern slavery is essential for global development to ensure that no one is left behind.
Walk Free has built a publicly available evidence base on interventions against modern slavery through the Promising Practices Database (the Database). The first edition of the Database collected 179 programmatic and impact evaluations of interventions related to anti-slavery, counter-trafficking, and related areas (2015 Database), with the aim to identify and share lessons learned with anti-slavery programme funders, designers and evaluators. An update to the Database in 2021 captured an additional 83 evaluations published in the years from 2015 to 2020 (2020 Update), for a present total of 262 evaluations in the Database. The 2020 Update also presented an opportunity to compare and track the changes in the evidence base over the last five years and unpack whether the development community is moving towards a consensus on what works to end modern slavery.
This review of the evidence base identified several positive trends. Most encouragingly, there was an increased specificity in both programmes and evaluations: in the last five years, evaluations were often clearer on whether programmes had or had not achieved the desired objectives, while programmes themselves were increasingly tailored to target exploitation in specific sectors. Interestingly, while the most common sectors continued to be sex work, agriculture, domestic work, and marriage, there were more evaluations of programmes that targeted sectors like textiles, garments and brick kilns in the 2020 Update. Finally, the lessons from these evaluations were also more reliable: in the 2015 Database, only 17 per cent of all evaluations were rated three or above on the Maryland Scientific Methods Scale, in comparison to 27 per cent of the new evaluations in the 2020 Update.
Yet, despite these improvements, progress in some areas has reversed in the last five years. Specifically, evaluated programmes in the 2020 Update covered a less diverse regional spread than evaluated programmes in the 2015 Database, as they were disproportionately concentrated in several countries in Asia Pacific. This has had a flow-on effect to the types of programmes evaluated, as reflected in the increase in programmes that target exploitation in the textiles and garment industry, and in domestic work. It may also reveal donor priorities with an increased focus in high prevalence countries in the Asia Pacific region.
In addition, other issues identified in the 2015 Database still occur among evaluated programmes included in the 2020 Update. These issues continue to obscure a clear understanding of what works. For example, there are still a limited number of evaluations that clearly outline a theory of change that articulates the relationship between the objectives and activities of a programme. Further, many evaluations continue to measure success as when discrete activities or outputs are achieved, rather than considering success as when those outputs reduce the risks to, or existence of, modern slavery.
Overall, the evidence base today is clearer than it was five years ago. More precise and reliable evaluations are an encouraging trend — yet there is more work to do to build a common ground on what works to end modern slavery. Walk Free’s review of the evidence base identified three key recommendations for future anti-slavery and counter-trafficking programming and evaluations. Firstly, evaluation methodologies must continue to strengthen, and innovative methods must be developed and tested, to identify clear lessons. Secondly, funders must increase resources specifically for evaluations, and should lengthen project implementation times to allow for better analyses of impact. Finally, transparency is key to progressing our common understanding of what works, particularly in the few remaining years until 2030, the deadline to meet the SDGs. As such, evaluations and lessons learned must be shared with the wider anti-slavery community.
Walk Free is also committed to transparency and improving the dissemination of the evidence base, including through sharing policy papers examining what works in specific sectors, activities, or countries drawing from the Promising Practices Database. The first paper on what works in the use of cash transfers, drawing on the 2015 Database, is currently available. Additional policy papers will be released over time.
Beyond these papers, future work on this project will aim to enhance the accessibility and useability of the Promising Practices Database by moving into an online and interactive format, harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to improve real-time updates of the evidence base, and collaborating with stakeholders to create resources that empower programme designers, funders and evaluators to act on the lessons learned. Critically, through such transparency, collaboration, and more robust evaluations, we can in time move beyond what is “promising” to begin identifying — and funding — what is “proven” to end modern slavery.
This article has been prepared by Bernadette Joudo as a contributor 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.