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Covid will drive millions into slavery. The anti-slavery movement needs to pool knowledge and resources to rise to the challenge

May 24, 2021

The converging health, economic and climate crises are putting unprecedented pressure on vulnerable communities around the world, opening the door to trafficking and exploitation. In the absence of effective government and international aid responses, and amid a precarious funding landscape, anti-slavery donors and practitioners need to step up strategic investment in frontline resilience.

Even before the pandemic, some 40m people globally were estimated to suffer conditions of modern slavery – in the form of bonded or forced labour, forced or early marriage, or extreme forms of child labour. Slavery has long been a flourishing criminal industry, generating some $150 billion in global profits each year and feeding on the desperation of the most vulnerable. Yet, despite its pervasive negative impact across a wide range of development goals, slavery is still treated as a niche subject by many mainstream donors and development actors. That needs to change.

Those of us working on the slavery frontlines have become skilled at stretching limited resources and zeroing in on the most impactful community-based and systems-change interventions.

However, over the past year, the pandemic, its economic fallout and the worsening climate crisis have converged to dramatically raise the stakes and shine a bright light on glaring gaps in the global effort to tackle extreme vulnerability.

While wealthy nations are gradually vaccinating their way out of the crisis and pursuing aggressive economic recovery plans – not always in the spirit of global collaboration, conservation and solidarity – many of the world’s poorest see no light at the end of the tunnel.

The pandemic exposed and exacerbated structural inequalities and vulnerability factors with crushing speed and impact. Its economic aftershocks continue to reverberate through the poorest areas and remote hinterlands, undoing decades of development, gender and human rights work.

Previously ‘poor but stable’ communities have been pushed over the edge, causing families to fall into debt-bondage, accept exploitative employment, embark on unsafe migration journeys or submit their children to hazardous child labour or early marriage. Our country teams and local partners have witnessed spiralling increases in vulnerability, especially among women, children, migrants and other marginalised groups. Meanwhile, national and international support has been woefully absent or insufficient across all the countries we cover.

If we are to stem this tide of misery, we must find a more strategic and visionary way to work together for maximum impact.

The organisation I lead, the Freedom Fund, has always operated at the nexus of philanthropy, applied research and strategic frontline work with over 100 grassroots partners. After a year of both great devastation and amazing achievements in our frontline emergency response, a number of key lessons have come into sharp focus:

Firstly, in times of a truly global crisis, traditional national and international aid structures cannot be relied upon to reach the most vulnerable. Community self-help structures and grassroots initiatives are therefore the first and last line of defence for many of the world’s poorest. As we think about how best to invest limited resources going forward, we need to keep our focus firmly on the community level.

Secondly, the global aid industry continues to underestimate the capacity of grassroots and community groups. In our experience, beneficiaries and local partners – when adequately supported and empowered – deliver better targeted, more impactful and more sustainable interventions at lower cost than most international players. We need to stop paying lip-service to inclusivity and localisation, and truly embrace the agency and wisdom of our beneficiaries.

Thirdly, as international non-profits, we bring to the table unique skillsets and learning. Those of us working across different contexts and geographies have an interest and a duty to invest in applied research, and to freely and proactively disseminate our findings and best practice lessons. At the Freedom Fund, we will further double down on our efforts to help close the global data and skills gap as one of the best ways to drive change.

And finally, we need to bring more visionary donors into the space, who understand the importance of linking direct assistance with effective systems-change advocacy, and who are willing to take a leap of faith by investing in innovative frontline approaches. We have shown that engaged and results-driven funders can multiply the impact of their giving by pooling their resources and expertise in strategic donor funds. And as intermediaries, we can help ensure that their investments reach the frontlines with minimal risk and maximum transparency.

These are difficult and dangerous times for the vulnerable populations we serve. To be able to meet the challenges ahead, we must set aside turf wars and incremental thinking. Donors, non-profits and grassroots activists share a vital interest in coming together to help rebuild lives and strengthen communities shattered by the pandemic.

Nick Grono is the CEO of the Freedom Fund, which invests in local organizations working on the frontlines against modern slavery.

Written by
Nick Grono