Oped by Nick Grono in the Guardian. 16 August 2013.
Anti-slavery organisations must start to make the case to governments and the private sector of the economic benefits of eliminating slavery, over the moral case.
$32bn (£21bn) in annual profits sounds impressive doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t be happy with such huge profits? The problem is, that is the estimate of how much criminals make from modern slavery every year(pdf). It’s a powerful statistic, and one of the most commonly cited. But it is becoming increasingly clear that focussing on these criminally generated profits frames the problem wrongly, and risks undermining effective policy action to end this atrocity.
Instead all of us in the anti-slavery organisations must start working together to effectively make the case to governments and the private sector of the economic benefits of eliminating slavery, over and above the unarguable moral case to end this atrocity.
In today’s world, profit is usually a positive measure. Without profit we have recessions and misery; we have stagnant wage growth and depressed living standards; and the poor remain mired in poverty.
So to associate the most egregious forms of human exploitation with profits may inadvertently conflate slavery with something good.
And given the logic of basic economics, which tells us a reduction in profit is usually a bad thing, the implication could be that successful efforts to eliminate slavery-derived profits will damage the global economy.
But this is not the case, and the error derives from framing the issue wrongly. The reality is that while slavery does produce profits for criminal slaveholders and traffickers – it also generates massive costs and losses to the wider economy, over and above the unimaginable human suffering. Tackling slavery means not only stripping the criminals of their illegal profits, but persuading governments that an investment in ending slavery will return massive dividends.
When I visit enslaved villages in northern India, I do not find productive contributors to the Indian economy. I see starved, beaten, oppressed human beings struggling to survive. Multiply the lost labour productivity by the 27 million people estimated to be enslaved today – greater than the entire population of Australia – and it becomes apparent what massive damage slavery is doing not just to people’s lives but to the broader economy.
The real economic damage is, in practice, much worse than this simple calculation would suggest. In the case of sexual exploitation consider the economic and social costs stemming from organised crime, a cash based economy resulting in unpaid taxes and the opportunity cost of having millions of otherwise healthy workers removed from the productive economy. Factor in the tragic reality that enslaved women often die young.
Or take the case of the many millions in forced labour. There are massive opportunity costs to the wider economy of having able-bodied workers operating in conditions where they are unlikely to be working at full capacity, due to the absence of normal incentives.
When slaves are freed, they contribute significantly to the economy. Those enslaved know how to work, and when given a chance to work for themselves and support their own families, they work hard. Motivated, their productivity climbs and so does their consumption – food and medicine, clothes and housing, everything they were denied in slavery. Freed slaves do their best to educate their children, knowing this is a powerful buffer against slavery. Longitudinal research following villages from slavery to freedom has shown a significant “freedom dividend.”
Focussing on the economic costs is not to ignore the unimaginable suffering of those enslaved and their families and communities. Far from it. It is about constructing arguments best designed to drive the policy action required to end this atrocity.
Sadly, governments and the private sector are not easily swayed into action for purely humanitarian reasons. If they were, there would not be 27 million people living in slavery right now.
For cash-strapped governments working out how to allocate limited taxpayer dollars, economic arguments are often far more powerful than humanitarian ones. And private sector donors want to invest in a way that generates both social and economic good. Just consider how effectively the international public health sector has changed its narrative. Vaccinating children or helping people living with HIV has moved from being the right thing to do, to also being about the percentage increase in GDP providing these medicines will produce.
But to persuade government and the private sector, we need robust data in support of the economic case. The anti-slavery sector possesses much of the data, but fragmentation in the space often prevents it from being effectively shared and analysed. There needs to be more collaboration and willingness to share information. And funders need to invest in filling the research gaps, and in pulling together all the available data to help make the powerful economic case.
A new, burgeoning generation of anti-slavery activists is bringing powerful evidence-based approaches to the age-old tragedy of slavery. Focussing on the economic benefits of ending this atrocity will help them in enlisting governments and the private sector in this critically important fight.
Nick Grono is CEO of Walk Free. Follow @NickGrono on Twitter