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We should integrate modern slavery into UK international development priorities

There's less focus on modern slavery, but there are opportunities to integrate it across all new priorities, blogs Prof Alex Balch.

Published: 14th April 2021

The UK’s approach to international development is in considerable flux with big cuts to foreign aid (Official Development Assistance - ODA), the merging of key government departments and the need for new trade deals following exit from the European Union, potentially blurring the lines between foreign policy and international development, and all coinciding with the unpredictability created by the global pandemic.

In this somewhat dynamic context, the contours of the vision for ‘Global Britain’ are beginning to emerge, but there remains uncertainty over the UK’s ambitions to be a world-leader in addressing modern slavery. There have long been questions over the effectiveness and appropriateness of policies and programmes in this area, with many arguing for a more community-based approach grounded in social justice. These doubts about effectiveness and the need to do things differently were underlined by the 2020 Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) review of the Government’s approach to tackling modern slavery through the aid programme, which called for future activity to be more strategic, inclusive and evidence-informed. The Government recently announced its intention to review the 2014 Modern Slavery Strategy and develop a revised strategic approach.

The government’s ability to respond to the ICAI recommendations have been severely affected by cuts to ODA spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), as confirmed in the November 2020 Spending Review. The consequences of the cuts became clear in March 2021 at the Yemen pledging conference, where the UK reduced its commitment by 60%. Later the same month UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) confirmed there would be a £120m shortfall in its ODA research funding, leading to the abrupt termination of research partnerships, programmes and projects addressing global challenges, including modern slavery.

The UK’s focus on modern slavery and its capacity to make a difference in this area is now less clear. The Integrated Review of the UK’s foreign, security and development policy only makes a passing mention of modern slavery, stating a commitment to ‘the victims of trafficking, modern slavery and exploitation’ in the context of resilience and migration.

The UK’s new ODA priorities, or ‘seven global challenges where the UK can make the most difference’, do not explicitly include modern slavery. The new priorities, consisting of climate change and biodiversity; Covid-19 and global health; girls’ education; science, research and technology; open societies and conflict resolution; trade and economic development; and humanitarian response and preparedness, were also criticised for not including poverty reduction as a cross-cutting lens, raising the question of how their effectiveness will be assessed.

It is important to consider how modern slavery fits in the UK’s emerging international development agenda and planned international development strategy, because there has already been significant investment in programmes and the current Government made a commitment to continue the UK’s leadership in this area. There needs to be coherence between the Government’s international development strategy and the proposed revised modern slavery strategy.

The Modern Slavery PEC carried out a rapid assessment of evidence linking modern slavery with the seven ODA priorities, with findings published today in a policy briefing (see also newly published analysis of the top 20 source countries for modern slavery in the UK). We found compelling connections, partly because modern slavery shares many of the same root causes and structural drivers with other development challenges, such as poverty, inequality and discrimination, gender-based violence, forced displacement and weak rule of law. We found evidence of direct and indirect relationships: modern slavery impedes economic development, other development issues can increase people’s vulnerability to exploitation, and policies to address development priorities can have unintended consequences that include risks of modern slavery.

However, our assessment of the quality of this evidence is quite mixed. Our findings confirm many of the points made by the ICAI report about an under-developed evidence base, and a lack of understanding of ‘what works’ for modern slavery and international development.

In the areas of climate change and Covid-19, conflict and humanitarian crisis there is evidence of interconnectedness between the impacts of these issues and people’s vulnerability to modern slavery. There are therefore strong arguments to mainstream modern slavery considerations into existing UK government-funded development programmes in these areas.

In other areas such as international trade policy, a strategic approach could leverage the UK’s position, building upon the 2017 Call to Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking, launched by the UK’s Government at the UN General Assembly. Evidence of forced labour involving the Uyghur population in Xinjiang has brought an international focus on modern slavery and the regulation of global supply chains, with the Foreign Secretary calling for ‘co-ordination with our like-minded partners around the world’. Diplomatic efforts on trade and climate change may be an opportunity to influence partner governments, and UK businesses in-country, with the UK’s presidency of COP26 and the G7 coming up.

The cuts to ODA funding carry significant risks for the UK’s international development agenda around effectiveness and sustainability. They also come at an unfortunate time when there are important opportunities for the UK to lead the integration of policies and programmes to address modern slavery in international development.

Despite this challenging context, the global pandemic has underlined the interconnectedness of development priorities. There is a persuasive case for investment in activities which connect global challenges in a systemic and strategic way, threading modern slavery throughout and contributing to addressing its root causes. This should include research that establishes the most effective ways this can be done. At stake is the UK’s credibility in the international development space, and its stated ambition to be among the world’s anti-slavery leaders.