Philanthrocapitalists: The Pied Pipers of ‘Modern Slavery’?

Yves here. This article, even though fairly long, attempts to cover a lot of ground in a nuanced manner. So I hope you’ll read it closely. “Modern slavery” covers a very large range of activities, from sex trafficking to prisoners of war performing hard labor to fishing boat workers being unpaid captives to illegal migrants in the US being forced to work for close to nothing or else be deported.

What is striking about this piece is that is shows how paltry the spending is relative to the scale of the problem. The author also stresses that the US significantly influences the framing and targeting of problems, and not surprisingly, the ones more common in poor nations and that don’t have a strong nexus to global capitalism are at the fore. A particular issue is the treatment of “sex trafficking,” in that, according to Mike Dottridge, who has worked in this area for over two decades, includes taking a dim view of groups that seek to help sex workers. Lambert has pointed out that in parts of Asia, sex work is vastly better paid than laboring in a garment factory. So is opposition to sex work, and not just sex trafficking, to the benefit of the women or global buyers of low end frocks?

By Mike Dottridge, who spent 25 years working in human rights organisations, Amnesty International and Anti-Slavery International, and has worked independently since 2002. He is currently a member of the board of the Issara Institute. Originally published at openDemocracy

As the director of an anti-slavery charity in London at the turn of the century, I would have welcomed a substantial injection of cash to supplement the income we received from our members, from a few private foundations and from several European governments. However, in the year that the UN Trafficking Protocol was adopted (2000), I felt we did not have enough technical expertise (despite being 160 years old) on how to tackle all the patterns of extreme exploitation that we knew to be occurring around the world. Nor did anyone else.

During the first decade of the 21st century, I saw the international community groping along a learning curve. Governments allocated more substantial amounts of money than before to their police in order to enable them to catch traffickers and bring them to trial. Industrialised countries, notably the USA and the European Union bloc, provided substantial amounts to international organisations for what were nominally anti-trafficking activities. They and smaller donors, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, also started funding anti-trafficking efforts in specific regions, such as southeast Asia.

However, not enough lessons were digested about what worked and what did not. Between 2001 and 2007 the US government reportedly allocated some $447 million to efforts to combat global human trafficking outside the USA and allocated more each year. For example, in 2011 the US State Department awarded $22.5 million to fund anti-trafficking work around the world, partly to international organisations (e.g. more than $4 million went to projects run by the International Organization for Migration) but mainly to US-based non-governmental organisations (e.g. more than $1 million went to the International Justice Mission for its operations in India and the Philippines).

The result, unfortunately, was that no-one moved along the learning curve together. Instead, influential governments, particularly the USA, used a loudspeaker to tell others what they should be doing. Those of us with a background in human rights had seen how an annual report issued by the US State Department on the state of human rights in countries around the world had been used since the 1980s to convey misinformation and propaganda. So, it was not a good sign that the US government once again used an annual report (the Trafficking in Persons report) to name and shame other countries, too influenced by US partisan interests to be considered objective. Like most of the anti-trafficking industry, the annual report did not pay much attention to human rights, despite claiming to be respecting human rights by tackling human trafficking.

During this first decade of the century, it was obvious that established patterns of servitude and forced labour, such as bonded labour in South Asia, descent-based slave status in the Sahel and fishing vessels operating with enslaved migrants in parts of southeast Asia and the Pacific, were continuing without police or other actors being equipped to confront them. By 2011 it was also apparent that, with the exception of the USA, governments were getting tired of spending money on anti-trafficking initiatives, many of which failed to deliver promised benefits. After becoming a trustee of the UN Voluntary Fund on contemporary forms of slavery in 2011, I was repeatedly told by government officials that they had no spare money available to contribute. They instead recommended we turn to businesses to raise cash to assist people who had been exploited and abused.

Extra Resources Made Available

A major change occurred in 2012, one which can be attributed largely to a single, mega-rich Australian businessperson named Andrew Forrest. He had been convinced by an American academic, Kevin Bales, to invest tens of millions of dollars in efforts to end what was termed ‘modern slavery’. This wasn’t Forrest’s first attempt to change the world – a decade earlier he had set up the Minderoo Foundation to support education for Australia’s indigenous population. Now he set up the Walk Free Foundation in Perth to focus on modern slavery.

In 2013 he proposed using his wealth in new ways: first, he would donate $10 million to a new Freedom Fund that would finance the anti-slavery work of civil society organisations around the world. The Freedom Fund received initial pledges of $10 million each from two other donors that were already supporting anti-slavery activities: Humanity United (with a substantial income from Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, and his wife, Pam Omidyar, in the US) and the Legatum Foundation (with income from the New Zealand financier Christopher Chandler and the private investment Legatum Group). These initial funders have been subsequently joined by other foundations set up by successful businesses, such as the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the Stardust Fund and the C&A Foundation (now the Laudes Foundation). When it was launched in September 2013, the Freedom Fund was given the objective of raising $100 million by 2020 and ‘measurably reducing’ modern-day slavery by 2020.

Secondly, Forrest also reportedly offered $200 million to set up a new public-private partnership called the Global Fund to End Slavery that would finance anti-slavery plans prepared and implemented by governments, ifthis contribution was matched by governments. This did not take off in the way that was initially envisaged. Instead, after several years of likely governments failing to pledge support, the Republican-controlled US Congress voted to give $25 million in start-up funds if those setting it up agreed that it would operate out of Washington DC. It was rebranded as the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, and got underway as, in effect, yet another US-dominated fund to support civil society initiatives against contemporary slavery – not national plans – with an initial focus on south Asia and southeast Asia. The UK and Norway joined the US as donors to this fund (adding $38 million, with the US donating a further $21 million in 2018 via a Program to End Modern Slavery). This gave it an international tinge, although it has so far maintained a US-based outlook on the world. In effect, the global fund supplements the US’s own bilateral anti-trafficking efforts rather than steering a new path.

Forrest had plenty of clout with his own Australian government and convinced them to back new global anti-slavery efforts. The same political influence was soon extended to the United Kingdom where, under the influence of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government became interested in talking about ‘modern slavery’ rather than continuing to refer, as the rest of the Europe did, to efforts to ‘combat trafficking in human beings’.

Value Added

As a former director of an anti-slavery charity, I should have been delighted by these new initiatives. But from the beginning I had doubts. I had seen how anti-trafficking efforts marginalised human rights and had witnessed the appalling impact of successive US administrations on efforts to stop extreme forms of exploitation around the world. I knew what their partisan criticism of other governments, their funding for US-based organisations operating around the world, and their blanket refusal to support organisations that promoted respect for sex workers’ rights could do. If the massive new injection of funds skewed things even further, there was a possibility that it would cause more harm than good.

In practice, the results have been mixed. Forrest has, for example, used his influence in the corporate world to press business leaders to expunge forced labour from their operations and supply chains. In doing so he has further increased the pressure for action that has been building ever since the United Nations adopted its Business and Human Rights Principles in 2011.

Forrest and other anti-slavery donors have also been gaining influence within the International Labour Organization ever since it was agreed that the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals would promote measures to “eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour” (target 8.7). In 2017, Forrest was invited to address a global ILO conference in Argentina on reducing child labour. That same year, the Walk Free Foundation and the ILO published a joint report estimating how many people are in ‘modern slavery’ around the world. In some ways this was a major advance, however the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery also combined estimates of people forced into labour (25 million) with people forced into marriage (15 million) under one label, thereby inventing a new definition for the term ‘modern slavery’ and ­­nearly doubling the total at the same time.

Following the Piper to the Wrong Place

By this point, the organisations under the influence of the main anti-slavery donors control such a large proportion of the resources available that they have an effective monopoly over the field. If it was clear that they knew how best to use their influence, such a monopoly might be in the interests of the people they are dedicated to protecting. But in cases such as India, where they have supported an anti-human trafficking bill – notable mainly by its intention to detain women who have been in prostitution, rather than to respect human rights – it is apparent that they can have a profoundly negative influence. At the same time, by persuading the ILO to use the term ‘modern slavery’ they have managed to infuriate the government of India, a key country to influence on account of the substantial numbers of people subjected to various forms of bondage and forced labour.

On the wider stage, the introduction of the term ‘modern slavery’ has been divisive, breaking a relative consensus around the issue of human trafficking. To many it seemed that Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA were embarking on a new crusade with the help of the ILO, a project that other organisations such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime opposed. The UNODC had had a virtual monopoly of discussions within the UN on human trafficking, and it evidently feared that switching to the terminology of ‘slavery’ could undermine its privileged role. Perhaps many of the failings that followed would have occurred anyway: not least was the lack of coordinated responses by UN organisations to new patterns of abuse, for example the lack of resources made available to pay for the recovery and healing of Yazidi women and girls enslaved in Iraq by Da’esh (‘Islamic State’). But this shift in power and language certainly didn’t help.

The new monopoly should in theory allow lessons learned to be shared among all the organisations funded by the same donors, but the past decade has seen a marked reduction in the readiness of both international organisations and other large-scale anti-trafficking initiatives to engage in such information exchange. A decade ago it was still possible to argue that the ‘eradication of slavery’ was a global ‘common good’ and that the lessons learned on the efficacy of certain methods should be shared widely, particularly those learned from publicly financed programmes. With the advent of monopoly, this attitude has changed. Large-scale donors claim to have found the key to success, but do not feel an obligation to share it.

However, in these circumstances, holding ‘philanthrocapitalists’ responsible by themselves for recent developments would be an error. The organisations supported by Andrew Forrest and others have acted largely in parallel with the priorities agreed by government agencies in Australia, the UK and the USA. The result, in effect, is that we have witnessed the creation of a neo-liberal government alliance with the hyperwealthy. It is not a ‘military-industrial complex’ of the sort traditionally criticised in the US, but nevertheless a ‘complex’ that aims more criticism at the way poor people and developing countries behave than at the rich, and ensures that the focus of criticism about the unacceptable face of modern-day capitalism and old-fashioned slavery is not on the US or other industrialised countries.

Playing an Alternative Tune?

Foundations that want to stop slavery or other extreme forms of exploitation do not have to operate in such a top-down manner. Some, such as the Oak Foundation and Porticus, have a good record of supporting local activists. They have portfolios which cover a range of human rights issues and use internationally-recognised human rights as a reference point. They seem aware of the danger of investing narrowly on the single issue of ‘modern slavery’. This approach involves understanding the implications of the real world in all its glorious diversity and requires ‘made-to-fit’ solutions rather than ‘one-size-fits-all’ ones.

What is also missing as a result of the priorities adopted by the ‘new abolitionist’ donors is a focus on the role that governments should play (and have legal obligations to play), beyond merely declaring certain actions linked to human trafficking or enslavement to be crimes. Perhaps this is not surprising, as it is probably not in the personal interest of wealthy tycoons to change the structure of the world’s economy or challenge the distribution of power in societies marked by hierarchy, inequality and discrimination.

Fortunately, over the past two decades the jurisprudence of the regional human rights courts in both Europe and the Americas on the issues of human trafficking, servitude and forced labour has evolved substantially. The courts have highlighted what the positive obligations of governments are to prevent such abuse from occurring in the first place, as well as to protect the people concerned. However, so far the governments, funds and foundations that focus on modern slavery do not appear much influenced by this agenda.

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  1. Palaver

    So much bureaucratic squabbling. Who has the patience to read about First World problems over Third World solutions.

    I watched the “Seapiracy” (2021) documentary recently. Ramming and boarding slave ships is far more effective than white washing their products: “Dolphin safe” should be “Slaver friendly” because only one of those turns out to be true.

    I also doubt the situation has improved in the supply chains of those seemingly progressive and woke fashion companies. Security around the factories has most likely tightened up.

    As Rutgar Bergman once said, just give those salaries to the people they intend to help. Or hire mercenaries to take down the criminal gangs, who are often protected by the police. At least that’s being part of the solution.

    1. Isotope_C14`

      Seapiracy is amazing, and terrifying. You are correct. Ramming and boarding the slave ships is what needs to be done. This is true of many other industries. I watched it on one of those free stream services, It should be free to watch for everyone to be perfectly honest.

  2. John Steinbach

    In the U.S., tomato pickers on the East Coast often consist of Indigenous villagers, most often from the mountains of Southern/Central Mexico. These workers often speak their native language, with limited Spanish proficiency. They are given work permits as an entire group, trucked to the fields (Starting in Florida & working their way up the East Coast). The growers hold their visas. They are often held under armed guard, living in prefabricated steel barracks, and forced to shop at Company Stores. From Spring til Fall they are essentially held captive.

    A similar situation holds for orchard workers in the Eastern Piedmont.

    It’s easier to oppose human trafficking in India than to speak out against it at home.

  3. Rod

    Everyone needs a good Paycheck, even NGOs.

    100% Employment Eligibility pre screen required of every Employer hiring in the USA through E-Verify, for every single Employee, would really help.
    Every Employee—1099 Subcontractors especially—would have to show eligibility.
    No Excuses, no Exceptions.

    IMO/IME the Grey Economy in the US Construction Industry is just as codified as the Legitimate Economy. It has been a deliberate gift to the whole Real Estate Industry at the expense of all Legitimate Wage Earners—and that is easy to document since 1990.

  4. Patrick Donnelly

    The hierarchy is expensive, but the costs are borne by those lower down.

    Multi level marketing?

  5. JEHR

    Billionaires are the problem, not the solution no matter how much money they give to anything.

  6. Patrick

    This vaguely reminds me of something I only dimly recall. I think it might have been an article in Forbes or the WSJ written about the obscenely wealthy, much maligned commodities trader, Loup Garous, (aka “Loopy”). Sometimes referred to as the “Werewolf of Wall Street”, the title of the piece was “Lycanthrocapitalism”.

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