New ICAI review: The UK’s approach to tackling modern slavery through the aid programme

14 Oct 2020

  • New ICAI review looks at UK aid spending of over £200 million to tackle modern slavery in developing countries – a “new and complex” issue for the aid programme that affects millions of people worldwide.
  • It finds that diplomatic and influencing efforts had successfully raised the global profile of modern slavery, cross-government coordination was strong, and many programmes were on track to meet their immediate targets.
  • But aid watchdog awards an overall amber-red score due to limited evidence of long-term impact, inadequate survivor consultation, and lack of research on “what works”.

The UK’s work to tackle modern slavery in developing countries has had limited long-term impact, did not build on existing international efforts and experience, and failed to adequately involve survivors – though the government played a prominent role in raising the profile of the issue globally, a new report from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has found.

Ending modern slavery at home and abroad has become a significant priority for the government, who pledged in 2018 to spend £200 million of aid addressing the issue.

ICAI found that a sustained global campaign by the government had been successful in raising awareness, with a Call to Action launched by former Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017 being endorsed by more than 90 countries, and UK diplomatic efforts resulting in the term “modern slavery” being included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. The aid watchdog also found that cross-government coordination had been strong, and many programmes were on course to meet their immediate targets.

However, reviewers said that there had been little evidence of impact “on the ground” from programmes or the Call to Action, and the campaign had not built adequately on existing efforts by other agencies; the government’s approach was not underpinned by a detailed understanding of the challenge or a statement setting out how it was using aid for this purpose; survivors were not sufficiently consulted; and many projects were too short-term to have sustainable impact. Concerns were also raised that the UK’s use of the imprecise term “modern slavery” had negative historical undertones and risked stigmatising survivors as “slaves”, though ICAI noted that UK officials working abroad had adapted their language to reflect local sensitivities.

ICAI awarded an amber-red score for unsatisfactory achievement in most areas, and made five recommendations.

ICAI commissioner Sir Hugh Bayley, who led the review, said: “Modern slavery causes untold suffering, and the UK’s £200 million commitment to tackling this complex and hidden problem is important – particularly with Covid-19 making more people vulnerable to trafficking and slavery.

“Because this is a new use for UK aid, officials are piloting new ways of working. While some of these pilots have worthwhile results, it is not clear the government’s interventions are reducing the scale of modern slavery, and they should publish a statement setting out how they are using aid for this purpose.”

ICAI’s review explains that tackling modern slavery – including forced labour, bonded labour, human trafficking and some of the worst forms of child labour – is a cross-government effort, with the Home Office, former Department for International Development (DFID) and Foreign Office all having delivered international programmes in this area alongside the global influencing campaign.

ICAI said the government had acknowledged that evidence of “what works” in this “new and complex” area for UK aid was currently limited. However, the aid watchdog criticized the government for not adequately learning about or building on existing international efforts and agreements, some of which had been in place for decades, instead choosing to treat it as a new topic for international cooperation. The report noted that some countries, including India, Pakistan, France and Germany, disagreed with the UK’s approach and had chosen not to endorse the Call to Action – and that some others that had signed up had not put in place practical measures to implement it.

As part of the review, ICAI’s researchers spoke directly to modern slavery survivors in Bangladesh and Nigeria. The report acknowledged that the UK government had given survivors a voice in its influencing campaign, for example by inviting them to speak at high-profile summits. However, it found that officials’ engagement with survivors when designing programmes had been inadequate – despite their testimony being important in understanding how best to approach the problem. The UK’s work did not fully reflect the many different forms of modern slavery and the priorities of  some partner countries, with programmes in Nigeria, for example, focusing largely on international trafficking, while other local priorities, such as domestic servitude and internal trafficking, were neglected.

ICAI said that most of the programmes it looked at were well-managed and were on track to meet their immediate targets, with positive activities including a Home Office programme in India that enrolled more than 4,000 at-risk children in school, and work in Nigeria to support the reintegration of more than 2,000 vulnerable survivors of international trafficking. However, many projects were too short-term to have a sustainable impact on modern slavery, including for survivors, who typically need support over a long period. An independent external evaluation of the first phase of one of DFID’s projects, which in a single year reached 35,000 women in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, found that it may have even misled participants into believing that knowledge of the dangers they might face, rather than practical action to strengthen their rights, was enough to protect them. There was generally little usable data on whether the UK’s work was effective.

The report noted that the government had not published a statement on its international objectives and how it was using aid for this purpose, and recommended that it should do so.  Although there was some good collaboration with the private sector, with the Modern Slavery Act requiring larger UK companies to set out how they ensure modern slavery is not taking place in their supply chains, opportunities for deeper partnerships had been missed.

While the government recognised its evidence base for deciding which aspects of modern slavery to prioritise was weak, ICAI said it had not developed a comprehensive research strategy to fill the gap. Despite strong coordination between departments, with early signs that learning was being shared across government, there was no adequate central repository of lessons learned.

ICAI recommended that the government should develop a systematic approach to filling knowledge gaps, do more to draw on survivor voices when designing programmes, publish its approach to using aid to address modern slavery, examine the scope for more interventions in neglected areas, and strengthen its partnerships with the private sector and other governments.

Read ICAI’s modern slavery review.

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