The UK’s approach to tackling modern slavery through the aid programme

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.

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14 Oct 2020
ICAI amber/red score
Lead commissioner
Sir Hugh Bayley
Cross-government, Modern slavery
Related documents
Government response
Literature review
Approach paper

Relevant Sustainable Development Goals

  • Sustainable Development Goal 1: No poverty
  • Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduced inequalities
  • Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate action
  • Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions
  • Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender equality
  • Sustainable Development Goal 8: Decent work and economic growth

Modern slavery is a global problem that leads to appalling human rights violations and suffering. It encompasses a range of related but distinct problems, including bonded and forced labour, human trafficking (including for sexual exploitation) and some of the worst forms of child labour. It is a vast and global problem, whose hidden nature makes it very difficult to measure.

Ending modern slavery, both at home and internationally, has become a significant priority for the UK government, who committed in 2018 to spend £200 million in UK aid on promoting global action. This is a “new and complex” challenge for UK aid. The government has conducted a sustained international campaign to raise awareness, including persuading many governments to sign an international Call to Action. The Home Office and the former Department for International Development (DFID) and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have all been involved in delivering international programmes to combat modern slavery.

This review assesses how well the UK government has done in learning ‘what works’ and developing a credible portfolio of programmes to tackle this complex global challenge. It covers the period since November 2014, when the UK’s modern slavery strategy was adopted, and includes in-depth consideration of a sample of programmes, the UK’s work in two countries (Bangladesh and Nigeria) and the UK’s influencing efforts with international partners and with the private sector.


Learning: How well has the UK government built and applied the evidence base in support of its modern slavery work?

  • The responsible departments have recognised significant data and evidence gaps, but do not have a modern slavery research strategy.
  • However, the UK has promoted research and learning within individual programmes.
  • The government has shared learning internally, but its systems are at an early stage and external dissemination has been hampered by confidentiality requirements.
  • The UK has not drawn adequately on international experience and established approaches in its modern slavery work.

Relevance: How well has the UK government gone about building a relevant, strategic, coordinated and credible portfolio of modern slavery programmes and influencing activities?

  • The UK has yet to publish a statement on its objectives and approach for using aid to tackle modern slavery.
  • Programmes have generally not been selected on the basis of a systematic review of modern slavery in a given country or the priorities of partner governments.
  • The programme has neglected some dimensions of modern slavery, as well as transit and destination countries.
  • The UK has worked with a wide range of implementing partners as channels for delivery on a project basis, but not as strategic partners.
  • Modern slavery initiatives have not been scaled up or mainstreamed across UK aid or linked with broader sectoral programmes.
  • Survivor voices have been largely absent at policy level, but there has been some involvement of survivors in programme implementation.
  • Government programmes have been weak on gender and other cross-cutting analysis.
  • The UK’s sustained international campaign on modern slavery has helped to raise the profile of the issue – but we have seen little evidence of impact on the ground from the Call to Action.
  • The government’s emphasis on tackling modern slavery in global supply chains is important, but its approach to working with the private sector has been limited.
  • The UK government remains committed to ending modern slavery but needs to communicate this more clearly.

Effectiveness: How well is the modern slavery portfolio delivering results and value for money?

  • Most programmes have delivered their activities as planned and have produced a range of potentially useful outputs.
  • The portfolio has often been innovative but has generated little usable outcome data.
  • Much of the programming has been short-term and often rushed.
  • The approach to ensuring value for money is still nascent.
  • Regular coordination across departments in London was highly rated by government staff.
  • The UK government has had good relationships with other donors and multilaterals, but could have promoted deeper collaboration.


  1. Responsible departments should develop a more systematic approach to filling knowledge and evidence gaps, including sex-disaggregated and sector-specific data, gender analysis and more comprehensive evaluations, to guide the choice of interventions.
  2. Responsible departments should do more to draw on survivor voices, in ethical ways, with a particular focus on inputs to policy and programme design, and to deepening understanding of lifetime experiences and gender dimensions of modern slavery.
  3. The UK government should publish a clear statement of its overall objectives and approach to using UK aid to tackle modern slavery internationally.
  4. Responsible departments should increase the future impact of programming by examining the scope for more interventions in neglected areas of modern slavery, and mainstreaming modern slavery into other development programmes, including in the COVID-19 response.
  5. Responsible departments should strengthen partnerships on modern slavery, including deepening engagement with the private sector and working with partner governments to develop locally owned action plans covering origin, transit and destination countries.

Government response

The government’s response to our modern slavery review is available to read online.

International Development Committee

We expect there to be an International Development Committee hearing into this review in due course.