The Global Slavery Index 2016, Counter-Arguments & Criticisms

Human trafficking - Concept Photo

The Global Slavery Index 2016
According to the Walk Free Foundation, about 45.8 million people around the world are trapped in modern versions of enslavement, 28 percent more than its last estimate in 2014. The organization attributes the increased numbers to improved data collection and research methodology. Whether enslavement is increasing or decreasing remains unclear. Whether the foundation’s new data collection methods soothe the growing number of critics also remains unclear.

The organization said it had derived the index from 42,000 interviews conducted in 53 languages in 25 countries, covering 44% of the global population. The index’s database has over 17,000 datapoints, covering 161 government responses. Some form of modern slavery exists in all 167 countries covered by the index, it said.

Unlike historical definitions of slavery in which people were held as legal property, a practice that has been universally outlawed, modern slavery is generally defined as human trafficking, forced labor, bondage from indebtedness, forced or servile marriage or commercial sexual exploitation.

The Walk Free Foundation’s report said more than half the population of modern slaves are in five countries — India, with 18.35 million, China, with 3.39 million, Pakistan, 2.13 million, Bangladesh, 1.53 million, and Uzbekistan, 1.23 million.

The report found that North Korea had the highest per capita level of modern slavery, at 4.37 percent of the population, followed by Uzbekistan, at 3.97 percent, Cambodia, 1.65 percent, India, 1.4 percent, and Qatar, 1.36 percent.

While India is home to more enslaved people than any other country, the Walk Free Foundation report said it had made “significant progress” in measures to address the problem. Those included toughened criminal penalties for child prostitution and forced marriage, as well as improvements to protect victims.

The report also cited what it described as “significant progress” in antislavery actions by other governments since publication of the last report in 2014. The British government, for example, introduced the Modern Slavery Act last year, which can penalize violators with life imprisonment terms, and the United States amended a law to ban the importation of goods made with forced or child labor.

The countries with the lowest per capita rates of modern slavery — defined as 0.02 percent of the population or less, were: Luxembourg, New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Belgium, Australia, Canada, Spain, Britain, France, Germany and the United States.

The Walk Free Foundation was founded in 2012 by Australian philanthropists, Andrew and Nicola Forrest, and developed what it described as the world’s first all-encompassing global estimate of slavery with country-by-country data.

Counter-Arguments and Criticisms


It is both objective reporting and noteworthy news to mention that  the analysis, methodologies, and overall findings of the “Global Slavery Index” have attracted criticism and concerns, as discussed in November 2014 an article published by the Guardian UK. Excerpts from that article appear below.

One of the great frustrations of the anti-trafficking field has been the absence of hard data. We know that millions of people in all parts of the world are trapped in situations of exploitation. But human exploitation takes many different forms, occurs largely among hidden populations, and is notoriously difficult to find, let alone quantify in any meaningful way. That is a problem for those working to address such exploitation because pushing for change becomes difficult, if not impossible.

This creates an almost irresistible temptation to make a silk purse out of a very tattered sow’s ear: to harness the power of statistics and numbers to create an illusion of concreteness that masks the slipperiness of what we are counting.

It is understandable that Walk Free, a new player seeking to make its mark in a highly competitive environment, has succumbed to that temptation. Less forgivable are the weaknesses that mar the substance of the index and compromise its findings: a mysterious, inconsistently applied methodology, a raft of unverified assumptions and multiple, critical errors of fact and logic. Even the basic unit of measurement of “modern slavery” is flawed: the definition is self-created and, bizarrely, changes from one year to the next.

The methodology used to establish the prevalence of slavery is extremely crude: random sample surveys in seven countries and derived data involving three others, supplemented by existing survey data of highly variable quality from a further nine. Some countries, for which no data were available, were given the same rate as countries that were judged to be similar.

Even the well-informed reader will struggle to understand how the fragile sample data from 19 countries (10 from Walk Free data, nine from secondary sources) was so confidently extrapolated across to the remaining 148. The division of surveyed countries into six “clusters” for extrapolation purposes has some very peculiar results: Egypt classified as “high income” for example, and Hong Kong falling behind China on the same measure.

At some points, application of the extrapolation “protocol” verges on the ludicrous. For example, Thailand and Brunei are claimed to have the same proportion of their populations enslaved – a risible assertion to anyone with even cursory knowledge of the situation in those two countries. Incredibly, the number of slaves in South Africa is calculated on the basis that this country is 70% like western Europe (because “historically, South Africa has been culturally similar to western, democratic nations”) and 30% like Africa. After noting that little reliable information exists on slavery in China, the index’s authors declare that they are comfortable with China being considered pretty much the same as other east Asian nations like South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. Prevalence rates for Britain were applied to Ireland and Iceland, and those for America to several western European nations, including Germany.

Despite these and many other egregious flaws, critical examination of the index has been oddly muted. One wonders whether the avalanche of statistical and quantitative research jargon is deliberately intended to have a confusing and silencing effect.

Other possible explanations for the lack of critical engagement are even more worrying, because they concern the rather grubby realities of power and funding. The leadership of Walk Free appears to enjoy unfettered access to the global elite; securing glowing endorsements of the index from Clinton to Blair, Bono to Branson. For the mainstream media and pretty much everyone else, this was more than good enough. With marginal exceptions, coverage of the index has been uniformly fawning and superficial.

The resounding silence from the anti-trafficking community and its failure to engage critically with the index is also disquieting and deserves scrutiny. Walk Free, along with its various subsidiaries, has come to the big table with seductive promises of abundant funding at a time when previously generous government donors are flagging. A number of international organizations, such as the International Labour Organisation – now a partner in Walk Free’s Global Slavery Fund – and individual experts in a strong position to critically evaluate the index have been effectively co-opted through partnerships and advisory roles.

Why does all of this matter? The most immediate problem is that poor information, presented as fact, contributes to poor decision making and sometimes highly damaging, unintended outcomes.

Another grave concern is the distorting effect that organizations such as Walk Free and tools like the index are having on how we understand and respond to human exploitation. Put simply, by failing to challenge or even gently interrogate the underlying structures that perpetuate and reward exploitation, the index embodies and perpetuates a comforting belief that slavery is all about bad individuals doing bad things to good people. At the root of this belief is an unshakable faith in us being able to eliminate slavery without fundamentally changing how our societies and economies are organized; without a radical shift in the distribution and exercise of political and economic power, including a global economy that depends on the exploitation of poor people’s labor to maintain growth and a global migration system that entrenches vulnerability. In the words of Peter Buffett, this is not much more than “philanthropic colonialism”, the advocacy and giving that “just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place”.

While we collectively obsesses over numbers and data points, we would do well to consider how far we are all willing to go in attacking the structures that preserve and nourish a world built solidly on the foundations of human exploitation.

Sources: The Global Slavery Index 2016 | The Walk Free Foundation

The Global Slavery Index Is Based on Flawed Data – Why Does No One Say So? -By Anne Gallagher | Guardian UK (Nov 28, 2014)

Modern Day Slavery | Lisa Kristine | Humanitarian Photographer


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