The following is from theguardian
The global slavery index is based on flawed data – why does no one say so?
The anti-trafficking community has remained uncritical of Walk Free’s methodology, yet poor information often leads to damaging decisions
n the 20 years I have been working in the field of anti-trafficking, it has moved from the margins to the mainstream. New laws have been adopted; new institutions established; hundreds of millions of dollars spent to support prosecutions, victim protection and prevention. Today, trafficking is the focus of a major social movement that, according to the publicity of its self-proclaimed leaders, is uniting millions of individuals against the scourge of “modern slavery”.
A major game-changer has been the emergence of the philanthropist-founded NGO. Walk Free, established by the Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest in 2012 to “eliminate slavery in [Forrest’s] lifetime”, is the most prominent example.
As the Economist reports, Forrest consulted with Bill Gates, the original founder-funder, who advised that he needed to find a way to quantify the problem because “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist”. This led directly to the global slavery index (pdf), which ranks countries based on the prevalence of slavery. The first index was released in 2013 and the second – which measures vulnerability to slavery and government responses as well as prevalence – in November 2014.
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 (pdf) 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.
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.
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 organisations, such as the International Labour Organisation – now a partner (pdf) 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 organisations 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 organised; 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 labour 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”.
Only the shortsighted would oppose an injection of energy, commitment and resources into the battle against slavery. If Walk Free proves capable of producing reliable and replicable data through the consistent application of quality methodology, then this will be a valuable contribution to improving understanding of how exploitation happens and why. But that is not happening yet. And, even 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.