The catalysing power of philanthropy in anti-trafficking

Over the last eight years, I have observed firsthand how the contributions of a number of large philanthropic foundations have significantly advanced efforts to combat modern slavery and…

Over the last eight years, I have observed firsthand how the contributions of a number of large philanthropic foundations have significantly advanced efforts to combat modern slavery and human trafficking.

I first began working in this space in late 2012 when I became the inaugural CEO of the Walk Free Foundation, which was a new foundation established by the Australian philanthropists Andrew, Nicola and Grace Forrest to combat modern slavery.

In early 2014, Walk Free joined with two other large philanthropic foundations, Humanity United and Legatum Foundation, to launch the Freedom Fund. I was the first CEO of this new fund, a position I have held ever since. So I guess I am as well placed as anyone to make the case for philanthropic capital in the anti-trafficking space – which I’ll do here through the lens of the work of the Freedom Fund.

This model of philanthropy has proved to be highly impactful in the anti-slavery space, and has significantly contributed to the many advances we have seen in the last eight years or so. To my mind, philanthropy has moved anti-trafficking work forward in three main ways: through donor mobilisation and collaboration, by championing a systems approach, and by investing in measurement and research. I’ll examine each of these briefly.

Donor mobilisation and collaboration

When the Freedom Fund was founded, funding for the anti-slavery space was relatively limited. We estimated that private funding was around $98m in 2014. It was in this context that the Freedom Fund was an unprecedented effort by three of the largest philanthropic foundations operating in the anti-slavery space to combine and scale resources, and to encourage other donors to do the same.

Other philanthropic foundations were attracted to this model and soon joined the initiative, committing significant funding it. In recent years, the UK and US governments have also committed funding. For a number of the private donors, it was the first time they had committed funding to anti-slavery initiatives. In total we have raised some $130m in commitments, representing a significant mobilisation of new capital to support anti-slavery efforts.

In addition to funding, there is a high degree of collaboration between the Freedom Fund’s donors. Donor collaboration can take place anywhere on a spectrum ranging from weak coordination – such as sharing information on each other’s strategies – to close partnership. The Freedom Fund collaboration is at the robust end of the spectrum, with the funders committing predominantly unrestricted funding against a common strategy. This is potentially a powerful model for other sectors.

Using a systems approach

One criticism levelled against philanthrocapitalism is that it favours traditional penalisation and rescue approaches over more complex narratives. However, from its conception, the Freedom Fund has focused on bringing a systems approach to tackling modern slavery. We have been able to do so in no small part because of the philanthropic funding we have been able to mobilise.

Far from focusing simply or primarily on criminal justice approaches, we concentrate on the root causes of modern trafficking and adapt to complexity by working closely with local communities to build resilience and support their efforts to advocate for change. We work closely with survivors, understanding that without significant ongoing support they often remain highly vulnerable to trafficking.

Our whole model is premised on the importance of local voices and expertise, and working with those vulnerable to exploitation to support them in mobilising and organising to resist that exploitation. As a result we work with, and fund, over 100 local, frontline, organisations in the countries we work in (Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand and Brazil).


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