Behavioural shifts in anti-trafficking programmes: how can aid agencies help policymakers?

On the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, our Project Manager Abdal-Rahman Eltayeb outlines the stakes and challenges of our anti-trafficking project in Sudan, and makes a case for aid agencies to place greater emphasis on the potential of policymakers in combatting modern slavery.

Today marks the day the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others in 1949. Since then, countries worldwide have sought to incorporate laws that punish perpetrators and protect victims. Mechanisms to enhance protection efforts have also been put in place. But, notwithstanding all the progress made, it is evident that there is still a lot to be done, both at the national and international sphere.

In the context of international development, the quest for eradicating modern slavery reveals just how deep-seated the problem can be. To start off, the factors driving modern slavery are practically endless (political instability, demand for cheap labour, socio-economic discrepancies…and the list goes on), so donor agencies have long realised the need to ‘nip it in the bud’. That ‘bud’ in some locations of the world, however, is a multi-layered set of issues, some of which find their roots in colonial/pre-colonial times. Donor agencies may request an implementing organisation to focus on one set of factors to reduce the prevalence of modern slavery in a specific location: a common example would be a programme with an objective to disrupt the supply chain of a product/service where exploitation of a vulnerable group is identified. The importance of this approach cannot be overstated; however, overreliance on this method may have inadvertently led to a type of ‘causal oversimplification’ attitude towards modern slavery as an issue. This approach has an obvious advantage which is that it will likely produce immediate results. For instance, factories will stop using child labour if it means nobody will buy its textiles. In this example, the supply chain would be disrupted by disincentivising the exploitation of children.

It is not realistic for any organisation to try and tackle every driving factors behind modern slavery in a project location. To effect long-term change with regards to modern slavery and human trafficking (MSHT), donor agencies must remember that the key is held by the country’s policymakers where modern slavery is an issue. While it is still necessary to maintain funding for programmes that focus on a single or several factors, much more attention must be awarded to how policy shapes behaviours. Modern slavery in policy is one of GPG’s main thematic areas, but in spite of that, we never presented ourselves as ‘human rights experts’ to our local partners – because we aren’t, our partners are. Therefore, our work with policymakers is structured around the notion that once they are supported to prioritise human trafficking, they will lead on addressing each driving factor behind MSHT, even long after we’re gone. The game is a tug of war between long-term solutions and direct results.

Sudan is going through perhaps one of its toughest periods as it navigates a rocky transition towards civilian rule. In October, the army forcefully removed their civilian partners from government in a move that received both national and international condemnation. This happened four months into our Home Office funded project to support the Sudanese National Committee for Combatting Trafficking (NCCT). The NCCT has been established on the back of the Human Trafficking Act 2014 to oversee the government’s response to MSHT. By the time Bashir’s (Sudan’s ruler between 1989 and 2019) government was deposed in 2019, the NCCT, like most other government institutions, was in a state of disrepair. By that time, GPG’s Modern Slavery project was just getting started. There was plenty of work to be done and the new transitional government promised to reverse many of Bashir’s government’s questionable policies. Sudan’s prevalence of MSHT is due to a multitude of reasons including geographical location, years of political instability, armed conflict, unstable neighbours, to name a few. In this context, the ‘one-cause theory’ will never work, as it’s far too complicated. On the project, we set out to work with the NCCT with the aim of utilising existing resources for them to tackle trafficking. The NCCT is the link between law enforcement, with government, civil society, and international organisations. Due to their place as the country’s national anti-trafficking body, they also have the power to influence public opinion.

The Modern Slavery Innovation Fund (MSIF), under which our Sudan project is funded, offered leeway required to support the NCCT in leading on the behavioural shift towards human trafficking in the Sudanese government. Trafficking is often mistaken for smuggling, and the grey area under which to classify a certain practice as ‘exploitation’ amounting to trafficking, has long been a challenge for our partners in Sudan. However, this issue is by no means unique to the country. A recurring theme that can be observed across many jurisdictions in the world is that legislation and policy is having a hard time keeping up with the pace at which trafficking is taking place. A research published by the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham reveals how almost half the world’s countries are yet to include slavery as part of their criminal legislative framework. What’s more is that most countries, Sudan included, may have to go one step further and criminalise forms of exploitation more prevalent in their respective jurisdictions. For instance, child labour is more common in certain developing countries where mining operations occur. Of course, enacting laws alone may not be sufficient to curb MSHT, but it provides much needed legal justification to enforce it. I remember being told by an expert on trafficking in Sudan that a community notorious for trafficking migrants from east African countries , relied on ‘trafficking proceeds’ as a lifeline for their local economy. Many members of that community were not even aware that trafficking is a crime and were under the impression they were acting within the confines of smuggling activities. Of course smuggling is still illegal, but is not viewed as morally questionable as buying and selling other humans. It was only after the community elders were brought to understand the nature of their practice, that the community views and behaviours started shifting. These perceptions towards MSHT form one of the main driving forces that allows the crime to continue growing.

The role played by policymakers does not stop where a law is passed. Our work centres around the idea that this is when the work actually starts. We first ventured into the world of MSHT in policy with our project in Honduras. After almost six years since that project took off, it became even more evident how policy influences behaviours. We had worked alongside the Honduran Congress on our flagship post-legislative scrutiny (PLS) process. PLS is the answer to the question, “what’s next?” after a law is recently passed. Policymakers can view PLS as a self-reflection exercise, offering them an opportunity to identify gaps in legislation or enforcement, and the best means to address it. We understand that no one understands political/socioeconomic/cultural contexts better than the policymakers themselves.

As the world progressively recovers from Covid-19, the effects of long-term emerging risks are slowly casting their shadows on global relations. Climate-induced migration will create even more vulnerable communities susceptible of falling victims to MSHT crimes. Donor agencies must realise the value in strengthening the role played by policymakers in shaping behaviours towards modern slavery in a geographical location. Despite the seemingly endless set of challenges faced by our programme partners at the Honduran and Sudanese governments, both demonstrated time and again that if there is political will, there is a way.