Unravelling the 2016 Global Slavery Index

Over the past three decades a radical, worldwide social and political revolution has been slowly building steam. This revolution rejects the exploitation of human beings for private profit and seeks to eliminate these practices that have built our world and that continue to power global economic growth. The leaders of this revolution, including those involved in the Global Slavery Index, deserve to be applauded for their courage in waging what often feels like an impossible battle. But for everyone working in this field, good intentions are not enough. Dialogue, criticism and constructive debate are also needed to move this revolution forward.

The Global Slavery Index (GSI) rose without a trace in 2013: the flagship of anorganization established the previous year with the explicit mandate of ending modern slavery in the lifetime of its founder-funder. A revised version was produced in 2014 and the latest Index was launched in London on June 1st, 2016 at an event headlined by Australian actor Russell Crowe. The rationale for the Index was clear from the outset. As Bill Gates advised fellow billionaire philanthropist Andrew Forrest, in order to secure traction on this issue he had to find some way of quantifying the problem that Forrest had committed his reputation – and an undisclosed slice of his personal fortune – to eradicating. In Gates’ words: “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist”. Just as importantly, if you can’t measure it, you cannot reliably demonstrate impact of any interventions. Through rigorous measurement, Gates has been able to show, very convincingly, that the work of his Foundation is making a real difference to the global disease toll.

But measuring modern slavery and quantifying disease are worlds apart. Determining whether someone has malaria or HIV; the extent to which a community is affected; and even the vulnerability of a given population to contracting that disease is relatively straightforward and State, private and academic institutions exist whose sole function is to do just that. They all use the same, replicable method and criteria and they all come up with results that can generally be relied upon. (While establishing vulnerability to such diseases can be more difficult, the protocols are now well established). Extrapolation to estimate disease prevalence works well in the field of public health because our understanding of disease, our definitions and our diagnostic tools are sound and universally accepted, having emerged from a long history of inquiry, analysis and refinement. We also have the benefit of a willing and to some extent, captive test population. Of course these factors can come together in very different contexts. The Index’s authors note that in the mid-nineteenth century the United States was able to accurately measure the size of its slave population. But this is because everyone involved knew exactly what was being counted: slavery back then was a legal fact as well as a physical reality; records were kept and the subjects of measurement were clearly not going anywhere.

Read more: Unravelling the 2016 Global Slavery Index. Part one