Meddling billionaires

Illustration by Lisk Feng

When she was 15 years old, Australian school girl Grace Forrest took a trip to Nepal, where she visited an orphanage for children who had been rescued from the slave trade. It was a sobering experience, even more so when she returned to the orphanage two years later to discover that those same children had vanished back into the murky underworld without a trace.

Forrest was appalled and decided that she “really wanted to do something,” as she would later tell the Sydney Morning Herald. And as the daughter of billionaire mining magnate and philanthropist Andrew Forrest, she was in a uniquely privileged position to do just that.

Andrew Forrest decided, in the tradition of Bill Gates, Ted Turner and George Soros, that it was time to throw a lot of money at a big problem and fix it once and for all. Philanthrocapitalism is on the rise, going hand in hand with growing income inequality, greater emphasis on corporate social responsibility and waning government contributions to the international bodies that used to take the lead on such issues.

It has its advocates. They include Michael Green and Matthew Bishop, authors of the 2008 bestseller Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich can Save the World, who see the practice as the most promising trend in international development. It also has its detractors, including philanthropist Peter Buffett (son of Warren), who has coined the term “philanthropic colonialism” to describe what he considers its dark side: bandaid solutions that fail to address the underlying causes of complex problems. Buffet, who himself supports anti-trafficking programs with his NoVo Foundation, sees his super-rich peers using philanthropy to ease their social consciences, but rarely to tackle fundamental structures of political and economic inequality.

If nay- and yay-sayers agree on one thing, it's that globally oriented philanthropists and their funder-founded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are playing an ever greater role in tackling the toughest issues facing the planet. With savvy branding and celebrity support, they're quick to steal the thunder of the far less sexy national and international institutions that have been hammering away at those issues for decades.

Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest
Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest

They also gnaw into those institutions’ already dwindling budgets, positioning themselves as a serious, results-oriented alternative, and they attract to their ranks some of the best experts in the field. Andrew Forrest's quest to end global slavery provides an interesting case study of how this can play out.

Until recently, human trafficking and forced labour were a niche concern of women and human rights groups. The institutional authority on the matter was the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO), whose first Forced Labour Convention dates back to 1930 and, since the United States made human trafficking illegal in 2000, the State Department's Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons.

But in the last decade the “charitable industrial complex,” as Buffett calls it, has embraced the issue, which has been re-branded “modern day slavery” – a much catchier term than the more nuanced terminology of forced labour and human trafficking. As Janie Chuang, professor of international law at the American University in Washington points out, “Put in those terms, it's the perfect cause that works right across the party aisle. Who could possibly oppose eradicating slavery?”

So when Andrew Forrest launched his crusade to end global slavery in 2012, the field was already crowded with non-state players – from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking foundation, created in 2007, to MTV Exit, a British charity established in 2003 that uses the MTV brand and broadcasting network to raise awareness about trafficking and exploitation.

A church-going billionaire who has committed to pledge half of his fortune to charity in his lifetime, Forrest needed to rise above the fray. He set a lot of balls in motion. Beginning at home with his company Fortescue, the world's fourth-largest iron producer with mines across Western Australia, he asked all suppliers to sign affidavits that they made no use of slave labour. Those that couldn't sign (and there were some) were promptly ousted.

Moving onto the international stage, he set up the Walk Free Foundation with a mandate to “eliminate slavery within a generation.” The foundation's launch in December 2012, co-sponsored by the American and Australian government's aid agencies, took place in Myanmar: the first open-air concert in that country's history, drawing a crowd of some 50,000 and broadcast around the world by MTV.

The foundation, which has secured endorsements from the likes of Bono, Sir Richard Branson and Hillary Clinton, currently claims 8.3 million members who are encouraged to put pressure on large corporations to rid their supply chains of forced labour. “Never underestimate the power of one person taking a stand,” says its website, a bold multimedia platform that feels like cotton candy next to the ILO's bland porridge of bullet points itemizing its various undertakings: from “assisting governments to develop and implement new laws, policies and action plans” to “capacity building of law enforcement and labour market institutions.”

Putting pressure on companies is one thing. But as Chuang, who worked in international arbitration and litigation before entering academia, points out, “voluntary standards ultimately distract from the real work that needs to be done in the areas of legislation and enforcement.”

Chuang argues that using the term slavery, while a powerful public relations device, damages “the cause” by obscuring its real causes. “Slavery evokes a very particular history – whips and chains, physical force, unwilling victims. But slavery is a very narrow term in international law, and with it you're setting the threshold very high. It's not easy to prosecute a case involving trafficking in front of a jury expecting the rhetoric of slavery.”

In fact, forced labour today takes many forms, and exists in many sectors of the economy around the world. It’s found in all forms of domestic work, in the sex trade, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and entertainment. The perpetrators are mainly private enterprises but also states and rebel groups. The method of coercion is rarely physical, and most victims are to some extent complicit in the arrangement. The beleaguered boatloads washing up on southern Europe's shores are not kidnapped by force, they're just desperate. They are victims of economic inequality and failed states, their traffickers and middlemen simply exploiting a broken system. “Using the framework of slavery, we target the bad guys, the individual wrong-doers,” says Chuang. “But that's not getting to the root of the problem.”

Still, Forrest has used the moral opprobrium of slavery to great effect. In 2014, he brought together religious leaders including Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the grand imam of al-Azhar in Egypt to sign a pledge to eliminate slavery by 2020 under the banner of a Global Freedom Network. Claiming that it was the first meeting ever between an Ayatollah and a Pope, Forrest told Australian media that the fund “is set up like a high-achieving, measurement-driven, totally target-oriented company. It's like a hard-edged business. We are out to defeat slavery, we are not out to feel good.”

Apparently, some of them did not feel good at all. This August, in a clipped statement to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, one of the Pope's principal aides explained that the Vatican was withdrawing its support of Forrest's campaign. “We do not want to be used,” Bishop Sanchez said. “A businessman has the right to make money but not by using the Pope.”

Speculation abounds as to what precisely transpired, but the more general point seems clear: that business and universal interests are per se different things. And Forrest's approach to the problem was unabashedly that of a businessman. Having reportedly been advised by Bill Gates that “if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist,” Forrest published the first Global Slavery Index in 2013. A second Index followed in 2014.

slavery101Of course, Forrest is not the first to put numbers on a problem for which hard data barely exists – the ILO and the American State Department publish statistics regularly – but it was by far the most audacious. Forrest's Global Slavery Index, a ranking of 161 countries, made a big splash when it put the number of enslaved people around the world at 30 million, well above the ILO's most recent estimate of 21 million.

Anne Gallagher, a legal adviser to the UN who has worked in the anti-trafficking field for over 20 years, was prepared to hire statisticians to crunch through the Index to assess its validity until she looked at its methodology and realized it wasn't worth probing any further. Extrapolating data from 19 countries to cover the remaining 148, the index postulates, for instance, that in the absence of reliable figures, China can be assumed to have similar levels of slavery as other Asian nations; that South Africa's rate of slavery can be calculated as 70 per cent of western European levels plus 30 per cent African levels; that Singapore's rate can be assumed to be half Japan's plus half Sweden's.

The Index, Gallagher says, is riddled with egregious errors of fact and logic: an attempt “to make a silk purse out of a very tattered sow's ear,” as she wrote recently in The Guardian, in order to create “an illusion of concreteness.” It's not just nit-picking or sour grapes; poor data, if taken as fact, leads to poor decision-making and policy.

For Gallagher, the most shocking thing about Forrest's impact on the field of anti-trafficking is the deafening silence of the very experts who should be his critics, either because they are now working for him or feel they can't afford to offend him. She understands the temptation. “We're dealing with an incredibly complex problem, for which nobody has an answer,” she says during a phone interview from Australia. “And then someone charismatic with very deep pockets comes along and says: ‘I can do the impossible’.”

Last year, the ILO entered into a partnership with Walk Free on its most recent initiative, a Global Fund to End Slavery, which will solicit grants from national governments grappling with forced labour and enter into private-public partnerships with them. The collaboration doesn't surprise Gallagher; cash-strapped like all UN agencies, “the ILO is hardly in a position to bite the hand that feeds.”

There is no question that Forrest has drawn a lot of public attention to an issue that, for decades, existed largely in the shadows. Even his critics are grateful for this. Like many philanthrocapitalists, Forrest has brought a welcome brashness, determination and willingness to take risks to the table, not to mention funds.

But ultimately, forced labour is big business, generating, according to the ILO, $150 billion (U.S.) in illegal profits for the private sector annually. It’s part of a global economic system whose growth depends on the exploitation of poor people’s labour.

That's a big boat to rock, especially if that very system has served you so very well.

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