US Senate leads on modern day slavery with an innovative approach

Last week the Chairman and Ranking members — the lead Republican and Democrat — of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced legislation to fight modern day slavery of the sort that we are working to address. Senators Corker (R-TN) and Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the End Modern Slavery Initiative Act and passed it out of their committee unanimously so that the whole Senate can act on it.

Before I go into the details of the legislation, please go tell your Senators to support the legislation.

There are several things about this that I find someone remarkable:

  1. The Senate took notice. With today’s international and domestic crises, the decision to focus on this issue is pleasantly surprising.
  2. It is bipartisan. With nothing passing through Congress, this is something that can. And it is something that President Barack Obama is likely to support.
  3. Additionally, it is a program with a somewhat innovative structure for foreign aid, following in the footsteps of the two major foreign aid programs of the Bush administration that I worked on while working on Capitol Hill: the Millenium Challenge Corporation and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). These used new structures to transform governance and the African AIDS epidemic with relatively little incremental economic investment.

I should point out that International Justice Mission had a role in articulating the importance and achievability of the objectives. IJM CEO Gary Haugen testified to the Committee several weeks before the legislation was introduced. Watch his testimony here, as it is quite a clear articulation of IJM’s point of view.

While, obviously, I am interested in the domain that is getting funded, I am just as intrigued by the structure of the program. Several things jump out at me.

First, the US government is providing “only” $250 million over 7 years, with the goal of raising another $1.25 billion from other countries and the corporate sector, a public-private partnership. This is a tiny amount of money, even compared to the tiny US foreign aid budget, approximately $48 billion in 2015, less than 1% of the federal budget, but the goal is to leverage that money through strong management practices described below that make it easier for others to invest in the program. At just over $35m/year, this is less than 0.1% of the total foreign aid budget. It is sad that with that, Holly Burkhalter, Vice President of Government Relations for IJM, noted that this will make the US government “the largest donor in the anti-slavery field.”

However, and this is the second point, this program has very strong accountability systems, described in the bill and this fact sheet, that seek to not only succeed but to change the culture of NGOs that operate in this space. Money is allocated for 7 years, in part, because the grants are required to prove that they can “[a]chieve a measurable 50 percent reduction of modern slavery in targeted populations,” in that time frame, otherwise, “[p]rojects that fail to meet goals will be suspended or terminated.” Holly from IJM describes this aspect of the Act as “tie[ing] grants to rigorous assessment of slavery prevalence and measurable outcomes.” That requires both planning and measurement, something that many NGOs are just not very good at, but for which IJM has been called “exemplary.”

Hopefully with this new program we can “fatally wound” modern slavery and human trafficking.

PS: I should note that the opinions expressed here are entirely my own in my capacity as a once (and maybe again) foreign aid policy professional and in no way reflect the position of IJM.

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