‘Financial inclusion really is about empowerment’

Modern slavery and human trafficking affect 1 in 185 people alive today. How can we get this number as close as possible to zero? Dr. James Cockayne, Director of the UN University Centre for Policy Research talks about an important initiative, which is supported by the governments of Liechtenstein, Australia and the Netherlands.

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The Liechtenstein Initiative

To mobilize the financial sector in the effort to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking, these governments, together with the UN University Centre for Policy Research and many private parties and foundations formed the Liechtenstein Initiative. This initiative focuses on the financial sector, given its unique connection to other business sectors and across global capital markets. Risks of contributing to modern slavery and human trafficking by lending and investment are high in this sector. But financial institutions can also play a major role in empowering people and reducing exploitation.

Over the last year, the Liechtenstein Initiative considered the sector’s anti-trafficking compliance, innovation, responsible investment and lending practices as well as international cooperation and sanctions.

Financial inclusion

‘When people have access to safe and reliable financial services, they are much less vulnerable to dangerous practices, and less likely to become displaced. Financial inclusion really is about empowerment. When a crop fails, when conflict breaks out, or when there is a medical emergency but no health insurance, people need safe and reliable credit. If that is not available, people are at risk and will sometimes sell their labor in dangerous ways. It works like that from India to Indiana.’

All around

‘I have been working on human trafficking and modern slavery for years now. When I started, I never expected to have a direct personal connection to the issue. I mean, I am a privileged white man who grew up in Australia. But I found out that only three generations back, family members of mine had been victimized by child labor, by child slavery. That really brought it home in a way. This is an issue that is just all around and far more ubiquitous than we imagine. So many people suffer from it and we are much closer to it than we realize.’


‘On 27 September 2019, the Commission releases its final report: 'Unlocking Potential: A Blueprint for Mobilizing Finance Against Slavery and Trafficking'. This Blueprint will encourage the sector to act proactively when there are risks of exploitation. For example, if a potential client is active in a sector that is often associated with human trafficking or slavery, then an investor needs to talk to this client, and take steps to address these risks.

And for bank employees who deal with customers directly, this Blueprint can help them become more aware of certain practices. For example, in some cases, people who are being trafficked are forced to give the traffickers access to their bank accounts, which are then used for money laundering. Employees need to be able to recognize the signs.’

Economic agents

‘We are all economic agents ourselves. A lot of capital is in the hands of elected governments and investors. As consumers, the first important thing is awareness, understanding the problem. What products have a connection with forced labor and modern slavery? And in particular: talk to your bank, or pension fund. Ask them if they consider these issues. The more we ask, the faster they will act. That agency is what victims lack. So I would say, use it wisely.’

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Dr. James Cockayne is Director of United Nations University Centre for Policy Research and Head of Secretariat for the Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking.