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Fighting Together To End Forced Labor and Modern Slavery

When Kristen Leanderson Abrams, Senior Director for Combatting Human Trafficking at the McCain Institute, received an email from 17 Rooms asking her to co-lead a discussion on partnerships with a prominent financial investor, she was curious, but a tad dubious.

Convened since 2018 through a partnership between The Brookings Institution and The Rockefeller Foundation, 17 Rooms takes the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), breaks them into 17 distinct Rooms of around 15 experts, and helps groups map out pathways toward achievable actions.

For Abrams, a foremost expert in managing programs to combat human trafficking and forced labor, she knew that for years the colleagues in her field had shared reports and resources with investors without seeing them acted upon. Why would this be different?

But as she read through the invitation presented by Brookings and The Rockefeller Foundation, she saw a rare opportunity for partnership. The result: development of a tool that allows investors to estimate the risk of forced labor within companies in their portfolios.

Bringing the Room Together

Abrams wasn’t the only one with initial doubts. The 17 Rooms secretariat had paired her as a Room co-lead with Carsten Stendevad, Co-CIO for Sustainability at Bridgewater Associates. With a long history of managing investment portfolios and a respected name in the world of sustainable investment, Stendevad admitted he was curious but intimidated to enter the Room dedicated to advancing Sustainable Development Goal 17 for partnership.

Nonetheless, with government regulations growing on the topic and global investors requiring increased risk evaluations, Stendevad knew it was an important opportunity to make progress.

What is unique about 17 Rooms is its focus on driving concrete actions forward across all 17 the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Each year, each Room is tasked with mapping out next steps to move its issue forward. They don’t need to be perfect steps. The outline needs to encapsulate an idea big enough to matter but sized right to get done for each SDG.

Forced labor is complex, hidden, and hard to measure. Forced labor is purposefully complex, hidden, and hard to measure. In 2021, roughly 50 million people worldwide are living in modern slavery, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), Walk Free and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In terms of forced labor, 86 percent of cases are found in the private sector.

So, making tools that investors and capital partners can use to identify, report, and avoid companies using forced labor practices is vital to ending the problem.

Now, Stendevad says, investors are asking not only about portfolio risk, but portfolio impact. “I was really intrigued by the idea of using this as a vehicle to talk about something that’s been a challenge for me, and I think most institutional investors.”

The pair connected and agreed to give it a try. As co-leads, they worked with the 17 Rooms secretariat to identify a cross-section of relevant experts representing different fields including investment, finance, policy, academia, and non-government organizations. More than a dozen people joined a working group focused on the role institutional investors can play in the fight against forced labor. The group first met in June 2021, beginning an initial sequence of meetings that carried through to the annual 17 Rooms virtual summit in September of the same year.

Abrams says in the 17 Room podcast that when she reached out to thought leaders with the proposed assignment, “If I was on Zoom, I saw the eye rolls. If I was on the phone, I heard the audible sighs. So, when we got into the room, we addressed it head on.”

In the room, people began to share honestly. Even more importantly, they listened.

Some issue experts shared frustration over all the work that went into producing materials that were underused, over the lack of reliable data in this still-young field, and the lack of resources available to do more in-depth, on-the-ground analysis.

Meanwhile, investors needed to be able to identify, with a click of a button within their spreadsheets, where potential red flags in their portfolios were and then make an informed next step: Report, contact agencies on the ground to investigate, or stop business.

Taking a Walk in One Another’s Shoes

Investors whose portfolios included thousands of investments and companies noted the impossibility of doing deep in-person analysis into every group. Many weren’t working with enormous, unlimited resources as some might assume, but in smaller teams still managing billions of dollars. They didn’t have time to read every report either – which is how many NGOs had been sharing this information over the years.

“Last year’s Room 17 is an incredible example of using neutral ground to have a new conversation amongst people who want to make progress on an issue and are coming at it from all different perspectives,” reflects John McArthur, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings, who is also the co-founder and Co-Chair of 17 Rooms. If 17 Rooms can contribute that neutral ground which allows people to be constructive, even open in their disagreements, and then proactive in finding actionable agreements, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do across each of the Rooms.”

After hours of discussion, Room 17 arrived on the proposed idea: A forced labor risk estimation tool that could deliver company-level risk estimates across a wide universe of companies.

The public data tool would use already existing datasets and triangulate different types of noteworthy data to help diagnose based on a company’s behaviors, geography, practices, and more.

While allowing investors to make more informed management decisions, this tool would also benefit on-the-ground groups – who could then investigate these reported companies – and regulators – who through better data, could calibrate expectations around market behavior. It amounted to a pioneering step as a result of meaningful dialogue between these two different groups.

Making This Tool a Reality

In late 2021, Abrams, Stendevad, and Room 17 members James Cockayne (The Anti-Slavery Commissioner for New South Wales in Australia) and Daniel Hochman (Head of Sustainability Research, Bridgewater Associates) submitted and were awarded a $100k Uncommon Collaboration Grant and in-kind support from The Rockefeller Foundation, in partnership with Dalberg Catalyst, to begin building their tool, now titled the Forced Labor Open Risk Estimation Tool (FLORET).

“Exposure to forced labor arises in large, diversified investment portfolios because complex world global value-chains utilize labor across regions with varying governance capabilities and varying profiles for their labor forces,” write Abrams, Stendevad, Cockayne, and Hochman. “Right now, most institutional investors have only a basic understanding of these issues. Yet, investors are coming under growing pressure from governments to actively identify, account for, and manage these risks. We hope that the FLORET tool will help close that gap.”

Just over six months into the grant, the team is currently focused on mapping data availability and closing data gaps to build the algorithm for their risk assessment tool. The goal is to begin testing a prototype of the tool in 2023.

17 Rooms is a new approach to growing action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The platform aims to promote collaborative actions and insights within each SDG, while also spurring practical connections across all the goals. Watch this video to learn about what 17 Rooms is, and how it works. In each 17 Rooms process, […]

The Role of 17 Rooms

What allowed this collaboration and tool to flourish was the unique atmosphere of 17 Rooms.

The rooms are thoughtfully curated to break silos and connect individuals from a diversity of relevant constituencies – in this case the private sector, academia, diplomacy, civil society, and more. This year, the 17 Rooms flagship process has been convening virtually since May, with around 200 experts collaborating on 17 respective ideas and action issues to help advance the SDGs. Many members of the community will also gather informally to convene both virtually and in New York City on September 18, 2022.

“We’ve all been part of well-organized processes built on polite conversation and resulting in shiny reports. And then nothing happens,” shares Zia Khan, Senior Vice President of Innovation at The Rockefeller Foundation and Co-Chair of 17 Rooms. “We are obsessed with helping visionary leaders gather a diverse group to convert promising ideas into collective action. Very busy people get energized when they realize they’re not just floating ideas for someone to take on, but rather they’re discovering ways to collaborate and make change happen. That’s what we saw with Room 17 last year.”

17 Rooms is part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Connected Leaders Platform (CLP) which supports breakthrough solutions and collective action. The CLP attracts leaders, facilitates connections, and supports integration of the network’s resources, skills, and perspectives. The Connected Leaders Platform believes that building connections between leaders can drive major change.

The outcome of last year’s Room 17, and it’s now developing FLORET tool, is just one of many stories of unexpected partnerships and ideas to come from 17 Rooms. With this year’s annual flagship process concluding this month, the new conversations and actions ahead will continue to build upon those that have come before and advance practical solutions to achieve the SDGs. And with the 2030 SDG deadline just over seven years away, 17 Rooms is needed now more than ever to facilitate this collective action.