The importance of integrating the voices of People with Lived Experience into modern slavery research to ensure outputs are relevant and impactful is increasingly being discussed in the anti-slavery space. While there is an increasing number of research projects engaging with lived experience, this remains a nascent field and there is a general agreement that more needs to be done.
Not only funders and policy makers need to build their capacity to better engage with lived experience in international policy and programming, but research teams in and outside academia must too as key actors in producing and delivering evidence that can ultimately influence policy and practice. This was a key part of the discussion during the Equity and Evidence conference, hosted by the Modern Slavery PEC, Freedom Fund and the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) in June.
So, what do researchers need to reflect on and what can they start doing?
1. Challenge your views on what counts as ‘evidence’.
a) Rethink how we undertake research and acknowledge the “epistemic injustice” in the field. That includes recognising that the knowledge and expertise of survivors has been at worst overlooked and at best undervalued in research. Reflect on who is creating knowledge and what we consider as evidence. Look for epistemic diversity and aim for the pluralisation of knowledge.
b) We need to reflect on our “positionality”, especially on our “bias of freedom” and the limitations that come with it. For instance, survivors know and understand slavery differently from non-survivors.
2. Form partnerships
a) Go beyond a tokenistic inclusion of people with lived experience and consider more meaningful engagements. Start by avoiding divisions through labels such as “researcher” and “survivor” and consider moving from including survivors as research participants to working together to co-create and shape research and write and review outputs. This can mean collaborating with specific individuals as consultants or peer researchers, or engaging with survivor-led coalitions such as Survivor Alliance. When doing this reflect on any power imbalances there might be and issues such as: who is being involved? Who is being excluded? Are some survivors’ voices more valued than others? Remember that survivors are not a homogenous group!
b) Co-design the engagement together. People with lived experience should be the ones deciding how and to what extent they would like to be involved in research. The Lived Experience Engagement Spectrum developed by the National Survivor Network can help you understand different meaningful engagements.
c) Ensure an equitable remuneration. As researchers we need to include costs of safeguarding PLEs in our teams and costs of training or capacity building to people with lived experience when applying for funding. We also need to ensure equitable pay to survivors. For instance, consider differences in cost of living across countries, especially developing countries.
3. Share learnings with others and aim to bridge existing gaps.
a) Start by sharing your experiences and learnings on what works with other researchers and think about creating a guide for researchers that follows a trauma-informed approach and meaningful engagement with survivors, which is currently lacking.
b) Think about bringing evidence and learnings from other disciplines and fields - such as black feminist literature, mental health research - and from development programmes that tackle root causes of modern slavery such as poverty, education, and health.
c) “Expand to bridge”. Aim to bring policy makers and survivors together as part of your research goals on impact. Especially as there is often a misalignment between policy priorities, research priorities, and the needs of survivors.
As researchers we need to push for funders to value and require research projects to show meaningful engagement with people with lived experience as selection criteria for funding.
These three learnings resonate in several ways with the lessons on engagement with survivors in research across the Modern Slavery PEC funded projects.