Meaningful engagement of people with lived experience of modern slavery improves the effectiveness of policies and programmes designed to tackle the issue, according to new research published by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC).
The research was commissioned by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to assess the effectiveness of survivor engagement in international policy and programming on modern slavery, following the recommendations of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) review into The UK’s approach to tackling modern slavery through the aid programme. The project was led by the University of Liverpool as a consortium partner of the Modern Slavery PEC.
Engaging survivors in programmes, policies, services and research is an increasingly commonly accepted need. However, the evidence of best practice in doing so effectively and equitably is still under-developed.
The research demonstrated tangible benefits of involving survivors in policies and programmes, particularly where survivors were embedded in programmes across its cycle and within project teams. Such programmes gained greater trust and credibility, which led to better understanding of the needs and experiences of survivors. This in turn resulted in improved engagement with frontline services and law enforcement, reduction of harm and re-traumatisation for survivors and more effective identification of victims.
Evidence also pointed to improved efficacy of prevention, rehabilitation and data collection initiatives. Greater innovation and sustainability were other identified benefits, leading to improved ability to address root causes of exploitation.
Lord (Tariq) Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Prime Minister's Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, said: “The UK Government welcomes this important new research report. We are committed to empowering and engaging people with lived experience of modern slavery in our international policy and programming work, and this report will help shape our approach. I look forward to sharing the research findings with our international partners, and to working together to drive forward progress.”
"We are committed to empowering and engaging people with lived experience of modern slavery in our international policy and programming work, and this report will help shape our approach."Lord (Tariq) Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Prime Minister's Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict
Prof Alex Balch from the University of Liverpool, who is also Modern Slavery PEC’s Director of Research, said: “Our research provides for the first time such clear evidence about how meaningful engagement of people with lived experience of modern slavery makes policy and programming to address it more effective. It simply makes sense to invest in engaging people with lived experience in programmes from their design and throughout their cycles.”
"It simply makes sense to invest in engaging people with lived experience in programmes from their design and throughout their cycles."Prof Alex Balch, report author and Modern Slavery PEC’s Director of Research
Researchers also documented clear benefits for people with lived experience in engaging in programmes, including improved sense of empowerment, financial stability, professional development, as well as reduced vulnerability of further exploitation. The study found that engagement through wider grassroots networks has led to a collective ability to better address structural inequalities and hold authorities and law enforcement to account by affected communities.
One of the three authors of the report Dr Allen Kiconco said: “There’s an agreement that to address modern slavery we need to address its root causes. Our evidence makes it clear that it needs to start with affected communities, with people with lived experience leading this work, rather than being mere beneficiaries”.
The research underlined the importance of using language and terminology tailored to specific contexts. Blanket deployment of certain terms can alienate and even endanger some affected communities, with potential to cause harms and result in ineffective policies and programmes.
For example, the research suggested that the term ‘survivor’ is often highly gendered and associated with women and girls who experienced sexual exploitation or other forms of gender-based violence. This means that boys, men, non-binary and those from LGBTQI+ communities, as well as those who experienced labour exploitation, largely don’t identify as ‘survivors’ and therefore might be excluded from engagement.
‘People with lived experience’ came across as a less ‘loaded’ term that could be useful for reaching out to communities in different regions and contexts. However, people interviewed in the research consistently emphasised that making efforts to learn and use vocabulary particular to local contexts and specific issues was crucial.
Another author Dr Wendy Asquith said: “It’s striking how language can alienate affected individuals and communities before we even begin working together. We need to each time start a conversation with local partners to identify inclusive language that can be well understood in particular contexts.”
"It’s striking how language can alienate affected individuals and communities before we even begin working together. We need to each time start a conversation with local partners to identify inclusive language that can be well understood in particular contexts."Dr Wendy Asquith, report author
The research identified three key principles for engaging people with lived experience in programmes and policymaking: being non-tokenistic, being trauma-informed and preventing harm.
Tokenism means actors and organisations claiming engagement without real opportunities for people with lived experience to offer input, challenge or make decisions.
Dr Kiconco said: “Meaningful engagement should always lead towards tangible and meaningful change. Superficially creating the appearance of inclusivity and diversity is not going to be effective and is likely to have the opposite effect and alienate affected communities.”
Trauma-informed approaches pivot around guiding principles to recognise, minimise and counter the triggers and subsequent harms often encountered by people who have experienced trauma.
“Creating trauma-informed organisational settings and equipping ally-colleagues to better understand trauma can make a real difference in managing the triggers for people with lived experience and improve meaningful conversations”, Dr Kiconco added.
"Meaningful engagement should always lead towards tangible and meaningful change. Superficially creating the appearance of inclusivity and diversity is not going to be effective and is likely to have the opposite effect and alienate affected communities."Dr Allen Kiconco, report author
This can also feed into fulfilling the third principle of preventing harm. Although the concept of ‘safeguarding’ – widely used in the UK – is unfamiliar in many other contexts, there was a consensus that taking measures to prevent and respond to harm is paramount for any kind of inclusion of people with lived experience, but these should be proportionate and take context into account.
The report specified best practices grouped under these principles as crucial in meaningful engagement, including respecting the choice of whether to engage; understanding the political context; the need for transparency and trust in partnerships; as well as recognition of survivor time and expertise through equitable pay and addressing inequalities by structures and processes.
The project identified a wide range of promising examples of programmes engaging people with lived experience and affected communities, including working with survivor-led organisations and networks and consulting them on the funding, design, implementation and evaluation of programmes, creating leadership and employment programmes, as well as designing survivor-led awareness raising, peer-mentoring and education programmes.