In Need of Politics and Participation to Tackle Exploitation

2 October 2018
Research Innovation

Neil Howard  | Prize Fellow in International Development at the University of Bath

How are issues such as trafficking or child labour understood by political institutions and why do the interventions they produce so often fail? Through my research, two key points have stood out. The first is that interventions and policies are typically made in a non-participatory, top-down fashion, with target groups or victims excluded from the design process in ways that can severely limit effectiveness and even cause harm. The second is that policies and interventions often avoid addressing the structural root causes of the phenomena they’re supposed to tackle, in part because doing so is politically challenging for their architects.

This column will reflect on these issues, asking what research with “victims” can tell us about what policy is doing right and what it could do better, looking specifically at the concepts of participation and politics. Its intention, like that of the knowledge platform as a whole, is to bring the best of contemporary research to the attention of policymakers and practitioners in search of effective strategies.


Focus group in session. Unsplash/Dylan Gillis

For the past 50 years, the grandfather of participatory development, Professor Robert Chambers, has been spreading the simple but powerful message that we need to ask those we seek to help how best to do so. Although intuitive, most development work doesn’t happen this way. Typically, laws, policies and projects are drafted in distant capitals far from the places they’re applied. And while these instruments may be signed off by representatives of elected governments, the clear relationship between power and money is such that often those individuals do not fully represent all their constituents.

The consequences of this can be tragic. “Collateral damage” is the term that many of my colleagues use, and all of us have stories of studying interventions gone wrong as a result of the distance between their architects and targets. For instance, informal settlements have been destroyed to “protect” the exploited workers living in them, and people have died as a result of being detained in order to “save” them from trafficking.

Participation is therefore as fundamental as it is in short supply. The participation of those affected by all forms of exploitation is essential for effective interventions to support them. No matter how well-intentioned we as practitioners may be, we are unlikely to understand the nuances of another’s reality sufficiently well to be able to build appropriate interventions without them. It is also essential for sustainability, since we know from psychological research that people are more likely to be satisfied and take ownership of decisions that affect them if they are included in the process of making them. Finally, participation matters ethically, and it marks the difference between charity and solidarity. In the inimitable words of the Aboriginal activist, Lilla Watson, “If you have come to help me then you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”.

The participation of those affected by all forms of exploitation is essential for effective interventions to support them.

Solidarity requires us to get political. Although much of the mainstream discourse around unfree and exploitative work positions it as a simple consequence of abstract concepts such as poverty or criminality, the reality is that all forms of exploitative labour relations are ultimately man-made and result from political decisions over the distribution of rights and resources.

Research from all over the world shows that people routinely choose to submit to exploitative labour relations because doing so is their best option. Changing this reality means changing the rules of the global economy to ensure that everyone everywhere possesses the necessary minimum to resist exploitation and as a human right.

Plenty of our practitioner colleagues know this. The problem, however, is that political and funding constraints often prevent them from speaking out about it. In the words of Nina, a senior UN employee I interviewed in 2011, “stories about . . . political-economic injustice simply don’t sell. It’s suffering that sells . . . You have to be sexy to raise money, and trafficking or slavery is sexy”. This results in political narratives simplifying complex patterns of causality and avoiding the inconvenient truths about power and its concentration.

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and more broadly push our world towards greater equity and social justice, we will require something very different indeed. Over the coming months, I will reflect on how politics and participation are crucial to figuring out what that something different could be.

Neil Howard is Prize Fellow in International Development at the University of Bath, where he is part of the Research Cluster on SDG 8.

This article has been prepared by Neil Howard as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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