Symposium: Local Approaches to Modern Slavery | A Response

31 March 2019
Research Innovation

Alison Gardner  | Assistant Professor of Local Governance and Anti-Slavery Policy, University of Nottingham Rights Lab
The Rights Lab  | University of Nottingham Beacon of Excellence

The United States and the United Kingdom are sometimes described as two nations divided by a common language, but aside from differences in the terminology that we use to describe modern slavery and human trafficking, the degree of consensus in these articles is striking. The fascinating contributions to this symposium emphasize two points that at first sight might appear contradictory: despite our different contexts we have many shared experiences to draw upon in constructing local responses to modern slavery and human trafficking. However, in applying those general points of learning, we also need to acknowledge—and work alongside—the specific and unique characteristics of each community that we engage.

Future opportunities for knowledge exchange centre around identification of the mutual challenges that we face and sharing ideas for effective local policy responses. This symposium shows, for example, that there is strong agreement on the need to look beyond a criminal justice framing of the issue, towards addressing the root causes of exploitation through services and interventions that serve the whole community. Some of the policy levers will remain national or regional; for instance, anti-immigration discourse and policy provide a stumbling block for anti-trafficking efforts on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet each of our contributors also emphasizes that effective regulatory, housing, health and well-being provision by local statutory and non-statutory agencies can make a decisive difference to those most at risk. It seems that societies that are resilient against slavery start with ensuring fair working practices, caring for the vulnerable, tackling discrimination and promoting social cohesion.

Another common refrain within these articles is the need for a whole-systems perspective that takes account of all actors. The methods we use to engage in this conversation are important. Rather than a top-down process of policy implementation, each contribution describes the value of a more iterative and locally responsive action-research approach, which engages local stakeholders over an extended time period. As Erb points out, “it is imperative that the anti-slavery community take account of the voices and experiences of those on the front-lines” as “successful implementation of strategies hinges on their buy-in.”

This becomes increasingly important, given the resource challenges that seem to be another all-too-familiar feature of local anti-slavery policy and practice. It also raises an interesting question about the degree to which we should focus on mapping vulnerabilities—producing a needs-based or “deficit”-focused analysis, to which we may not be able to respond within current resources—compared to discerning community strengths and assets that can act as the building blocks for future action. Both insights are essential, but an “appreciative” analysis of assets arguably has greater capacity to promote innovation and practical action.

All contributions highlight the issue of leadership, particularly survivor leadership, as an essential means to ensure partnership activity remains grounded and relevant. For Tackney, this takes the form of diverse and distributed leadership that unites both government and grass-roots organizations. For Erb, local communities should provide the key resource for strategy and policy, “not through any complex process but by simply making time to listen, learn and assist”. However, Miller and Finger recognize that the process of building a shared vision takes time and requires the key ingredient of trust; indeed for Miller and Finger “one key indicator of successful partnerships will be the trust they are able to build and maintain”. This has also been a key learning point from our action-learning in the UK, which found trust and a shared vision to be fundamental to the effectiveness of local partnerships, an important first step towards action that was impossible to circumvent.

Trust is also core to the challenge of framing monitoring and evaluation at the local level, which continues to frustrate policy actors on both sides of the Atlantic. While distributed leadership is essential in mobilizing populations, it may also be a source of conflict or disagreement when attempting to establish what evidence should be collected, and the process and methods for data collection. In addition, resource constraints also impact monitoring: how are we to build a systems perspective, when there is a lack of coordination to create that “helicopter view”? Both Tackney and Erb point to the importance of co-ordination in focusing local efforts, and it was interesting to see that this has been an important aspect of the Pathways to Freedom project. Monitoring and evaluation is perhaps also an area that might benefit from some level of regional or national steer, in order to establish common evaluation processes and standards, although any solution must retain sensitivity to local priorities and strategies for change.

Finally, there is a welcome reminder in these responses that in the drive to look for universal lessons to share we must practice humility in recognizing the limitations of our knowledge and perspectives, and not forget the specific and local features in every community. In particular, Erb highlights the need to move beyond a dialogue that comes from the experience of policymakers and actors in the global north, to avoid imposing narrowly-conceived theories on communities in very different social and cultural settings.  Local action can lead to global change, but only by recognizing the unique features and experience of each community in the solutions we propose, not by imposing solutions that are distinctive to one particular social or economic context on another. Listening to our communities and learning from them should always precede action.

This piece has been prepared as part of the Delta 8.7 Local Approaches to Tackling Modern Slavery symposium. Read all the responses here.

Alison Gardner leads the Governance Programme at the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab.

This article has been prepared by Alison Gardner as a contributor 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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