Symposium: Taking Ownership of Local Approaches

29 March 2019
Research Innovation

Nathaniel Erb  | Founder, Erb & Associates

A review of the report produced by the Rights Lab demonstrates that the experience of stakeholders in the United Kingdom in coordinating collaborative groups at a local and regional level is parallel to what I have experienced in the United States. Two things stand out as keystone issues that appear to hold true in both the UK and the US, based on Erb & Associates’ experience in serving as a coordinator for multi-stakeholder task forces and other working groups focused on human trafficking and forced labour policy development at the local, national and international level. The first is the need for a local entity to take ownership of coordinating policy and strategy development. The second is a sense of over-focus on criminal justice responses. These findings are critically important to acknowledge and address.

Regarding the first issue raised, governments, law enforcement, civil society, survivors and other stakeholders often do not focus enough time on coordinating the development of policies and strategies among themselves. While there are a number of stakeholders able to devote time to this important task, the majority often focus on implementing their own theories of change as opposed to developing strategies and policies organically with the communities of focus. Not building policies and strategies from the ground up often leads to a splintering of efforts at best, or a lack of sustainable solution building at worst. The field is in dire need of resources and actors who are willing and able to focus on coordinating efforts among regional stakeholders in order to cultivate ideas and promote joint ownership of implementation among the appropriate parties. Sustainability hinges on the ability of a policy or strategy to continue, even if a particular stakeholder is no longer active. Development of strategies among all stakeholders does not wholly protect against failure, but it does increase the likelihood of multiple entities being willing to lead when needed and facilitates future dialogue.

It should not be assumed that polices and strategies to fight modern slavery on the local level will be different in every environment, nor that they should be developed anew in every local context. However, even if many policies are replicable in different contexts, failing to engage regional stakeholders in the strategy development process can lead to incorrect prioritization of time and resources, missed opportunities to cultivate new strategies that could benefit other local communities and a failure to secure sustained buy-in among stakeholders, particularly those with implementation responsibility.

To the second issue, there is a resounding call from the stakeholder community at large to expand—but not ignore—the focus of anti-slavery programmes beyond criminal justice. Stakeholders generally wish to see more emphasis placed on addressing the needs that cause individuals to be vulnerable and remain vulnerable to exploitation, instead of a strict criminal justice approach. By working to develop anti-slavery strategies organically, stakeholders can cultivate a better understanding of other priorities and develop ways to integrate them with law enforcement priorities.

Lastly, I have a concern that the stakeholder community at large has sought to address these issues with a top-down, policy implementation approach. A substantial portion of the national and international dialogue on “local ownership” of human trafficking and forced labour is focused on how local entities can better carry out what the macro-level community has determined to be appropriate. However, the experience of Erb & Associates found that the greatest utility is in first recognizing local actors as the key resource for strategy and policy cultivation.

One of the first policy initiatives that Erb & Associates was asked to undertake around these issues was improving the accessibility of education for those affected by modern slavery and human trafficking. While vocational training—and education access more broadly—had already been rightly identified by macro-level stakeholders as important, at the time Erb & Associates teams found no discussion between the project partners of key issues related to education. For instance, what should be done for individuals who lack proper documentation or for survivors who fear for their safety when seeking education in areas where they were exploited? It was direct service providers and front-line stakeholders who identified these issues during consultations with our teams so that they could be properly addressed. Further, time spent working and listening with stakeholders to address these complex, multifaceted issues helped develop trust and solidify partnerships necessary for successful future endeavours.

As the global community looks to address human trafficking, forced labour and other forms of exploitation in the coming decade, it is imperative that the anti-slavery community takes the time to ensure that the voices and experiences of those on the front lines, particularly survivors, are at the centre of discussions on the anti-slavery approaches to use. Not only are they vital assets who provide nuance and knowledge of how these issues actually play out, but successful implementation of strategies hinges on their buy-in.

While strategies must be developed to identify and disseminate learned experiences that could develop into best practices, sufficient time has not yet been devoted to creating—let alone vetting—evidence-based proven practices. The emergence of Alliance 8.7, the Freedom Collaborative, Delta 8.7, the Freedom from Slavery Forum and many other venues has given the field myriad avenues to develop multi-stakeholder efforts and share knowledge. However, there is a concerning lack of multicultural perspectives surrounding strategies to address the issue. More needs to be done to develop practices, particularly those that are not “Western” in origin.

Human trafficking and forced labour are inherently local issues. It is fundamentally important to take a step back and uncomplicate what needs to be done to address the issues on the ground. Rather than implementing any of our ideas first, national and international stakeholders would do well to simply take time to meet, listen to and learn from those working every day to help those in need within the target communities. Their most pressing needs may not be—and likely are not—what we had in mind originally.

Nathaniel Erb is the Founding Partner at Erb & Associates. Erb & Associates provides public policy and strategy development support to stakeholders in the anti-trafficking at the local, national and international level.

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

This article has been prepared by Nathaniel Erb 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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