Community-Led Strategies to Challenge Exploitation: Lessons from The Antislavery Knowledge Network

By Alex Balch and Lennon Mhishi - 09 March 2021
Community-Led Strategies to Challenge Exploitation: Lessons from The Antislavery Knowledge Network

This is part of a forthcoming Global Policy e-book on modern slavery. Contributions from leading experts highlighting practical and theoretical issues surrounding the persistence of slavery, human trafficking and forced labour are being serialised here over the coming months.

Alex Balch and Lennon Mhishi outline how The Antislavery Knowledge Network uses the arts and humanities to challenge power relations and knowledge production.

Global efforts to address human trafficking and modern slavery have been criticised for their focus on criminal justice, and for failing to capitalise on opportunities to develop a human rights dimension (Gallagher 2011, Balch 2015). There have been growing calls for a shift to a more human-centred, social justice-oriented approach that responds less to the political agenda and more to the needs of communities that experience exploitation (Giammarino 2020). This in turn raises questions about how new ways of doing anti-trafficking should be developed, designed and implemented, and how affected communities should be involved in this process. What does a social justice approach that is community-driven look like, and how can we assess its value and effectiveness?

The Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network, funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), was set up to explore how creative approaches could address contemporary forms of enslavement by adopting a community-engaged, human rights focus. The AKN has, since October 2017, commissioned 14 innovative, community-engaged projects across 8 countries in Africa, in Niger, Mali, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, DRC, Uganda, and Kenya. These projects have involved collaborations between 32 partners (including universities, community enterprises, charities and faith-based organisations) and research approaches that draw from at least 18 different disciplines (including, among others, politics, history, heritage, archaeology, film-making, communication studies, drama and architecture).

The projects funded through the AKN have delivered arts-based outputs that address modern slavery and directly reached thousands of people. The foundations of each project are the requirements to be collaborative, address local needs and to be impact-driven. The results range from animations and graphic novels, instruments and guidance for practitioners and policymakers, resources and educational packages, capacity development of local researchers and activists, large national-level events and the production of other exhibitions and artworks designed to shift public opinion, raise awareness, and improve services to the most vulnerable, including projects co-developed and co-led by survivor groups.

Using the arts and humanities to challenge power relations and knowledge production

We believe that methods and approaches from the arts and humanities are particularly well-suited to challenge the power relations and systems of knowledge production that perpetuate structural inequalities (Mhishi 2020). Participatory approaches building on community knowledge, capacity and existing resources have enabled AKN partners to utilise different creative forms, such as photography, painting, theatre and performance, and animation among others, to connect community efforts with policy and advocacy at the institutional level. One of our projects, LESLAN (Legacies of Slavery in Niger) is a collaboration involving Timidria, Niger’s main anti-slavery NGO, the country’s national Anti-Slavery Task Force and University of Birmingham. LESLAN has commissioned artists and held an exhibition challenging descent-based slavery, using the arts to broach an issue difficult to discuss publicly because of taboo and historical silences. Yole! Africa, a partner in a pilot project in the Democratic Republic of Congo worked with local communities subverting the colonial gaze in photography. This work was not just about shifting the lens, but enabling processes of narrative formation and ownership of these histories of exploitation and their ramifications in the present. In Ghana, three projects based in Accra worked across disciplines and form, to produce work that encompasses historical and physical sites of exploitation, visual material, as well aspects of performance and mobility, to better understand the relationships that entwine histories of slavery in Ghana and contemporary forms of exploitation. The results of these approaches and methods point to new ways for challenging established ways of thinking about links between the past, present and future.

Context matters. ‘Africa’ despite its enormous diversity is often treated as a singular entity that is in turn designated as a ‘hotspot’ for modern slavery. This is partly because systems of knowledge production have been historically pre-disposed to problematise certain areas over others. For example, the Global Slavery Index divides the world into regions (Africa, Europe and Central Asia, the Americas, Arab States, Asia and the Pacific) and then calculates the number of victims per 1,000 inhabitants. It may not be surprising that the authors find that prevalence is highest in Africa (followed by Asia and the Pacific) where there are nearly double the number of victims when compared with Europe and the Americas. Likewise, monitoring of government efforts by the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports is partly based on law enforcement data where African countries are consistently identified as making insufficient efforts, but the system of assessment has been criticised for being biased towards US rules and norms (Gallagher 2011, Horning 2014).


An AKN workshop which took place with partners in Accra, January 2020.

One of the benefits of the AKN model is the ability to invite projects to define their own methods and measures of evaluation to explore different ways to think about what ‘success’ looks like. The network does collect quantitative data, but we seek to deepen understanding of impact through qualitative techniques and case studies- not just as sources of data and specific exemplification, but hopefully as a contribution to a complex engagement with, and challenging of, the conditions of exploitation as well as, most importantly, foregrounding the people and the materialities thereof. Discussion and engagement between the different projects has allowed certain themes and topics to come to the fore, about survivor leadership, about re-thinking distinctions between researcher and practitioner or activist.

The arts and humanities bring context to the fore: the different countries where our partners and collaborators work have simultaneously shared and specific histories that shape the present. Although it may sometimes be useful to have general estimates and systematic comparisons, such as those provided by the GSI and TIP reports, it is crucial to recognise the particular histories and contextual factors that shape vulnerabilities to exploitation. For instance, the histories of slavery and colonialism, and how they shape our relationships to power. The contexts of slavery and exploitation in Ghana are different to those in Mali and Niger, which are in turn different for our projects based in Kenya, Uganda or Siera Leone. Whereas, for instance, in Ghana, Mali and Niger, the historical dimensions of slavery are very salient, for one of our projects based in Kenya, the focus is more clearly on current challenges and risks around human trafficking for young people. A project led by Anglican Development Services has used ethnographic methods and innovative communication methods to map trafficking routes and engage with contemporary youth experiences of human trafficking, centring the experiences of survivors of trafficking, and the webs of relationships and forms of power that shape them. A project by BuildX, based in Nairobi, but working with partners in Uganda, consulted with survivors’ and survivor advocates to develop an evidence-based and user-led approach to the architectural design of shelters and care centres that support survivors of human trafficking.

Although the heritage of slavery’s past are not relevant for many of our projects, we recognise, especially through cross-project conversations, how histories of slavery can become hegemonic and territorialised, in ways that may sometimes diminish the legacies of slavery in Kenya, or East Africa, in general, as compared to West Africa. The specific contexts and work of our partners is complemented by the knowledge and experiences of projects from other countries, opening up space for more collaboration, and learning from each other what works best, and furthering forms of care and solidarity transnationally.

Research that draws from methods rooted in the arts and humanities provides an important pathway to consider these shared and specific relationships, at different levels. From the unequal relations emanating from the institutional disparities across countries, to the communities where our partners are based, and the various raced, gendered, disability and other dimensions of power differentials that arise and affect the work. A recognition of context also offers opportunities for critical and productive engagement at the policy level, at a country and continental level, when such platforms are available.

When it comes to research design, as well as knowledge making and circulation, revisiting established norms on what constitutes knowledge, and who embodies it, the relationships of the knower and the known, are indispensable. Confronting the conditions of exploitation also means confronting the status quo of approaches to understanding and responding to it. Without fetishizing lived experiences and claiming to merely ‘shift the gaze’ or ‘give voice’, it is pivotal to recognise these lived experiences as a focal point of work challenging contemporary forms of slavery and exploitation.

This is why community leadership is vital, as well as the voices of those who have experienced various forms of exploitation. Our partners have been at the forefront of designing and producing collaborative work that speaks to the major concerns of their communities, shaping the direction of current and future work. In this moment where calls for decolonisation have become pervasive, it is crucial to move from rhetorical gestures to attending to the materialities of the lived experiences and challenges of the communities we collaborate with. An AKN project based in Uganda, led by YOLRED (Youth Leaders for Restoration and Development) focused on the experiences of abductees, former child soldiers and other victims, offering them support for justice and productive lives. They use research, performance, music and film, among other forms, to explore the difficult subject of this exploitation, and to forge community participation and cohesion in the aftermath of conflict. YOLRED emphasises the significance of being itself led and run by community members who have experienced these challenges, and are in an informed position to engage with other community members outside dominant hierarchies and dangers of retraumatisation and further marginalisation. The centrality and ownership of these community efforts and narratives in our partnerships hopefully is a contribution to the larger work of dismantling the conditions of marginalisation and dispossession that engender exploitation.

Research, partnership, and ethics

What constitutes ethical research and partnership building in the space of antislavery work in Africa? We recognise that in addition to fulfilling the important institutional processes and checks pertaining to research with human participants, an ethics and politics of care, humility and counterhegemony is indispensable to shifting relations of exploitation, which are also relations of power. We have become increasingly aware of the many challenges that can be traced to the structures and processes which characterise, and are re-produced by, Universities in the UK. The evidence from AKN, and indeed the other Network + awards funded through the same scheme, is that these obstacles require concerted action to break down, if equitable partnership is ever to become a reality (Bryant 2020).

It is worth reiterating that the voices and experiences of people who have suffered exploitation are crucial. They should help shape both the approaches to prevention, as well the provision of support to survivors, but there are risks that research into human trafficking and modern slavery becomes unethical, even if the purported aim is to prevent future exploitation (Kiconco 2019, Bunting et al 2020). Survivors are not merely research subjects, but multidimensional people, who are gendered, raced, differently abled and mapped onto existing socio-economic and political relations. We should thus guard against constructing an essentialised or linear version of survivors that reproduces the status quo. Communities invite us into their lives and share in the production of material spaces and experiences with us, making it imperative for our work to not only be shaped by care and critical knowledge making, but also forms of solidarity premised on the shared, even if unequal, lives, and striven for possibilities for challenging exploitation, and the conditions thereof.

The ethical positions and approaches we take become particularly salient when the construction and practices of regarding ‘Africa’ as a source of raw material and ‘native informants’ that have a long history and endure in the present, are considered. Challenging exploitation with the communities we work with also means challenging the enduring relationships      of extraction, and practicing different forms of knowledge making as part of that ethics of care and solidarity (Kalinga, 2019; Coetzee, 2019, Omanga and Mainye, 2019; Musila, 2019). We should not challenge with one hand, and condone with another.

Striving for community led and survivor-driven work, cognisant of histories and relationships of power, can lead to productive partnerships and collaboration. It is vital to guard against the complacency of adopting the language as an end in itself, without the accompanying practice and care. This is why we added research into safeguarding as a co-designed piece that avoided an imposition of values and norms from the perspective of the funding source, and sought to re-evaluate the role of every person and institution involved in the research process – from funders, to principal investigators, fieldworkers and participants. This work led to the involvement of the AKN team in a collaboration including researchers from India and Latin America to produce guidance in 2020 for the UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR) which has since been adopted by the FCDO and other funders (Balch et al 2020).

How can the valuable relationships with project partners and the benefits emanating from the work undertaken through the projects described above, be nurtured and sustained? There have already been a number of follow-on funding opportunities via the UK, partly thanks to current interest in these topics, but the politics of international aid spending are far from predictable or secure. Project and funding cycles can therefore render the long term commitment to partnerships uncertain, and precarious. How do we ensure that both the funding models and resources available build sustainable projects that live beyond funding cycles, and result in desired and lasting positive changes in the communities we work with? As the AKN moves towards the end of this initial funding cycle, these are some of the more difficult questions we are asking ourselves.

Conclusions: Challenging exploitation, achieving sustainable change

Some scholars have argued that the anti-trafficking ‘industry’ is geared towards maintaining the oppressive structural inequalities of the global economy (O’Connell Davidson 2015) where the politics of anti-trafficking are ‘hidden’ or stem from pernicious political agendas (Sharma 2020). The experience from AKN is that the existence of such political agendas does not necessarily prevent creative and useful research, advocacy and policy-influencing work from happening via funding that is earmarked to address modern slavery. 

The area of human trafficking and modern slavery, like many other areas of research, policy and practice, creates opportunities for different interests and ideologies to compete in a struggle for legitimacy and control. This stretches from the realm of international organisations (Chuang 2014) to national and local levels (Balch and Geddes 2011) and everything in between. That is why some have seen an opportunity to inject human rights into this developing regime (Gallagher 2001) or ‘claim space’ for labour rights (Robinson 2015). The AKN proves that there are opportunities to harness methods and approaches from the arts and humanities to bring together partners and communities in new and creative ways to address pernicious forms of exploitation and human rights abuses.

There is a clear need to shift how human trafficking and modern slavery is addressed through international development research, and how the impacts of this are assessed. The generally low level of prosecutions and convictions on human trafficking confirm that a quantitative approach centred on criminal justice data is inadequate. Existing instruments repeatedly ‘discover’ that modern slavery is a phenomenon most prevalent, and least-well dealt with, in low and middle-income countries, such as those located in Africa. But evaluations of interventions in the area of modern slavery research are thought to lack rigor (Bryant and Landman 2020), plus they are on weak ground if there is no common or shared understanding of the nature and scale of the problem itself. In the final phase of the AKN (due to complete end-2021), we will draw together and learn from the outputs, outcomes and evaluations of our partners and their projects, and synthesise key findings to influence the agenda at national, regional and international levels.

Those charged with scrutinising international aid efforts by countries such as the US and UK have complained of a lack of strategy and evidence-based interventions that are survivor informed (GAO 2006, ICAI 2020). The AKN offers new pathways to challenge exploitation and achieve change. By maintaining an open and ambiguous stance regarding what is, or is not, included as ‘modern slavery’, we have been able to fund a range of projects that address exploitation and lie at the intersection of multiple different Sustainable Development Goals. These projects, though varied, are all underpinned by a desire to transform lives, and to collaboratively and creatively challenge the experiences and conditions of exploitation in its multiple forms

However, challenges around translation and impact will always be considerable when the evidence produced by research does not follow established policy logics, and indeed is likely to question pre-conceptions and power structures. The AKN has been able to bring together researchers and civil society in a productive way, but an important gap is the one between those collaborations and ability to influence politicians and policy makers. The critical work undertaken through research and partnership does not always find a way to affect those policies that are shaping the conditions we are trying to understand and change. It is crucial therefore that work on antislavery in Africa now engages the different levels of policy making and implementation – not just the international policy communities and major donor countries. We look forward to using the outputs of the AKN to support our partners’ approaches to challenging exploitation, the conditions that produce precarity, as well as to support improved outcomes for survivors.



For full details of all AKN projects, including interviews and podcasts with the teams, please visit the AKN website

Professor Alex Balch currently leads the Antislavery Knowledge Network which seeks to apply innovative methods to tackle modern slavery across Sub-Saharan Africa, funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) via the national Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). He is also Director of Research at the Policy and Evidence Centre on Modern Slavery and Human Rights based at the Bingham Centre (British Institute of International and Comparative Law) which seeks to enhance understanding of modern slavery and transform the effectiveness of laws and policies designed to overcome it.

Dr Lennon Mhishi joined the University of Liverpool as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Politics department in December 2017, having completed his PhD in Anthropology at SOAS University of London. Prior to coming to Liverpool, Lennon has conducted ethnographic research in Harare, Johannesburg, and London. His doctoral work explored the migrant and diasporic experiences of music, identity and belonging amongst Zimbabweans in London, whilst foregrounding these experiences as part of the genealogy of African and Black presence and expressive culture in Britain.

Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

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