Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Could survivors help ‘fix’ anti-trafficking?

Involving people with lived experience in anti-trafficking work is a trend, but will it create real change?

Alex Balch Allen Kiconco Wendy Asquith
13 February 2023, 8.00am

UN General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid


Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Engaging with ‘lived experience’ is quickly becoming non-negotiable in the human trafficking and modern slavery sector. Survivors are no longer to be treated as mere targets of interventions. Instead, anti-trafficking organisations are expected to involve them in policy and programme design and implementation, and support them to become effective advocates in their own right.

It will surprise some to learn that this was not always the case. After all, survivors know best what happened to them. They will have valuable insights on what could prevent others from falling into similar traps.

Yet, anti-trafficking policies and programmes have historically been a closed shop. Generally speaking, a narrow set of people – governments, a small number of (often faith-based) NGOs, and their elite allies from around the world – have dominated discussions. Those who have experienced forms of trafficking have been kept out.

There are many reasons for this. For example, those who experience trafficking and exploitation usually come from marginalised groups. They hold less power in society, experience myriad forms of socioeconomic exclusion, and as a result are most distant from policymakers and funders. On top of this, the stigma attached to being trafficked makes finding a way in even more difficult.

Likewise, those who carry out anti-trafficking work tend to be large organisations with international footprints. These squeeze out their smaller, community-led counterparts who have access to those directly affected. These smaller organisations are often considered ‘risky’ to have as partners, and instead are usually seen as the targets of awareness-raising and capacity-building activities.

Ultimately, anti-trafficking efforts have developed on the basis that those with power know what’s best. They know what needs to be done, and are the right people to speak on behalf of those directly affected. And as a result, only in exceptional circumstances have survivors been allowed a seat at the table.

Engagement must create real opportunities to offer input, challenge others, make decisions, and transform practice.

That’s now changing. In recent years, we have seen high profile examples of people with lived experience being treated as the experts they are. The United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, formed in 2016, “provides a formal platform for trafficking survivors to advise and make recommendations on federal anti-trafficking policies”. Sophie Otiende, a survivor leader from Kenya, was recognised in 2020 as a ‘TIP Report Hero’ and was subsequently appointed CEO of the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery. Another prominent example is the International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council, launched in January 2021 to assist the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Reviews of policy and programming, meanwhile, continue to urge funders to increase involvement of those with lived experience to improve effectiveness. To help, a growing number of toolkits on ethical policy and practice have been produced that offer advice on everything from compensation and expenses and media engagement to involvement in research.

What is not known, however, is how well this has worked. Has real progress been made at including those with lived experience in all stages of the policy and programming cycle? Are we inching toward a survivor-led movement? Or does engagement remain largely tokenistic: symbolic gestures that respond to a trend without internalising the message behind it?

Making engagement work, for the movement and for survivors

During 2022 we took a close look at how engagement works in practice. We did this as a diverse and international team that included many people with lived experience, collaborating closely in the spirit of co-production to create an inclusive space for research into the topic. Over the course of the next two weeks, we will publish a series of articles detailing our team’s key findings from around the globe.

Each contributor offers a perspective unique to their context. They write about the social stigma surrounding former child soldiers in East Africa; the harmful impact of trafficking and slavery terminology in East Asia; extractive and exploitative media; the pressure to recount stories of trauma; Anglo/Euro-centric language bias; and preconceptions around survivors’ added value and their capacity to achieve. With each, they highlight issues of concern, areas of good practice, and pathways for improvement.

If there’s one lesson, it’s that each context has its own challenges, and its own changemakers. Yet there are some commonalities that underpin all ethical and meaningful engagement with lived experience. Doing it well requires connecting with both local leadership and at-risk communities; identifying how to work with the right people and groups; sharing power; and creating opportunities for innovation, leadership and tangible benefits for those seeking to rebuild their lives.

Above all, engagement cannot be tokenistic. It must create real opportunities to offer input, challenge others, make decisions, and transform practice. This means treating people fairly, and providing sufficient time and resources for genuine involvement so that nothing ends up last minute or tacked on to projects. This sort of engagement is built on a foundation of trust and safety, which is in part created by fostering supportive, respectful and empowering organisational spaces that incorporate trauma-informed practice.

Finally, engagement should align with the wider aims around prevention and safeguarding: i.e. the understanding that including those with lived experience will make anti-trafficking efforts more effective and reduce harm. And while we found common ground on all these principles in our research, we were constantly reminded that politics and place matter. Measures should always be proportionate and context-specific, otherwise they can themselves constitute barriers to participation and empowerment.

Separating the good engagement from the bad

While there may now be consensus over involving people with lived experience, the quality of engagement varies widely. So what separates the good from the bad?

We identified several markers of high-quality engagement, including long-term initiatives, direct employment, and incorporation into project teams in sustained ways and for specific purposes. High quality engagement also makes clear how the time and resources of people with lived experience will be deployed and compensated. All people will be recruited appropriately, paid fairly, fully valued, and offered opportunities for professional development.

It's easy for both engagement and programming to fall into the trap of being purely extractive.

Partnership and collaboration are key. Programmes and policies equitably co-designed with grassroots, survivor-led or lived experience-engaged networks are more effective because they generate collective empowerment among affected communities. This made them stronger tools for addressing structural inequalities and holding authorities to account.

Working with trustworthy, lived experience-led organisations and networks also comes with other benefits. They make it possible for impacted individuals to protect their identities while still sharing their expertise, understanding, and recommendations. They can also provide structured opportunities for capacity-building, particularly where the practice of engaging is nascent. International organisations should seek out and cooperate with these established networks, rather than forming their own, short-term, project-specific groups or consulting with prominent international entities as a proxy for local knowledge.

It's easy for both engagement and programming to fall into the trap of being purely extractive. But we found that’s less likely to happen when those with lived experience take the lead. Finally, involvement in monitoring and evaluation can lead to more appropriate and effective policies and programmes. This should be obvious – gaining feedback from those affected surely helps improve service quality and reach – yet it is still rare. Most programmes do not have feedback processes that are transparently shared with those they seek to benefit, let alone high-quality processes of evaluation that enable affected communities to define success. Where they do, it’s often not obvious how the feedback will be incorporated into the next iteration of design.

Where to from here?

Our research provides important evidence about the range of ways meaningful engagement can be non-tokenistic, ethical, and founded upon working equitably in partnership. But can high quality engagement with lived experience lead to a real shift in power in the anti-trafficking space?

Critiques of anti-trafficking work frequently urge practitioners to focus more on human rights, and to better design policies and programmes to meet local needs. Greater engagement, accompanied by a shift in approach away from criminal justice solutions and toward prevention and community-engaged social work, aligns with this critique. Yet there remains a stubborn gap between the theory and the policies and programmes that continue to be funded and implemented.

We found that effective engagement with lived experience helps close this gap. It dismantles power dynamics within organisations, widens access to programmes, and moves towards more appropriate and effective policy frameworks. But the evidence shows no radical break with the past so far: change has been incremental and progressive rather than transformational. Engagement remains too often tokenistic, and even where it is high quality there are still plenty of barriers preventing it from realising its full potential.

We don’t yet know if those can be overcome. But if they can, engagement with those who have lived experience of exploitation has the potential to make anti-trafficking more equitable, ethical and effective.

Explore the series

This article was produced as part of the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre’s (Modern Slavery PEC) study on survivor engagement in international policy and programming, conducted by the University of Liverpool as a consortium partner of the Centre. To dive deeper, read the full report. The research was funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). It took place between February-June 2022.

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