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What we do about meaningful inclusion of lived experience in our work

Prof Alex Balch on listening and acting on meaningful inclusion of lived experience in our research

Published: 3rd February 2022

From its inception, the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) was set up not only to build on the existing research, but to enable the funding of a more diverse community of researchers, and to build bridges between different people and organisations involved in understanding and addressing modern slavery.

Our consultation exercise in 2020 confirmed loud and clear that there is a pressing need to be more inclusive in the way that funding is allocated and research is conducted in this area. The message was this: research on modern slavery often excludes the people and organisations best equipped to move policy forwards. Future research needs to go beyond consideration of those with experience as mere participants or ‘subjects’ of research, and embrace genuine, equitable, meaningful involvement.

This means stepping up the involvement of affected communities and those with lived experience in all the Modern Slavery PEC’s work. Early on, we included this commitment as part of our Strategic Development Plan. We have started to put that into practice through the ways we design and select funding proposals, and in the kinds of projects we seek to support.

For example, we engaged with survivor perspectives on research through our Research Priorities Consultation, all our staff have undertaken survivor ally training with Survivor Alliance, and we have funded five research projects focused on survivor support that are incorporating lived-experience perspectives and leadership in different ways appropriate to their projects. We also employ a survivor consultant who is assisting us in reviewing proposals and future funding calls (they have written about the experience in a blog).

In this process we are learning all the time, including from other initiatives in the sector, about the challenges and opportunities of developing a more inclusive and survivor-involved strategy. We are working together with our partners and the research teams that we fund to identify best practice and are continuing to listen, turning those commitments into concrete actions.

This year we will be supporting research to generate new evidence about issues of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the modern slavery research sector, alongside developing our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion action plan, with support from the UK BME Anti-Slavery Network (BASNET).

We are also increasing the opportunities for those with lived experience to get directly involved in the work of the Modern Slavery PEC. We are currently recruiting Expert by Experience Review Panel members to inform the assessment of applications to our funding call on modern slavery and its links to wider laws and policies. We plan to develop a larger Committee to work with us on a more day-to-day basis. There will be different ways to get involved for those with lived experience coming soon, including pathways to employment and leadership positions to help us continue our strategic development.

Why is this important? Firstly, it’s simply the right thing to do - people with lived experience haven’t had their voices heard for too long. Secondly, it is because it will help us to produce higher quality, more relevant research. There are also wider benefits for the people who will be able to get involved in research and policy, for the wider modern slavery sector, and for the development of better laws and policies, more accurately reflecting the reality of modern slavery and therefore more effective in addressing it.

"People with lived experience haven’t had their voices heard for too long"

Taking a safe and ethical approach to this agenda is essential, not least because of the potential risks of re-traumatisation for those who have experienced modern slavery. We ask all projects to tell us how they will conduct research safely and ethically, and what structures and processes they have in place for safeguarding, but we are aware that’s not enough. As a funder, we have power that can add pressure on people and organisations working with survivors where there is a lack of capacity; and our decisions can lead to unintended consequences, especially when we set targets or conditions for how research is carried out and who is involved. This is why our plans go beyond statements of principles and will include significant investment to support change. We are determined to dedicate sufficient resources to make a strategic commitment in this area, and to make that effective, feasible and sustainable.

We believe that a lack of diversity and the absence of survivor involvement has held back research and policy on modern slavery, reducing innovation and progress on understanding the problem, and ultimately limiting the relevance and impact of research. The Modern Slavery PEC’s capacity to fund new research and its ability to invest strategically means we can look forward to growing evidence of ‘what works’, whilst improving equality, diversity and inclusion of those with lived experience in efforts to address modern slavery.