Loading content

Meaningful lived experience engagement in modern slavery research

Reflections from the Advisory Group for the ‘Equity in Evidence’ Conference.

Published: 8th September 2023

Guest post by Chris Ash (National Survivor Network – CAST), David Baguma Kagoro (Never Again Rwanda), Hmayak Avetisyan (National Trans Coalition Human Rights NGO), Mamta Mehar (Independent), Rogers Mutaawe (Uganda Youth Development Link), Victoria Capriles Moreno (Universidad Metropolitana's Human Rights Centre) and Willz (Jafari Jata Solution). The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions of each individual member of the Advisory Group.

In June 2023, the Freedom Fund, the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) and the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) held a conference called Equity in Evidence: Fusing lived experience and community knowledge into research to end human trafficking.

The focus of the conference was to discuss how to ensure the meaningful engagement of people with lived experience and those from most affected communities in research on modern slavery. Not just in carrying out research, but also funding research, communicating research, and turning research into practice to make a difference to real people’s lives, as well as supporting researchers to better understand and engage with community-generated knowledge.

To support that aim, it was essential to engage with the voices of people with lived experience and those from most affected communities in the planning of the conference. So the Modern Slavery PEC led the recruitment of an Advisory Group consisting of seven experts, who met regularly and closely informed the design of the conference. This blogpost sets out the Advisory Group’s reflections both on its work and on the conference. The official report summarising insights and recommendations from the Equity in Evidence conference is available here.

‘Meaningful’ engagement

The conference was focused on progressing towards meaningful engagement of people with lived experience in all aspects of research and how to move beyond tokenistic involvement. This was central to the Advisory Group’s work.

As one member of the Group, Willz, commented:

"[……] true progress lies in moving beyond superficial involvement. Merely having survivors present in the room is not enough; the insights and perspectives must be genuinely valued and integrated into the decision-making process. By involving survivors in the design and planning of the conference, we were able to identify and address critical gaps in our approach and ensure a more impactful outcome.

"Ultimately, the conference reinforced the notion that we are better equipped to tackle the issue of human trafficking when we work together, acknowledging the expertise of survivors and facilitating dialogues that embrace multiple perspectives."

But it’s one thing to support this principle; it’s another to put it into practice. There are many challenges and questions to be addressed.

"[……] true progress lies in moving beyond superficial involvement. Merely having survivors present in the room is not enough; the insights and perspectives must be genuinely valued and integrated into the decision-making process.

Willz, member of the Advisory Group

What practical steps can we take?

First, funders must recognise that meaningful engagement with people with lived experience and affected communities is not cost-free (the Advisory Group were compensated for their time in preparing for and attending meetings). Funders should build appropriate costs into the budgets they expect from researchers applying for funding and they should allow additional time to undertake meaningful lived experience engagement.

Funders also have the ability to require or encourage lived experience engagement in the research process, and they can themselves build collaborative relationships with survivor-led organisations in affected communities to facilitate such engagement. This additional time and cost may be seen as a barrier by people who are used to rushed deadlines. However, investments of time and resources are essential to correcting the history of excluding people from impacted communities (and their ways of knowing) from the evidence base.

It's also important for funders to diversify geographically. Many grassroots organisations work in countries that are critically underfunded, so they can't respond to modern slavery's complex and global nature in a comprehensive and effective way. The diverse factors that contribute to modern slavery can be better addressed by spreading funds across different regions.

From a research perspective, the Advisory Group’s reflections are: when researchers are communicating the findings from their work, are they prioritising communication with those who are most affected by modern slavery? How can they do that better? Those who are directly affected should be one of the central audiences for research on the topic of modern slavery – but to do that effectively might mean:

  • writing in a less technical, more accessible way,
  • highlighting the practical relevance of research for those affected,
  • communicating in multiple languages and formats, and
  • disseminating findings through a variety of networks and formats, to ensure they reach the widest possible range of people (including those groups who are more marginalised and therefore harder to reach).

Not every researcher has the experience and knowledge to do this effectively. Equally, some people with lived experience may lack experience of conducting research but are interested in being more engaged. There needs to be more capacity building on all sides, so that all those involved in modern slavery research increase their knowledge and skills, leading to stronger collaborations, better research and findings that are more likely to make a concrete difference to the world. More experienced researchers can support this through providing mentorship and coaching, enhancing knowledge transfer and experiential learning.

Equity in Evidence conference2

What can we learn from the Advisory Group’s work for future events?

For future events like this conference, we recommend that the organisers put in place a similar Advisory Group to ensure the meaningful input of people with lived experience and from affected communities, ensuring it is inclusive and diverse. And we’ve learned several important lessons about how to do that in the most effective way possible:

  • Set up a diverse Advisory Group inclusive of people with lived experience and those from affected communities before any critical planning decisions have been made, so that they can feed into every key decision, such as the location and venue for the event or the speakers to be invited.
  • Think about organising an early, informal meeting of the Group just to allow members to meet one another and develop a group dynamic, and get a chance to plan logistics which will make subsequent discussions more effective.
  • Be as clear as possible about what input is expected from the Group, what influence they will have, and how you will consider and provide feedback on their suggestions.
  • Make sure you provide avenues through which the Group can raise any issues that may arise, such as safeguarding issues.
  • Allow time after the event for the Group members to debrief and reflect back on both the event and their role, capturing vital learnings for future work.

With those points in mind, we hope that future events can benefit from Advisory Groups just as this one did, ensuring the meaningful engagement of people with lived experience in all aspects of the work.

Background context to the Advisory Group

In this section we (the conference organisers) summarise how the Advisory Group was recruited and its working methods.

In September 2022, the Freedom Fund, the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) and the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) began planning for the conference ‘Equity in evidence’, to be held in June 2023.

It was clear that we needed to engage with the voices of those with lived experience of modern slavery and/or from most affected communities to ensure they were able to shape the design of the conference. So we recruited an Advisory Group of seven diverse experts by experience, representing five different global regions.

To do so, we advertised widely through various networks, receiving more than 100 applications. We put together a shortlist of 35 applications based on a set of essential criteria that we applied on an ‘as inclusive as possible’ basis.

We then sifted the shortlist in order to select seven applicants to invite to join the Advisory Group. At this stage we selected for the greatest possible diversity and inclusion, with a particular focus on the geographical region where the applicants were based and the types of modern slavery each had experience of working on.

Unfortunately, we had to limit our geographical scope slightly to ensure that every member of the Group would be able to join a call together at the same time.

The Advisory Group met monthly from January 2023, holding five meetings before the conference took place. We worked with the members by sharing draft documents, thoughts or questions in advance of each meeting, which we would discuss during the meeting, gathering members’ input. We (the organisers) took those ideas away, discussed them, and responded to the Advisory Group on each point raised, incorporating as many as possible of their suggestions into the planning process.

Some of the key areas the Advisory Group helped inform were the theme for the conference, the topics that each panel session would focus on, and how best to create a safe, respectful and open environment in which everyone, including people with lived experience, would feel meaningfully included and able to contribute freely.

The Advisory Group also played a key role during the conference, both as a group and as individuals. The Group introduced their role at the start of the conference, explaining how they had worked to the other participants. Individual members played various roles throughout the conference, speaking on or chairing panels, or presenting on work that they’d been involved in.

Photos: Freedom Fund

Read more about the Equity in Evidence Conference

We have published more learnings from the Conference, including a full report, as well as blogs with key takeaways for researchers and with lessons we as Modern Slavery PEC have learnt from it. You can read them below.