The AKN and SDG 8.7
by Alex Balch
It has been a privilege to act as Director of the AKN for the past 4 years, giving me the opportunity to work with, and learn from, so many brilliant people and organisations. We are now starting to share widely the collective output of our network via an online exhibition that will run for 12 months, beginning the end of 2021, co-developed with partners and expertly led by our guest curators: Allen Kiconco, Chao Tayiana Maina and Sophie Otiende. During this year a physical exhibition incorporating findings from several of the projects has been travelling to various sites in Ghana including Accra, Tamale, Kumasi, Bolgatanga, Ho and Hedzranawo by our colleagues at the University of Ghana.
As the AKN enters this new phase, bringing together the results of an enormous body of work, it feels appropriate to reflect back on what we proposed at the start, and what this means for the SDGs and in particular, SDG8.7. As with all funding through the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), an important part of the rationale for setting up the Antislavery Knowledge Network was about contributing to addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this case, that was SDG 8.7, which is to: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”.
The proposition the AKN put forward for a major investment on the part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) was to use the Network + (devolved model of) funding, to explore how projects, rooted in community, heritage, the arts and creative approaches, could address trafficking and slavery in a different way from that which had gone before: to map new ways forward. We wanted to challenge the ways of doing anti-trafficking work that had become so focused on global laws/standards, international comparisons of prevalence, criminal justice metrics and the implementation of a single policy ‘recipe’.
When we began the AKN the SDGs were still fairly new. The insertion of ‘modern slavery’ alongside human trafficking under SDG8 (decent work) was initially praised for moving exploitation out of the exclusive realm of criminal justice to a more structural understanding as part of wider sustainable development issues around employment and economic growth. But the linking of such a varied and overlapping set of policy issues under one target raises questions about coherence and consistency. There has also been plenty of criticism about the SDGs in terms of difficulties in measuring progress, and at a more fundamental level, about the way they are built on an underlying logic of intensification of the ‘free market’ approach to development.
The goal of the AKN was not to resolve these things by building a global strategy to achieve SDG8.7, it was to support and learn from creative and innovative approaches that are context-specific. Four years down the line, we have supported more than 14 different ground-breaking and community-engaged projects built on collaboration and partnership to address different forms of exploitation across Africa. Together the projects provide important lessons for a social justice approach to trafficking and modern slavery that is community-driven. The AKN did this by opening the way for others to lead, devolving funding for community-driven projects. Indeed, the name: ‘Antislavery Knowledge Network’ signifies the different and more horizontal, equitable, approach we tried to take.
AKN’s organising concept is epistemic cooperation: the generation of shared resources, new evidence and thinking, about identifying and building common meanings and connections. This is essential because the rhetorical resonance of fights against slavery (old and new) is closely associated with the quintessential liberal project where concepts like ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ are spread as ‘gifts’ to poorer countries via the benevolence and charity of rich ones. Needless to say, contemporary anti-trafficking work is beset by accusations of neo-colonial thinking – repeating the mistakes that have undermined wider development efforts and progress towards a more equal global system.
The unique approach of AKN provides an essential counterbalance to the previous 15-20 years of anti-trafficking policy and programming. In the time that the AKN has been running we have been able to hand over some power: funding those ideas, people and organisations that would not ordinarily find it easy to access funding; loosening some of the more rigid requirements that funders impose; emphasising the importance of equity and partnership. This sometimes meant pushing for things that carried greater risk, creating a space that held the possibility of failure, in order to give the projects we funded the freedom to explore the brilliant ideas they had. That is difficult to achieve with the standard development model and increasing demands around evaluation. Doing things differently, trying out new ways to connect, explore, listen, and understand naturally has a range of outcomes that do not fit neatly into the standard frameworks of development research.
The results probably pose yet more questions about the merits of the SDG framework, but they also help to establish the common ideas and values that can bring communities and organisations together in solidarity. As we hope you will see in the AKN exhibition content, the network’s outputs provide extraordinary depth of insights and detail about connections between some of the different issues and challenges that come under SDG8.7.
From a personal point of view it has been an incredible experience to bring together people and ideas in new ways and (I believe) with impressive results, but it has also been at times challenging to manage and sustain, not least because of unforeseen events: since early 2020 the pandemic, and then politics and the UK’s decision to cut ODA funding, threatened to cut off and damage the collaborations and partnerships we fought so hard to support and develop. We were able to mitigate many of these issues thanks to the patience, trust and goodwill of our partners. Although the initial funding programme is now coming to an end, those relationships put us in a great place for the future as we look forward to finding new ways to support each other and work together.