View of the inside of the rear of a huge empty freight truck with the rear doors open. Conceptual image about global human trafficking.

Reimagining global development through engagement with lived experience

Engagement with lived experiences in international policy and programme development has gained attention.

Those directly affected reason they are best placed to inform how to prevent harm, identify people’s needs and provide the required support. International conflicts, climate change and the political climate have made efforts to address modern slavery and human trafficking – and global development programmes more broadly – increasingly challenging in recent years. However, referring to lived experience promises to make programmes more effective in addressing the real needs of the communities they are designed to support.

In anti-trafficking work, this recognition helps emphasise human-centred strategies over standard criminal justice measures. Critics of state-led anti-trafficking approaches have long argued for a more rights-based approach, focusing on social justice and marginalised and oppressed populations over other political agendas.

But even the growing body of critical analysis and research in this field has been led by academics and activists from the global north – in the name of, rather than directly by, those who are most affected.

Consequently, there is a call for a more meaningful involvement for people with lived experience to reimagine how anti-trafficking programmes should change and develop. Organisations increasingly support empowering survivors to lead campaigns and service delivery.

Growing evidence suggests that such engagement can benefit people affected and enhance the effectiveness of policies and programmes addressing human trafficking. This evidence led to the recent UK government pledge to prioritise survivor leadership. However, it is not clear the extent to which this will impact the strategic approach to anti-trafficking work.

The question is, how can high-quality engagement and involvement of people with lived experience genuinely trigger a systematic shift in the power dynamics of anti-trafficking?

Our recent research project, hosted by the University of Liverpool and funded by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), explores that potential, aiming to provide evidence demonstrating how to do it effectively and meaningfully.

The project, a continuation of a previous one commissioned by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, was a collaboration with an international network of research consultants, including those with lived experience, which aimed to reflect on patterns of knowledge production and develop equitable, lived-experience-engaged methodologies.

Rather than focusing solely on experiences of trauma, this approach foregrounded the consultants’ skills, expertise, and experience to lead and shape our research agenda, questioning how modern slavery is understood and addressed.

Challenging current power dynamics

As leads on this project, we are very aware of our privileges as salaried researchers. We were committed to a co-production approach where the vast majority of the funds could be allocated to our network of six professionals and experts from Kenya, the US, India, France, and the UK, who led six individual projects to see what meaningful engagement of lived experience looks like in their contexts.

Traditional international collaborations often tip power heavily towards funders, institutions and academics, leaving research collaborators and participants with less influence. Recognising this historical inequality, we implemented a co-production methodology that resisted academic and funding dictations at all stages, making sure that consultants and people with lived experiences had equal power in developing the research agenda.

Lessons for policy and practice

From the six individual projects, three fundamental areas arise for consideration.

First, new knowledge produced by organisations spearheaded by survivors provides an outline for and benefits of equitable engagement.

For example, a study on safeguarding in Kenya shows how an inclusive approach, fostering a culture of safety, can genuinely empower survivors, offering a platform for their agency, while upholding their dignity and emotional welfare. Another study from a frontline organisation in India shows that the benefits to engaging survivors in local initiatives cause ripple effects to wider communities, other organisations and authorities.

Second, the dynamic and evolving nature of exploitation underlines the need for guidance from those with direct experience.

The study on ‘homegrown slavery’ in the UK and another on ‘online scamming’ in East and Southeast Asia show that responses to these emerging forms of exploitation have to be informed and led by those intimately familiar with the realities of it if they have any chance of succeeding.

Third, a focus on lived experience and knowledge production amplifies the importance of voice, language, and terminology, thereby confronting broader power dynamics.

Analysis of practices of survivor storytelling in North America and exploration of neo-colonial undertones in anti-trafficking discourse in Africa shed light not only on the barriers that a non-inclusive language creates for survivors but also on the transformative potential of more ethical and equitable approaches.
Collectively, the findings point the way towards new research, policy and programmes led by engagement with lived experience, underpinned by three key principles defined by the research. These were being non-tokenistic, being trauma-informed and preventing harm.

Enhancing effectiveness in global development programs

Creating new spaces for survivors to shape the research agenda is integral to innovation and reform in policies and programmes. However, our findings and observations are not limited to the anti-trafficking sector. Involving and engaging people and wider communities the development programmes work to serve holds the potential to foster feelings of empowerment, social inclusion, connection, and increased self-confidence and self-esteem, among other benefits.

Our findings show that high-quality engagement practices must include transparency and accountability over terms and conditions of engagement, with feedback and reflection involved in all steps. Equitable engagement goes beyond the acknowledgement of contribution, ensuring individuals are compensated fairly, recruited appropriately, and provided with opportunities for professional development and leadership.

Only then can the radical potential for lived experience to reimagine anti-trafficking efforts and wider development programmes be unleashed.