July 30, 2018, by Rob Ounsworth

The Rights Lab shares antislavery expertise at the United Nations

Meetings of the international community at the United Nations are often the most effective way of advancing global knowledge on key development issues. In July 2018, global antislavery leaders, including members of the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, convened at the UN to discuss tackling Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 — ending slavery by 2030.

Rights Lab Beacon of Excellence leaders were invited to contribute to United Nations (UN) sessions on modern slavery across three days. Professor Sir Bernard Silverman, statistics and measurement specialist and ex-Chief Scientific Advisor to the Home Office, and Rights Lab Associate Directors Dr Andrea Nicholson, expert on slavery survivor perspectives, and Dr Alex Trautrims, slavery and supply chains specialist, shared experience and expertise on measuring progress in antislavery action, developing survivor-led activity, and ways for the global community to more effectively share knowledge.


Professor Sir Bernard Silverman at the United Nations

Professor Sir Bernard Silverman at the UN: “Statistically robust estimates for slavery prevalence play a critical role in antislavery action.”

Sir Bernard Silverman presented at the all-day expert workshop “Measuring Progress Towards Target 8.7,” hosted by Alliance 8.7, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations University (UNU). He spoke on national level measurements of slavery prevalence and issued a strong call for open and transparent data-sharing by all agencies. Sir Bernard said: “Statistically robust estimates for slavery prevalence play a critical role in antislavery action: in order for governments and NGOs to develop and resource effective programming, they first need to know how many slaves there are, and where they are located.”

At the workshop, Andrea Nicholson offered well-received observations on the necessary pragmatism of the evaluation work undertaken by NGOs on the ground. “In academia we are used to planning detailed, and often costly and time-consuming, monitoring and evaluation activity, which is carried out from the comfort of an office. But NGOs working on the ground are focused on delivery. There needs to be appropriate proportionality between measuring versus intervention. This has implications for governments in their design of programme activity: it might, for example, represent better value to upskill statistics officers in local NGOs, rather than devolving M&E to large units, often in the global North.”

Andrea welcomed delegates’ interest in ‘softer’ forms of data in the antislavery movement. “In order to adequately address the issue, we need a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data. The cognitive interviews I have done with survivors of slavery, for example, add necessary detail to our shared understanding of how people end up in slavery, and how they exit slavery. This insight from the survivors themselves can help to shape government and NGO action.”

Dr Andrea Nicholson at the United Nations

Dr Andrea Nicholson: “The cognitive interviews I have done with survivors of slavery add necessary detail to our shared understanding of how people end up in slavery, and how they exit slavery.”

Andrea also presented at the UNU-hosted event “Modern Slavery and State Responsibility” alongside colleagues from the UN, the ILO, Kings College London, and Alliance 8.7. Andrea said: “The meeting was an opportunity to test theories emerging from research. It will result in a set of policy papers on the creative use of legal frameworks for the attribution of responsibility on states for modern slavery abuses in a range of difficult scenarios (e.g. where diplomatic immunity applies).” A second meeting planned for later in the year in London will bring in Rights Lab Executive Director Professor Todd Landman, who will share his perspectives on political regimes and their relation to state responsibility and modern slavery.

Professor Zoe Trodd, Rights Lab Director, said: “In our recent conversations with UK policy makers at the highest levels of government, there is genuine interest in the richness of available data. It is not enough simply to know ‘how many’, we need to understand the experiences and motivations of survivors and perpetrators if we are going to gain enough understanding to effect sustainable change.”

This new complexity of data, and a parallel proliferation of antislavery actors and actions at state and civic level, brings with it challenges of how to use the data purposefully for change. There is a need to not only share good practice, but to translate research findings rapidly into usable content for policy makers and NGOs. Rights Lab leaders therefore participated in two other sessions at the UN. Andrea took part in a high-level ‘stock taking’ of progress held by Alliance 8.7 and UNU that introduced its new knowledge sharing platform. This seeks to accelerate the scientific study of ‘what works’ and help decision-makers to understand, use and access information, and to develop research-led infrastructures. Rights Lab members are on the development group for the new platform, and Bernard and Andrea also attended a half-day development session for the platform at the UN, to further shape its content. The Rights Lab will be contributing content to this global open-access resource.

Dr Alex Trautrims at the United Nations

Dr Alex Trautrims: “Being here and contributing our research findings means that we are getting our ideas into the minds of the people who are making big decisions at a global level.”

Dr Alex Trautrims is a leading expert on slavery in supply chains. He contributed to sessions across the week and commented: “In essence, meetings like this influence how the international community approaches key development issues, and this has tangible, real-world impacts on individuals’ lives. Being here and contributing our research findings means that we are getting our ideas into the minds of the people who are making big decisions at a global level on how we measure and eradicate slavery, how we approach governments, how we allocate resources. It feeds into the process. It is an extremely powerful means of helping to effect change.”

Global convenings like this are a great way for networks to develop – and for the spark of collaboration to ignite. Andrea explains: “There was a fascinating presentation by the Director of Global Workplace Rights for Coca-Cola who introduced their work on supply chains and was excited to hear of our programme on survivors’ voices, as Coca-Cola has just launched a survivor programme. There are few other events where a human rights scholar can have conversations with the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, and a high-level CSR representative from one of the world’s most recognisable brands in the same day!”

Professor Trodd said events like this demonstrate the value of the transdisciplinary approach to modern slavery taken in the Rights Lab research: “As the world’s largest and most domain-diverse group of modern slavery scholars, we are unique in bringing diverse methods and tools to bear. The international policy community appreciates this breadth and richness. So this week, for example, in addition to the contributions by Bernard, Andrea and Alex, we were also represented in New York by Rights Lab PhD student and Director of Rights Lab partner NGO Survivor Alliance, Minh Dang.

“Minh participated in the launch of the 2018 Global Slavery Index (GSI), which the Rights Lab helped to deliver with work on its government response assessment. Minh wrote an essay for the GSI report that is a call to action for the antislavery movement to deepen its engagement with survivors of slavery. This is a complex challenge which needs to be matched with a complex, nuanced response from our research base.”

Sarah Kerr
Head of Policy, Partnerships and Impact
the Rights Lab

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