Finding research pathways to a slavery-free world
Ending slavery means building a science of anti-slavery where advocates can use rigorous research to analyse how and why slavery practices persist.
There are an estimated 40.3 million people enslaved around the world today and we are in the middle of a new antislavery movement. This movement began in the late 1990s, achieved policy acceptance, and then continued through the refinement of legal definitions and the appearance of numerous “anti-trafficking” groups that were unguided by research. At best a proto‐science, the unsophisticated analyses in the growth of this movement did little to achieve the goal of ending slavery. Today, evidence-led groups are coming to the fore, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a specific target for slavery’s eradication by 2030 (SDG 8.7), but antislavery research has reached a plateau.
On November 9, the Rights Track podcast released the first episode of its new season, which focuses on strategies for ending modern slavery. The podcast host, Professor Todd Landman, announced this third season on the UK’s national Antislavery Day, October 18. In this series, Todd will talk to scholars from the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, where more than 100 academics are working on a large-scale research agenda for ending slavery that is testing out new antislavery strategies with NGO and policy partners in countries around the world.
What key factors account for slavery’s prevalence in countries, regions and industries?
As the director of the Rights Lab, I joined Todd for the first episode, to talk about the possibilities of applying what he has termed “rigorous morality” to the space of antislavery: “a turn away from any notion that social scientific research has to be (or can be) value free” and an attempt to draw on “a deep tradition of empirical work that seeks to make social (and political) science matter.” The conversation sets the scene for the next 11 episodes that will focus on particular projects: mapping slavery from space with satellites, harnessing place-based techniques for local slavery-free community efforts, ensuring that survivors’ voices are key to all antislavery policies, and more. As we discuss in the podcast, researchers have a key role to play in tackling slavery as an urgent global challenge. Fundamental questions remain unanswered: what key factors account for slavery’s prevalence in countries, regions and industries? What kinds of data enable accurate slavery information? How does slavery impact societies, the environment and economies? What would the voices of slavery survivors, historically excluded from real participation, bring to the comprehension of contemporary slavery and the design of effective new antislavery strategies?
Scholars of contemporary slavery need to answer these questions and more, bring together analytical thinking from the social sciences and humanities fields with natural science, medical and technological solutions, to build a science of antislavery. We should explore the value to antislavery practice of machine learning and artificial intelligence systems, and how best to combine Big Data and Small Data, information and communications technologies for self-identification, satellite remote sensing, crowd-computing, and open digital maps to identify slavery location. We need to establish whether the use of telecommunications data, digital ledgers, magnetic resonance imaging, and other innovations will let us minimise bias and maximise inference based on carefully collected data. We need deeper understandings of slavery prevalence, national indices for slavery figures, a detailed economic modelling of contemporary slave labour, and information on slavery’s presence in financial systems. We should develop in-depth assessments of slavery’s role in modern warfare and environmental destruction, understand and target culturally-specific trafficking techniques, and better identify slavery’s presence in complex supply chains.
"A science of antislavery will help to achieve an antislavery movement that can design a pathway to a slavery-free world by 2030."
A science of antislavery will help to achieve an antislavery movement that can design a pathway to a slavery-free world by 2030 because it knows what slavery is, where it takes place, how many people it affects, and how it takes root and persists. Tackling these fundamental questions of what, where, how many, and how, in order to tackle a fifth important question—what works to end slavery?—we need to catalyse accurate mapping and measurement, and bring a deep understanding of slavery’s nature and drivers.
But as the concept of “rigorous morality” suggests, at the heart of a scientific antislavery must be a human-machine fusion: the development of new scientific, data and technological approaches for measuring, mapping and analysing slavery, but around the voices, ideas and human agency of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. A science of antislavery should call for transparent, empirical research while representing “a turn away from any notion that social scientific research has to be (or can be) value free” and drawing on “a deep tradition of empirical work that seeks to make social (and political) science matter,” as Todd’s article puts it. This means championing problem-based research that remains systematic while producing outputs that are of public value, and seeking a research approach that is as much about humanity as it is about technology. Critically then, we should draw from survivors’ own voices, ideas and antislavery techniques to answer all five fundamental questions. Only then can we use our research findings to answer a final important question: what difference does freedom make? If slavery exerts a disproportionate drag, inhibiting social and economic development for free people as well as the enslaved, then will ending slavery mean a better world for everyone—safer, greener, more prosperous and more equal? What are the global benefits from ending slavery, across multiple SDGs: dividends to economic development, social and gender equality, peace, health, and the environment?
In the Rights Lab we believe if there was ever a tipping-point, when we might tip slavery over the brink into its own extinction, it is now. A global research agenda for ending slavery, designed around rigorous research, cutting-edge methods and the agency of survivors, can help to deliver this watershed for humanity—and the Freedom Dividend that comes with a slavery-free world.
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