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Centre for the Study of International Slavery

Dr Alex Balch
Dr Alex Balch, Co-Director of Liverpool University’s Centre for the Study of International Slavery

Modern slavery, human trafficking, forced labour: there are many ways of describing one of our era's cruellest tragedies.

But identifying the right one – and using the right language when talking to the communities caught up in it – are key to proving that the arts and humanities have a role to play in tackling it, according to Dr Alex Balch, Co-Director of Liverpool University’s Centre for the Study of International Slavery, and lead researcher on a major four-year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project.

“When a CNN investigation uncovered 'slave markets' in Libya recently  there was a huge amount of concerned debate across Africa and Europe on how to react to the problem,” says Dr Balch.

But the words used to describe the problem were very different in different contexts.

While in the West - and the UK in particular - politicians and journalists were very comfortable talking about 'modern slavery', in other parts of the world there are different sensibilities and it's more appropriate to talk about trafficking, or exploitation of migrants.

“The CNN story really emphasised the power of the word 'slavery',” says Dr Balch. “It's a big word that conjures up a lot of emotions, a lot of history, and so that of course carries with it an element of risk where people might not agree on what is being referred to.

“We can only answer the questions posed by severe forms of exploitation by working with people, and being sophisticated with our use of terminology.”

Dr Balch's network will join three of the main UK centres on research into slavery with leading antislavery NGOs and a range of academic and non-academic partners across West and Central Africa in Ghana, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It will explore how approaches from the arts and humanities can shift antislavery efforts towards a more community-engaged, human rights focus that delivers real development impacts.

What we'd like to be able to do at the end of four years is to demonstrate the value of arts and humanities approaches to tackling this problem. But also to develop the right tools and methods that other people can use.”

Dr Alex Balch, Liverpool University

The project is funded by the AHRC and will be one of five major new international academic networks being set up by universities in the UK and the ‘global south’ to conduct collaborative research into some of the world’s most pressing development challenges over the next four years.

Working through networks suits this area of research, perfectly, according to Dr Balch. “This is an issue that affects every country in the world, but in different ways. So clearly there need to be partnerships and collaborative working if we are to develop common principles and approaches,” he says.

Dr Balch also believes that innovative approaches involving the arts and humanities may be more successful for addressing this issue and developing resilience when compared to existing methods, which have generally focused on criminal justice and punitive approaches.

“We know that this doesn't really work because it takes so many resources to track people down and lock them up,” says Dr Balch.

“We want to work more broadly and inclusively. Our approach is to take a more human rights-focused approach that engages communities through the arts and humanities.

“We want to work with the communities where the problem exists and speak with the people who have been affected by human trafficking and slavery; to understand the ways to better regulate those industries where it is particularly a problem – such as mining or agriculture.”

Cape Coast Castle slave fort, Ghana
Cape Coast Castle slave fort, Ghana. Ghana is a country shaped by historical slavery but it is also a site of contemporary enslavement. Balch's network will work with leading antislavery NGOs and a range of academic and non-academic partners in Ghana and across West Africa to explore how arts and humanities approaches can help combat modern slavery. Copyright: Centre for the Study of International Slavery

This will be achieved through collaborations with partners in those countries that are already working for change, and with focused community work. For example, in Ghana Dr Balch and colleagues will be working with heritage sector to use historical sites connected with the transatlantic slave trade as a launchpad for discussions around modern slavery.

“We will develop traveling exhibitions, and make that connection between the horrors of the past and the challenges of the present,” he says. “Discussing the historical context of slavery in Africa will illuminate the contemporary context of human trafficking.”

Although arts-based approaches have been used successful in other areas, such as health, Dr Balch is determined to develop rigorous methods for analysing impacts in new areas.

“While there are some metrics out there to measure impact, such as recording the number of people who have visited an exhibition, been made aware of an issue, or who have attended training - and these are perfectly valid - I'm not sure how sufficient they are,” he says.

“You can say that 1000 people saw an exhibition. But what does that actually mean in terms of impact and societal benefits?


Find out more on the
Visit www.liverpool.ac.uk/csis
Centre for the Study of International Slavery
website.

“In the Ghana project we are going to work with local archaeologists and NGOs to develop a more sophisticated measure of impact, based on listening to people and gathering testimonies, asking them about their reactions to the material, their memories and how this might affect their understanding of different issues.”

Additional pilot projects involve working with a local artist in the Congo to re imagine photographic materials relating to slavery and create new artwork; and collaborating with the British Council in Sierra Leone to explore how educational materials can change perceptions of trafficking and slavery. 

“What we'd like to be able to do at the end of four years is to demonstrate the value of arts and humanities approaches to tackling this problem. But also to develop the right tools and methods that other people can use,” says Dr Balch.

“What is referred to as modern slavery in the UK is a huge global challenge. But as it rises up the political and development agenda people are now looking around, trying to work out the best way to tackle it - so it's a great time to be working in this area.”

Further information

Please visit the University of Liverpools website for more information about the Centre for the Study of international Slavery.

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