The Antislavery Knowledge Network offers the first extended effort to address slavery as a core development challenge in sub-Saharan Africa via innovative approaches from the arts and humanities that deliver community-engaged antislavery work. Focusing on the idea of "activated community memory," we champion the innovative use of heritage as a resource for social change. The network aims to demonstrate that participatory arts-based strategies, rooted in heritage, can empower Global South communities to play a central role in tackling contemporary slavery.
The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 46 million slaves worldwide today. The UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include the target of ending slavery by 2030 and African states have recognised slavery as a key challenge to their economic and social development. An estimated 6.2 million people are enslaved in sub-Saharan Africa and slavery's ongoing presence impacts negatively on many SDG targets for Africa, include those relating to health, education, equality, decent work, and sustainable communities. This is a region experiencing rapid change, where demands for enhanced infrastructure stretch political and economic resources; rapid population growth and urbanisation threaten heritage; and unplanned development fails to address persistent patterns of poverty and deprivation that are strongly gendered. But development and antislavery policies aimed at African states have too often ignored the complex historical backdrop of slavery in the region and failed to foster community antislavery strategies that draw on heritage and memory. Slavery and antislavery interventions sit at an intersection of politically sensitive issues around history, sovereignty, citizenship, religion, mobility, and economic governance. As the Chief of UNESCO's History and Memory for Dialogue Section put it in 2015, the historical slave trade's "tenacious poison... paved the way for new forms of slavery that continue to affect millions."
Humanities-based research can provide innovative ways to navigate and address these intersecting issues through a focus on historical power dynamics and marginalised voices, and by partnering with artists, arts organisations and museums to invigorate development. Our community-based, regional focus harnesses this power of the arts and humanities to provide an alternative to the top-down focus of international legal agreements, trade and diplomacy, and intergovernmental initiatives. We build on "asset-based" and participatory approaches to development that recognize the transformative potential of existing cultural resources and heritage, and the value of co-designed and co-delivered work. We therefore move beyond the dominant paradigm of externally-designed interventions based on international rankings or standardised methods. Our approach tries to advance SDG target 8.7 (ending slavery) by strengthening antislavery strategies that re-set the relationship between development initiatives and local communities.
We will launch the network with an initial programme of three pilots in African countries shaped by historical slavery that are also sites of contemporary enslavement: Ghana, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All three pilots will develop models for what works in different national and local contexts, via different methods of in-country partner collaboration. They will therefore lay the groundwork for a structured commissioning phase inviting new projects, of varying sizes and around three themes, that develop our core interest in establishing the value of the arts and humanities to challenging slavery. The commissioned projects will continue pioneering new participatory approaches to knowledge partnership that use arts and humanities methods. Together, the pilot and commissioned projects connect the long history of slavery, antislavery's unfinished work, and the symbols of heritage to current antislavery challenges.