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Faculty & Staff, Research

Building Financial Resilience in Africa to Address Labor Trafficking

March 05, 2024

group photo of collaborators
Joshua Muzei, Anna Cody, David Ansong, Claire Bolton, Moses Okumu, Lydia Aletraris, David Okech, Lissa Johnson, Umaru Fofanah, Elyssa Schroeder, Nnenne Onyioha-Clayton, Jamal Appiah-Kubi, Hui Yi, and Solomon Achulo met to discuss the project in Washington, DC, on January 12, 2024. Photo courtesy of the Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreach (CenHTRO) at the University of Georgia.

The University of Illinois School of Social Work is actively engaged in efforts to enhance financial resilience as a means to reduce vulnerability to labor trafficking.

In southern Africa, as elsewhere, high vulnerability to poverty and false promises of employment lure many youth from their homes and into the hands of traffickers who exploit them through forced labor. A new collaboration by the Financial Capability and Asset Building in Africa initiative (FCAB Africa) seeks to reduce vulnerability to labor trafficking by enabling youth and young adults to achieve financial security and stability at home.

The collaboration involves the University of Georgia’s Center on Human Trafficking Research and Outreach (CenHTRO), as well as FCAB Africa researchers at the University of Illinois School of Social Work, the University of North Carolina School of Social Work, and the Center for Social Development (CSD) in the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Applying a gender-transformative approach and a human-centered design, we will lead a process to codesign with community stakeholders, and test a bundle of financial capability and asset building innovations, with the aim of improving the financial resilience of at-risk youth and survivors,” added Moses Okumu, assistant professor at the University of Illinois School of Social Work.

“The team has a set of ideas we believe will be impactful – approaches that have been tried and tested elsewhere,” said David Ansong, associate professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work. “But our partners in Malawi and Zambia will help us adapt those into strategies that respect community norms, build upon existing policies and practices with vulnerable youth, young adults, and survivors.”

The multi-institutional effort is funded through a $5.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of State, with the University of Georgia as the lead institution. After developing and fielding the intervention in Malawi and Zambia, the FCAB Africa team hopes to scale it for other contexts.

Building opportunity through financial inclusion and financial guidance

The heart of the new project is an intervention to support youth, young adults, and labor trafficking survivors in building financial security at home. That means cultivating opportunity by increasing livelihoods, financial competencies, and access to beneficial digital financial services.

“Unemployment and poverty push people to migrate for better opportunities. This makes them vulnerable to human trafficking situations,” said CenHTRO Director David Okech, principal investigator, professor of social work and Georgia Athletics Association Endowed Professor of Human Trafficking Implementation Research.

“We intend to localize evidence-based entrepreneurship programs that equip vulnerable youth with skills and resources to support their economic development and reduce their vulnerability to labor trafficking,” said Jamal Appiah-Kubi, a post-doctoral research fellow at UNC.

“Financial technology will be a critical component in this effort,” said Lissa Johnson, associate director of CSD. “By engaging fintech partners and other institutional structures, we will be able to test the potential for technology to expand inclusion and for scalability in the region and in other countries.”

“As part of this work, we will also consider issues around consumer protection, given the increasing susceptibility to financial fraud and disastrous borrowing through financial technology platforms,” said Joshua Muzei, an informatics doctoral student at UIUC.

Through human-centered design workshops in Malawi and Zambia, the FCAB Africa team is working with agency partners to identify and codesign contextually attuned livelihoods and financially focused supports. With these supports and the other services, the team seeks to cultivate access to capital, credit, and knowledge on how to start a business or secure another livelihood.

“If people have what they need to build lives in their communities, they will be less likely to risk crossing borders and relying on traffickers for jobs,” explained Michael Sherraden, the George Warren Brown Distinguished University President and founding director of CSD. “By working together with community stakeholders in building financial inclusion and opportunity, we can inform policies that support vulnerable youth and survivors.”

The intervention will be delivered in a randomized experiment planned and organized by the FCAB Africa team. All partners in the two countries will shape the final form through close collaboration. They will design and facilitate intervention delivery, and evaluate the project with methodological rigor.

“The team has a set of ideas we believe will be impactful – approaches that have been tried and tested elsewhere,” said Ansong. “But our partners in Malawi and Zambia will help us adapt those into strategies that respect community norms, build upon existing policies and practices with vulnerable youth, young adults, and survivors.”

This is embedded applied research. At each stage of the project, survivors of labor trafficking will play a key role.

Survivors Action Groups will provide input and guidance on intervention development and delivery. In addition, the project will recruit survivor navigators – young adults who are between the ages of 18 and 37 and at risk of being trafficked or are survivors of trafficking. The navigators will assist in the development of the intervention and participant recruiting, and will provide supports to the participants.

Research partners from the Institute of Economic and Social Research at the University of Zambia and from the Centre for Social Research at the University of Malawi will gather data from participants, navigators, and the action group, enabling evaluation of whether the offered supports are effective at lessening vulnerability to trafficking. Working with these research partners assures greater project success but is another dimension of building international capacities.

“As part of the project, we will tailor and validate financial capability measures and employ econometric methods to tease out the effects of the various FCAB intervention components throughout the pilot testing and adaptation phase,” added Isaac Koomson, an economist at the University of Queensland in Australia and FCAB Africa faculty director at CSD.“This project is participatory action research at its finest,” Okumu said. “We are working to diminish the drivers of vulnerability and cultivate opportunity.”

“If the project succeeds,” he added, “youth in these countries will have a stake in the game, a way to build something for themselves and their families without surrendering to the horrors of trafficking.”

Okumu leads the co-development and testing of interventions that build on existing support systems and equip community members with the resources for migrant and mobile populations across Africa.


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