TLI talk by Professor Joel Quirk, Department of Political Science, the University of Witwatersrand and fellow editor of the Open Democracy blog Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. The event will be chaired by Dr. Neil Howard, University of Antwerp.
Title: The politics of numbers: ‘Modern slavery’, the performance of expertise, and the marketplace of political activism
Abstract: The last two decades have been marked by a growing number of efforts to quantify global patterns of exploitation in a range of different arenas, including severe labour exploitation, commercial sexual exploitation, and forms of exploitation and abuse arising from conflict situations. These efforts have featured the United States government, the International Labour Organisation, and the Walk Free Foundation, and have come to include increasingly elaborate models which seek to quantify both the global scale of specific populations and the allied effects of different institutional responses targeting their eradication or reduction. The most recent example of this larger trend is the 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery and Child Labour, which has calculated that 40.3 million people are currently subject to modern slavery, with 24.9 million being subject to forced labour and 15.4 million being subjected to forced marriage as a specific form of slavery. This latest estimate is likely to be highly consequential, because it forms part of a larger series of structures and interventions that relate to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which in turn also now includes a specific provision (8.7) targeting ‘modern slavery, human trafficking and forced labour’. Despite being justified as a tool for guiding policy interventions, this latest global estimate continues a pattern whereby appeals to models of neutral and technocratic assessment - or the performance of expertise - at least partially conceal a series of normative agendas and ideological projects. How much of these types of exercises relate to policy? How much instead relate to publicity and branding? It is widely recognised amongst experts in the field that both earlier and current estimates rest upon very limited methodological foundations, but there nonetheless remains a similarly widespread reluctance to publicly grapple with their limitations and flaws, since this could cast doubt upon high profile claims regarding global scale and severity (perhaps slavery isn’t as big as reported), conceptual classifications (perhaps slavery isn’t the best frame of reference?) and organisational standing/branding (who really counts as an ‘expert’?). Building upon arguments and insights from existing works on social movements, the politics of numbers, and the marketplace of political activism, this paper considers the recent history of efforts to quantify global patterns of exploitation, the political projects within which they have been embedded, and the extent to which these recent efforts remain politically compromised by what they do not say, and with the types of underlying connections and associations which they do not address sufficiently.
Professor Joel Quirk is the Head of the Department of Political Studies. He is the author or editor of seven books, including The Anti-Slavery Project (2011), Mobility Makes States (2015), and Contemporary Slavery (2017). Joel is a member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, where he serves as Rapporteur, and is also an editor for openDemocracy’s ‘Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.’ Before moving to South Africa, he was the Deputy Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull, United Kingdom. Joel has previously held visiting researcher positions at Yale University and the University of Milano-Bicocca.