Newswise – In southern Africa as elsewhere, the high risk of poverty and false promises of employment lure many young people from their homes into the hands of human traffickers who exploit them through forced labor. A new collaboration Financial performance and wealth creation in Africa The initiative (FCAB Africa) aims to reduce vulnerability to human trafficking by enabling youth and young adults to achieve financial security and stability at home.

The University of Georgia is involved in the collaboration Center for Research and Outreach on Human Trafficking (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) at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Using a gender-transformative approach and human-centered design, we will lead a co-design process with community stakeholders and test a suite of financial performance and wealth building innovations with the aim of improving the financial resilience of at-risk youth and survivors,” added added Moses OkumuAssistant Professor in University of Illinois School of Social Work.

“I am pleased that our FCAB Africa team is leveraging insights from our initiatives across the continent to lead the design, implementation and testing of the FCAB component of the project. We are helping to gather evidence on financially-focused innovations that can reduce vulnerability to human trafficking,” said David Ansong, associate professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work.

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

Creating opportunities through financial inclusion and financial advice

The centerpiece of the new project is an intervention to support youth, young adults and human trafficking survivors in building financial security at home. This means creating opportunities by improving livelihoods, financial skills and access to useful digital financial services.

“Unemployment and poverty force 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 locate evidence-based entrepreneurship programs that equip at-risk youth with skills and resources to support their economic development and reduce their vulnerability to human trafficking,” said Jamal Appiah-Kubi, a postdoctoral researcher at UNC.

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

“As part of this work, we will also consider consumer protection issues given the increasing vulnerability to financial fraud and catastrophic borrowing through financial technology platforms,” said Joshua Muzei, a computer science doctoral student at UIUC.

Through human-centered design workshops in Malawi and Zambia, the FCAB Africa team works with agency partners to identify and co-design contextually aligned livelihoods and financially focused supports. With these supports and other services, the team aims to promote access to capital, credit and knowledge for starting a business or securing another livelihood.

“When people have everything they need to build a life in their communities, they are less likely to risk crossing borders and relying on traffickers to find work,” explained Michael Sherraden, President of George Warren Brown Distinguished University and founding director of CSD. “By working with community stakeholders to build financial inclusion and opportunity, we can inform policies to support vulnerable youth and survivors.”

The intervention will be delivered in a randomized experiment planned and organized by the FCAB Africa team. All partners from both countries will work closely together to shape the final form. You will design and facilitate intervention delivery and evaluate the project with methodological rigor.

“The team has a number of ideas that we believe will be impactful – approaches that have been tried and tested elsewhere,” Ansong said. “But our partners in Malawi and Zambia will help us transform these into strategies that respect community norms and build on existing policies and practices for at-risk youth, young adults and survivors.”

This is embedded applied research. Human trafficking survivors will play a key role in each phase of the project.

Survivor Action Groups will provide input and guidance on developing and implementing interventions. In addition, the project will recruit survivor navigators – young adults between the ages of 18 and 37 who are at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking or survivors of human trafficking. Navigators will assist in intervention development and participant recruitment and provide support to participants.

Research partners from the Institute of Economic and Social Research at the University of Zambia and the Center for Social Research at the University of Malawi will collect data from participants, navigators and the action group to assess whether the supports offered are effective in reducing vulnerability to human trafficking. Collaboration with these research partners ensures greater project success, but is another dimension in building international capacity.

“As part of the project, we will adapt and validate measures of financial performance and apply econometric methods to tease out the effects of the different FCAB intervention components during the pilot testing and adaptation phases,” 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 work to reduce the causes of vulnerability and create opportunities.”

“If the project is successful,” he added, “youth in these countries will be involved in the game and have an opportunity to build something for themselves and their families without succumbing to the horrors of human trafficking.”

Okumu leads the collaborative development and testing of interventions that build on existing support systems and equip community members with the resources to serve migrants and mobile populations across Africa.

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