R. Evon Idahosa on Partnering with Survivors, African Solutions, and What Needs to Change in the World of Funding

In honor of this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we sat down with R. Evon Idahosa, founder and Executive Director of Pathfinders Justice Initiative, Inc., a ground-breaking social justice initiative that seeks to eradicate sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and girls in Nigeria. Evon and her team work directly with Nigerian survivors to tackle root causes and collectively build a best practices model for preventing and eradicating trafficking, unsafe migration, and exploitation in the developing world. Her commitment is to structural transformation of both the narrative and the economic landscape for a generation of African women who are confident in who they are and in the transformative power of the voices.

Here, she shares insights on a range of issues, including what needs to change in the world of funding, how critical local knowledge is, and how collaboration leads to effective and sustainable interventions.

On what needs to change in the funding world

“What I continue to see and find troubling is the ongoing colonization of funding, particularly by some international donors in the developing world who consistently utilize a top down approach. Insufficient education and/or an willingness to take the time to understand the nuances of what’s actually happening on the ground ultimately reflects the funders’ priorities — not the beneficiaries’. There’s also often an unwillingness, in some ways, to collaborate with those who are the stated target beneficiaries. Ultimately, I don’t think people are merely asking funders for money. Honestly, what we’re really asking for is authenticity that is reflected in collaboration and support and the ability to put solutions in place that we know are actually going to work. We are asking for a decolonization of funding that reflects trust in local, committed actors.”

On the need for local knowledge and solutions

“We need African solutions to African problems. One of the most stark examples reflecting the effectiveness of local knowledge and solutions was the March 2018 pronouncement by the Oba of Benin, a local traditional ruler and head of the Benin Kingdom (in Edo State, Nigeria) who called for an end to trafficking in Benin, an internationally recognized trafficking hub, by essentially freeing all trafficking victims and placing a ‘curse’ on traffickers. That single act, in and of itself, because of the authority the Oba carries, had two to three times the effect of the funding that had been poured into addressing the issue of trafficking and unsafe migration from Nigeria at the time.

Traffickers and recruiters alike immediately responded to the Oba’s proclamation, releasing victims and substantially decreasing the number of women being recruited in the Oba’s jurisdiction in fear of reprisals from the Oba. And so the idea of engaging someone in that position, who is well respected, well regarded, and partnering with them to put their weight and authority behind projects is the sort of nuance we need, as opposed to a funder saying, ‘Oh, here’s a bunch of money- use it in this particular manner because we saw this approach work elsewhere’. I think this is one of the things that urgently needs to change.”

On creating effective interventions

“When we have a proposed intervention that we’re endeavoring to introduce into a local community, what we do is sit together with the people who are ultimately the most affected by that intervention and ask for their support in framing it.

And so if it’s a campaign, for example, on ending unsafe migration in a local community where we’ve deemed it to be endemic, we cull the most credible messages in a group we call The Voice — which includes reformed traffickers, people who may currently be recruiting, survivors as well as women who were unsuccessfully recruited.

Because the reality is that most local traffickers and recruiters are really engaged in this illegal activity as a means of supplementing their income, what we try to do is close that financial gap for them. In exchange, they abandon trafficking and provide us with the necessary, real time intelligence that we use to frame and inform our interventions. Because they have the lived experience, because they are the most credible messengers, they lead the conversation, along with survivors and women who were unsuccessfully recruited. This unconventional approach has served to make our work not only innovative, but more importantly, effective.

On integrating survivors’ voices

“We need to ensure that the voices of survivors, of beneficiaries, are actually included in framing the issues that become the agenda. There has to be a collaborative approach that is not top down but bottom up — that’s how I think you move forward in strength, with momentum and with conviction.

So, regarding unsafe migration, for example, we must involve the local community itself and say, ‘We appreciate and trust that you understand the nuances of what’s actually happening on the ground. Can we include your voice in determining the proposed solution?’ When you do that, you carry the local community along- and that’s how you build accountability, and ownership and sustainability.”

On the power of uniting around a vision

One of the things I’ve seen a lot of funders do is say, ‘Okay, this is a pain point for this particular community, let’s find a way to unite people around their common pain, or common anger.’ But I find that what has worked for us is uniting people around a common vision — of what could be, as opposed to what is. I find that that is what really awakens the hope and faith within people that things can actually be different.

And that’s what we try to do for survivors, in many ways — it’s about helping them project in their minds what the future could actually look like, notwithstanding the atrocity that is their past. For me, that approach is what has led to not a single one of the 700+ women that we’ve created our personalized action to healing (rehabilitation) plans for — our PATH Plans — being re-trafficked. Believing in the power of transformative change that forecasts an alternate reality is how we walk alongside our survivors; it is this idea of entering in and journeying with, as opposed to handing over and moving on. That is how you change the narrative for African women and create structural transformation.

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