CALL FOR APPLICATIONS: Moving Beyond Paternalism: Supplicants, Saviors and the Politics of Anti-Slavery and Anti-Trafficking in Africa

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CALL FOR APPLICATIONS: An International Conference, 29th November to 1st December, 2017

Moving Beyond Paternalism: Supplicants, Saviors and the Politics of Anti-Slavery and Anti-Trafficking in Africa
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery is seeking applications from early career scholars, practitioners and political activists to participate in an international conference on anti-slavery and anti-trafficking in Africa to take place in Johannesburg later this year. Financial support is available to help successful applicants participate, and priority for funding support towards travel costs will be given to suitable applicants based in sub-Saharan Africa. Successful applicants will be required to pre-circulate a paper of around 2,000 words that speaks to one or more of the key questions of the conference (see below for information), and to participate in activities during the three day event. It is anticipated that all of the papers presented at the conference will be published on the Beyond Trafficking and Slavery online platform, and will also later be considered by the conference organizers for publication in edited special issues/collections. The conference will be a closed event involving no more than 40 participants. Most of these will be invited experts. Further information on the key themes to be considered, application procedures, and the conference organizers can be found below. The main working language of the conference will be English, with potential further provision for French. 

Supplicants, Saviors and the Politics of Anti-Slavery/Trafficking in Africa

The African continent has frequently been treated as a key site for formulating and testing a variety of models of humanitarian assistance, aid and investment, and economic development. These models have a long and contentious history. As is well known, European colonial rule in Africa was frequently justified in humanitarian and developmental terms, with the abolition of slavery playing a key ideological role in justifying unprovoked wars of colonial conquest on the grounds that colonial rule would bring slavery to an end. However, this self-proclaimed ‘civilizing mission’ was accompanied by far-reaching patterns of violence, exploitation and dispossession, including the systematic use of forced labor under colonial rule. One especially notorious example of this larger trend concerns the devastating atrocities of the Congo Free State, a colony whose creation King Leopold of Belgium justified to other European powers in anti-slavery terms. Like his peers, Leopold took up the self appointed mantle of ‘civilized’ savior, while Africans were portrayed as ‘backward’ supplicants in need of rescue, religious salvation, and paternalistic protection. 

This politics of paternalism has persisted to this day, playing a foundational yet too often overlooked role in shaping continental patterns of intervention and investment by both non-African governments and International Organizations. One of the most influential accounts of this new politics of paternalism comes from Teju Cole, who speaks in terms of a ‘White Savoir Industrial Complex’ that plays a major role in shaping the terms of engagement – or lack thereof – between the actors and institutions across the Global North and Global South. In addition to these general trends, we also have the most specific question of enduring parallels between the historical and contemporary in relation to anti-slavery and anti-trafficking campaigns, which a growing number of critics have challenged as constituting a ‘Rescue Industry’ which fails to sufficiently recognize or respect and voices and experiences of specific populations targeted for ‘rescue’. This critique is most advanced in the case of sex workers, where an important counter narrative calling for ‘rights not rescue’ has helped to highlight the need to thinking about alternatives to the politics of supplicants and saviors. Equally importantly, we also have increasingly prominent claims and campaigns for repairing the enduring wrongs of enslavement, colonialism, racial discrimination, and unjust enrichment. How and in what ways can this politics of rights and/or repair effectively challenge the politics of rescue? 

Efforts to move beyond paternalism must be able to articulate and defend compelling alternatives to the status quo. It is for this reason that our conference has two primary goals. Our first goal is to interrogate the ideological foundations and practical effects of this enduring politics of paternalism in Africa. While we are especially interested in the specific case of anti-slavery, anti-trafficking and forced labor, we also recognize that the politics of paternalism also has broader applications in relation to larger projects of human and economic development, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, which also need to be part of the equation. This broader canvas is important, because it provides a foundation for our second major goal, which is to contribute to ongoing discussions regarding what a non-paternalistic politics might look like, and whether and to what extent there are established models of better practice that might be refined and applied. 

Key Questions to be Considered:
    • How can the history of slavery and abolition in Africa help us to better understand the origins and operations of more recent claims and campaigns relating to anti-slavery and anti-trafficking?

    • What is the relationship between the politics of paternalism and anti-slavery/anti-trafficking rhetoric and activism? What have been the main consequences of this enduring relationship? 

    • How can concepts such as the White Savour Industrial Complex, the Rescue Industry and Philanthrocapitalism help us to better understand the formulation and implementation of anti-slavery and/or other related humanitarian and development projects in Africa?

    • What are the key political and ideological characteristics associated with binary oppositions between ‘savoir/supplicant’, ‘modern/backward, ‘civilized/savage, or ‘developed/undeveloped’? How have these impacted upon anti-slavery and/or other related humanitarian and development projects?

    • How have different conceptions of gender and sexuality impacted upon the politics of paternalism?  How do models of maternalism, sisterhood and feminism influence anti-slavery and anti-trafficking?

    • How do attitudes towards the market effect the politics of paternalism? How do attitudes towards the regulation, redemption and/or rejection of market forces play in shaping efforts to understand and combat forms of exploitation, violence, discrimination and vulnerability? 

    • How does the politics of paternalism relate to funding streams from the Global North? How does this political economy of aid and investment shape anti-slavery and anti-trafficking?

    • How do attitudes towards religion, revelation and redemption effect the politics of paternalism? How do professions of religious faith relate to different forms of anti-slavery, aid and development?

    • How does the politics of paternalism inform patterns of global governance in Africa, including key global instruments such as the Sustainable Development Goals and key global actors such as the US Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons?

    • How does the politics of paternalism relate to understandings of childhood and youth in both Africa and beyond, particularly in relation to the status of labour, kinship, consent and rehabilitation? 

    • How does the politics of paternalism relate to recent forms of social media mobilisation concerned with Africa, such as KONY 2012, and what would alternative forms of visual/narrative representation and online political mobilization look like?

    • What is the relationship between the politics of rescue and the politics of repair? Can forms of activism and analysis focusing upon the restitution of long-term patterns of systemic injustice, such as enslavement and racial discrimination, help to move beyond models of paternalistic protection?

    • How has the history and heritage of enslavement and the Transatlantic slave trade been preserved, promoted and remembered in Africa? How do ongoing efforts to commemorate the history and heritage of enslavement in Africa and the Atlantic World relate to the politics of paternalism?

    • How do visual, artistic and narrative representations of the history, heritage and legacies of slavery and abolition help to either consolidate or challenge competing approaches to rescue and repair?

    • What starting points, strategies, and examples of political mobilisation and solidarity are required in order to move beyond the politics of paternalism? What concrete examples of better practice are already in existence in relation to issues such as migrant, sex worker, labour rights and public policy?

How to Apply: 
The closing date for applications is Monday the 22nd of May. Completed applications should by submitted via email to Requests for further information regarding the call for applications should also follow this route. Applications should include i) a 400 word abstract introducing the paper being proposed for the conference, ii) a comprehensive curriculum vitae, including the contact details of three referees, and iii) a short cover letter outlining relevant experience and expertise (1 to 2 pages). For the purposes of this call, early career scholars are understood to include current Ph.D. students or recent Ph.D. graduates (within five years of graduation). Similarly, practitioners are here understood to refer to officials working on relevant issues who are (or were) based in government, international organizations, or corporations. Political activists are understood to be civil society representatives working on the same. 

Conference Organization: 
Beyond Trafficking and Slavery (BTS) is a multi-disciplinary team of academics and civil society organisations based in both the Global North and Global South. The project team comprises leading social scientists who are experts in the causes, consequences and experiences of ‘human trafficking’, ‘forced labour’ and ‘modern slavery’. BTS has existed since 2014. Its public face is the widely-acclaimed Beyond Trafficking and Slavery section of, a UK-based digital commons that receives over nine million visitors a year. The primary goal of BTS is to both better understand and effectively challenge the political, economic, and social root causes of global exploitation, vulnerability and forced labour. This conference is one of a series of international events supported by a recent grant from the ESRC (UK). 

Conference Organizers: 
    • Ana Lucia Araujo, Howard University (
    • Elena Shih, Brown University (
    • Joel Quirk, University of the Witwatersrand (
    • Sam Okyere, University of Nottingham ( 

This complete call for applications is also available for download as a PDF.