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Civil society engagement – what can we learn?

A key component of the Government’s strategy to address human trafficking in Singapore is to engage with civil society.  Most significantly, this took the form of a formal public consultation process where the Government asked specific non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and the broader public, to make submissions to the draft National Plan of Action on Trafficking in Persons (NPA).  As this has been, for the most part, new territory for both NGOs and Government itself, there is value in looking at the process to tease out where lessons can be learned to ensure that this relationship is given the opportunity to thrive in the future.

The Government has been discussing the issue of trafficking with NGOs for some time.  This has taken a number of forms, but was energised by the formation of the Inter-agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) in November 2010.  The autumn of 2011 saw a series of conferences, seminars and focus groups, convened by HOME and UNWOMEN, on trafficking in Singapore.  These events brought together local and international experts on trafficking, as well as members of the Taskforce.  It provided an opportunity for the conversation on trafficking, including what the Government should be doing about it, to be instigated in a public forum.

So what of the formal public consultation?  As mentioned, the Government are relatively new to the idea of direct public engagement; as such, there are not, at least as far as we are aware, defined approaches applied to formal consultations.  Best practice, in the UK for instance, focuses on the need for the process to be given a specific period of time, usually three months.  In Singapore, this consultation ran for 14 days – which is very short.  This has implications for the kind of responses that civil society can put forward.  It is no secret that NGOs, both in Singapore and beyond, are under-funded, under-resourced and over-worked.  A fast turnaround for a consultation response is hindered by a number of factors.  For instance, many NGOs are direct service providers and so may not have the relevant time to spend on policy submissions.  Similarly, consultation submissions often require a member of staff with experience of policy development or writing – these staff members may already have a considerable workload!  NGOs often require that responses are circulated to the Board, or their members, a process which can take time.  So, while a response can be submitted within this time frame, to make the process user friendly, there would be merit in increasing the time periods for consultation to remove unnecessary pressure from NGOs.

A good consultation process also needs to be well-marketed and ensure that the broadest selection of individuals and organisations participate and share their knowledge and expertise.  While emails alerting specific members of civil society to the consultation process were sent, and the consultation could be accessed on the Government website, this was not accompanied (to the best of our knowledge) by a broader outreach programme.  This meant that there was a danger that Government missed out on the opinions and expertise of groups and individuals not currently formally engaged in the anti-trafficking dialogue.  For instance, the experiences of healthcare providers, financial institutions and travel agencies may have been missed.  Equally importantly, the lack of awareness about the consultation process means that the voices of public at large were not heard.  That said, the buzz which emerged in the media after the launch of the Action Plan means that more Singaporeans are becoming aware of what is happening and hopefully more likely to participate in consultation in the future (providing it is made more accessible).

Finally, the document itself was only the broadest skeleton outline of the Government’s proposed actions.  There are two schools of thought on providing skeleton outlines.  One argues that details are not required.  At this stage the goal is to get the public to engage with concepts – the details will be filled in later – and the Government will at least consider the range of ideas put forward by the public.  The other school of thought argues that without details, no substantive comment can be made.  Yet, there is a third school of thought – a skeleton consultation document means that a government hasn’t considered the details! Although, there is no evidence that this applies here.

In any case, the lack of detail ensured that the responses were limited by the vagueness of the draft Plan and inhibited by the danger that responses became a wish list or a series of questions requesting more information, unable to be tied to anything more concrete.  It also meant that NGOs sometimes interpreted the same provision very differently.  On a more positive note, this open ended process allows for additional consultation as the Plan is filled out, continuing the dialogue between government and civil society.

Interactions with the TIP Taskforce in Singapore have shown that there is a commitment within Government to develop strong anti-trafficking measures and a commitment within the Taskforce itself to build a productive working relationship with civil society to facilitate efforts on this issue.  Going forward, it is important that these relationships are broadened and deepened and that the channels of communication between the Taskforce and civil society are cemented.

How have NGOs fared through this process?  The development of the NGO sector in Singapore has faced specific challenges and difficulties.  Currently the number of NGOs working on human trafficking is relatively small but growing as is the expertise on this issue.  It is a sector marked by the strong commitment of those it employs, but also shaped by the fact that a number of key individuals ‘learned on the job’ rather than have formal qualifications in areas such as community development or human rights law.  As a whole though, this is an energetic NGO sector, achieving real results, with very limited resources.

The consultation process showed that although trafficking is a sensitive and sometimes contentious issue, there is definitely space for civil society to work together in a more collaborative and transparent manner, enabling substantial results to be achieved with few resources.  To date, collaboration and united advocacy has been relatively limited; inhibiting efforts to push forward the anti-trafficking agenda.  It has also potentially meant unnecessary and unhelpful competition between NGOs as well as undermined commitments to transparency.

The collaboration process is slowly developing, and anti-trafficking provides a real opportunity for diverse NGOs to come together and push this agenda further with Government.  Taken further, NGO collaboration could increase both engagement with those who support these NGOs and public awareness on trafficking issues.  Increased dialogue and collaboration between NGOs will mean that in this space, each NGO’s specific area of expertise can play a role, repetition is avoided, and a clearer message can be sent to Government on the key issues.

This is intertwined with a need for more substantial public advocacy by this sector on trafficking, though a previous campaign by UNWOMEN should be acknowledged.  Only one of the consultation submissions is publicly available and some articles have been published on trafficking.  Increased advocacy by NGOs can build on collaboration efforts while maintaining each individual organisation’s integrity and independence.  These efforts should increase public awareness and engagement of trafficking and hopefully contribute toward its end.  This is an opportunity for NGOs to shine – both in terms of highlighting their existing work in this area and in the development of robust and effective anti-trafficking measures.

The channels of communication have opened both within civil society and between civil society and government.  This is welcomed.  The launch of the National Plan of Action was well covered by media and NGOs were interviewed by a number of media outlets, ensuring an opportunity for their message to be put to a broader audience.  Building a vibrant civil society, especially in a context like Singapore, requires openness and positive, honest dialogue with a range of individuals and groups across the sector.  Through this, public advocacy and broader public engagement can positively contribute to anti-trafficking efforts.  This is just the very start of the process.

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