Home » Collaboration » Getting organised: the global challenges of collaboration

Getting organised: the global challenges of collaboration

Libby Clarke is a UK qualified solicitor who has spent the last five years working on various human rights issues, including the protection of asylum-seekers and refugees in the UK (with Refugee and Migrant Justice), the protection of the rights to equality and non-discrimination internationally (with The Equal Rights Trust) and, most recently, as a Senior Consultant to the Anti-Trafficking Programme at Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) in Singapore. With a long-standing interest in, and commitment to, the improved protection of the rights of disadvantaged migrants, Libby is delighted to contribute to the TTRP blog!

In November 2012, over 1,800 activists from more than 50 countries gathered in Quezon City, Philippines for the fifth World Social Forum on Migrations (WSFM). The objectives of the WSFM were broad, but essentially aimed to bring together migrant organisations and activists in order to build solidarity and strengthen unity in resistance against existing models of migration. As a Senior Consultant to its Anti-Trafficking Programme, I had the opportunity to join a delegation of staff, volunteers and service-users from Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) to participate in the WSFM. This post explores some of the challenges which arose during the event and highlights the similarity to the challenges facing migration-related activism, and specifically the anti-trafficking movement, in Singapore.

Challenges to Meeting WSFM Objectives

The WSFM programme was almost intimidatingly full;it would have been impossible for any one delegate to participate in each of the 64 workshops. Throughout each of the four plenary sessions, the importance of collaboration of various kinds – within migrant communities, between different migrant communities and organisations and between governments – was mentioned repeatedly. Given past criticism of the World Social Forum movement more generally, however, it is perhaps unsurprising that challenges to meet the objectives arose during the course of the event. The following stumbling blocks arguably prevented the fulfilment of WSFM’s objectives.

i)               Inadequate representation

Oscar Chacon of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities reminded everyone of the importance of migrant participation in discussions which affect them, citing the rally cry of “Nothing about us without us!” There was a notable lack of direct participation from current migrants, such as current migrant workers, participating in the discussions. The majority of the delegation from HOME, however, comprised current domestic workers, originally from the Philippines and Indonesia, who now work in Singapore. These women financed their trip to Manila by organising fundraising events in Singapore prior to their departure, and they felt hugely empowered by the opportunity to speak about their personal experiences and perspectives on the challenges facing domestic workers. Sadly, there seemed to be very few, if any, other delegations made up of current migrants although the reasons for this were not clear. As international human rights laws and processes increasingly focus on the importance of participation of rights-holders, the question should perhaps be raised about how representative the WSFM really was and what mandate it had to speak and act on the issues it addressed.

ii)             Conflicting ideas

Whilst any event bringing together a large number of activists from across the globe involves debate and disagreement on key issues, there was an underlying, yet under-discussed, conflict on a number of major issues. Edda Pando of ARCI – an Italian organisation promoting the Global Day of Action Against Racism and for the Rights of Migrants, Refugees and Displaced Persons – spoke of “divisions amongst civil society” for which migrants are currently paying the price. She called for the development of “a collective consciousness based on the principles of unity”. In response, however, Oscar Chacon acknowledged that divisions are inevitable, and that collaboration in spite of such divisions should be the goal, rather than unity through the eradication of such divisions. A precursor to this constructive collaboration is the ability to acknowledge and discuss disagreements in opinion and approach.

iii)            Disunity in Unity

The issues of migration encompass a broad area of activism in which discourses on, inter alia, globalisation, human rights, employment and development interact. Many diverse communities with different priorities are affected and the challenge of representing this diversity was well met by the organisers of WSFM. The conference provided ample opportunity for those with similar interests and priorities to meet and discuss their respective agendas in workshops which were focussed on their “issue”, however, the timetable provided little opportunity for building solidarity and unity, as per WSFM’s stated objectives, across different interest groups. Given the large number of workshops available, and the absence of duplicate sessions, individual delegates were only able to see a restricted snapshot of the discussions; the potential for “cross-pollination” and the sharing of ideas between interest groups was limited. This aspect of the event came under fire when the Manila Declaration, drafted on the basis of all of the discussions which took place during the conference, was read to all delegates during the closing session. The responses to the statement largely focussed on the fact that the majority of the workshop discussions which informed its content involved only a small number of delegates and did not reflect a true consensus. A programme which encourages delegates to sit comfortably in their respective pigeon-holes arguably misses the opportunity for dynamic partnerships to be formed and a broader unity to be developed.

iv)            Avoiding Practicalities

Whilst reference to collaboration was made throughout the WSFM, the discussions never moved out of the theoretical and into the practical sphere. Delegates therefore departed without any clear indication of when, where and how this all-important collaboration would materialise during the two years leading up the next WSFM in South Africa in 2014.

Although various calls to action were made during the conference, a lack of coherent operationalised details regarding these calls to action spoke to a negligent consideration of what it means to collaborate.

Calls to action were noticeably devoid of discussion regarding the following:

i)               Objectives: How will campaign objectives be determined and prioritised? What are the broad areas of concern which will have the most impact across the diverse range of interests represented at the WSFM?

ii)             Leadership: Who will be responsible for taking the lead – internationally, regionally and/or nationally – for devising and implementing  any campaigns?

iii)            Strategies: How best should the prioritised objectives be met? What capacity do organisations represented at the WSFM have to engage in a collaborative campaign, and how can available capacity be used most effectively?

iv)            Communication: How will participants in the collaborative campaign be informed of campaign developments and tasked with actions?

v)             Evaluation: What are the markers of campaign success and how will they be assessed?

Given the high level of commitment to collaboration voiced throughout the plenary sessions and workshops I attended during the WSFM, the addition of practical discussions on the issues listed above would arguably be the key factor in translating this stated commitment into action.

Relevance for the Anti-Trafficking Movement in Singapore

Having attended the WSFM as a delegate of a Singaporean organisation which itself has very specific priorities, it became clear that the challenges identified during the WSFM mirrored challenges faced within the anti-trafficking movement in Singapore. As a relatively young movement which has only experienced significant development since the establishment of the Singapore government’s Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons (the Taskforce) in 2010 and the launch of the National Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons 2012-2015 (NPA) in March 2012, there are many lessons to be learnt, particularly in terms of collaboration between key stakeholders. The following examples are ways in which the global challenges to collaboration identified at the WSFM can inform the progress of the anti-trafficking movement in Singapore, which, in Singapore, is inextricably linked to the issue of migration. Whilst research on the issue remains limited at present, this link appears to be rooted in (i) the processes through which many potentially trafficked persons come to be in Singapore which are largely those of labour migration; and (ii) the attitudes of Singaporeans to Singapore’s immigrant population; arguably a contributory factor to the context in which elements of trafficking are able to occur.

i)               Inadequate Representation of Migrant Workers

There have been a number of recent events in Singapore in which migrant workers have resorted to drastic measures to have their grievances heard. These events have demonstrated the inadequate representation of the interest of migrant workers, whether in unions, by civil society organisations or through avenues of redress. In November 2012, more than 100 Chinese SMRT bus drivers conducted a strike in response to the poor conditions in which they were being forced to work and the discriminatory treatment which they were receiving at the hands of their employers compared to other migrant workers from Malaysia. Due to the illegality of the strike, which did not involve any trade union (despite the right of the workers involved to be members of a union), the leaders of the strike were prosecuted and a large number of the participants repatriated. No information has been made available as to why the SMRT strikers chose this course of action, rather than pursuing union options, but one may speculate that a lack of knowledge, trust and/or inclination to engage in a process which they did not understand may have been responsible. Following the SMRT strike, on 6 December 2012, two Chinese construction workers staged a protest on top of a crane in response to non-payment of salary by their employer. They were subsequently charged with criminal trespass. Migrant workers, many of whose cases demonstrate indicators of labour exploitation and trafficking, have grievances which are being inadequately addressed despite legislation – including the Employment Act and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act – to provide protection.

The voices of migrant workers are also not being represented in discussions which affect them. A recent meeting hosted by the Taskforce for civil society organisations and other stakeholders – such as academics and corporate sector representatives – to discuss progress made under the NPA during 2012 was not attended by any migrant workers, demonstrating a lack of commitment to the requirement of “participation” emphasised increasingly by the international human rights community.

ii)             Conflict and Disunity

In the NPA, the Taskforce included “partnership” as one of the four elements – or “Ps” – of its strategy to address trafficking. This references the need for collaboration with civil society organisations, the corporate sector and the governments of source countries to achieve success. Discussions amongst these key stakeholders highlight significant divergence in opinion regarding not only the extent of the issue in question and the definition of human trafficking per se, but also what actions would be most effective in meeting those objectives.

A key example of such divergence of opinion relates to the issue of research. A few civil society organisations and researchers – including HOME and The Trafficking Research Project – have highlighted the importance of research as a crucial starting point for any action to address trafficking in Singapore, particularly to establish the nature and extent of the issue. Calls were also made by civil society representatives for a discussion to take place between direct service providers and the Taskforce regarding the establishment of a case referral mechanism. Service providers for potentially trafficked persons are concerned to establish a mechanism in partnership with the government through which their service-users can access the necessary assistance afforded to trafficked persons, particularly in relation to protection and prosecution. Despite these clear calls for action, however, the Taskforce has recently confirmedthat proposals submitted mid-2012 by a range of stakeholders on research programmes have been shelved in favour of a public awareness-raising campaign. Further, it announced during a meeting with key stakeholders in January 2013 that a case referral procedure is being developed internally, with no plans for discussion with partners during the development phase, and will be presented for consultation later in the year. There are understandable concerns amongst civil society that the procedure presented for consultation will, in effect, be a fait accompli, with little meaningful scope for contribution from those organisations which will be partly responsible for its implementation. It is unfortunate that the opportunity has not been taken to engage in a robust “partnership” approach to this key element of the government’s response to trafficking, given the value which those with grassroots experience of the issue could bring to the development of the procedure.

iii)            Avoiding Practicalities

Despite the rhetoric of partnership, collaboration and cooperation, insufficient attention has been given in Singapore on how best stakeholders can work together to achieve what is, ultimately, the common goal of improved protection for trafficked persons. At a recent meeting with the Taskforce, civil society representatives reiterated their call, made several times during 2012, for a formalised and practical approach to collaboration. This would include establishing regularity for meetings in which a shared agenda is discussed, rather than meetings called by the government in accordance with its own scheduling priorities,  defined by its own objectives.

Similarly, civil society organisations in Singapore have a lot of work to do to understand the nuts and bolts of collaboration. With this in mind, HOME and The Trafficking Research Project convened the first meeting of a civil society forum on human trafficking in March 2012 and drafted a joint statement in response to the NPA. The forum continued to meet with the support of other key organisations, but a clear vision based on practical discussions has yet to be established. The revitalisation of the forum and a development of defined goals and objectives should, arguably, be a priority for organisations working on the issue of trafficking in Singapore over the next few months. As is the case in relation to the WSFM, the whole will inevitably be greater than the sum of its parts and it is therefore crucial for civil society to unite to strengthen the call for the Taskforce to engage in meaningful partnership with a united and organised, rather than a fragmented and conflict-ridden, third sector.

Practical Suggestions

There seems to be global agreement that collaboration is a positive approach to activism. Yet, as demonstrated above, the practicalities of this approach must be explored, elaborated and agreed upon before action can take place and throughout implementation. For instance, research techniques could play a key role in informing operationalised collaborative actions. For instance, regarding the WSFM, a pre-conference survey could be used to assess (i) the motivations of individual delegates and/or organisational delegations in attending such events, (ii) their specific areas of concern, (iii) their willingness to engage in collaborative approaches (as this should never be assumed), and (iv) what obstacles they see, if any, to collaboration. Prior to finalising an event programme, this survey would ensure that targeted sessions addressing collaboration can include practical action.

Similar research would certainly add value to the work currently being carried out in Singapore. Members of the Taskforce as well as members of civil society, academics, the corporate sector and the migrant community could participate in a survey to determine (i) a practical understanding of “partnership” as referenced in the NPA, i.e. what should such partnership look like? (ii) the level of willingness to engage in such partnerships and (iii) any obstacles which may prevent effective partnership. Such a survey could be conducted by an independent third party, with no vested interest in the process, to ensure impartiality. This could be used by the Taskforce to better understand the motives of the stakeholders with which it has committed to engage under the NPA, and it could similarly be used by civil society organisations, to demonstrate interest, expertise and commitment to the issue of human trafficking. Finally, members of the civil society forum should consider an internal information-gathering exercise to establish whether the assumed mutual belief in the importance of collaboration does indeed exist, what such collaboration should look like and how any obstacles to effective collaboration – e.g. how the battle for funding, the imperialism of expertise and access to data – may be overcome.


  1. […] and our blog guests have previously highlighted difficulties within the anti-trafficking movement, and the NGO sector […]

  2. […] expanded our range of contributors.  Libby Clarke of HOME kicked off the guest posts for the year by evaluating the World Social Forum on Migrations while Meena Varma from the Dalit Solidarity Network discussed the relationship between caste […]

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