Collaboration between groups has been hard to achieve in the fight against slavery, but new partnerships are driving change.
The Guardian / May 21, 2013
by Cameron Conaway and Annie Kelly
Collaboration is not an issue that immediately springs to mind when considering the international fight against global slavery and trafficking. Yet in a sector so divided by geography and so crippled by a lack of funding, the ability to work together, share information and, crucially, resources has the capacity to transform the work of individual organisations into a global movement capable of tackling one of most complex and challenging human rights issues of our time.
Tim Waldron, chief executive of Love146, a UK-based anti-trafficking charity, agrees and says that the fractured nature of the anti-slavery sector has made collaboration a real challenge.
“The problem is that modern-day slavery is a labour issue, it’s a human rights issue, a migration issue, a criminal issue, and work on this extends from frontline rescue operations through to high-level political lobbying, campaigning and coordinating with partners working in often incredibly dangerous and tense environments around the world,” he says.
Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International believes that a sidelining of anti-slavery work by the mainstream development community, especially when it comes to funding and policy work, increases the isolation of individual groups and limits their capacity to build their own networks.
“Addressing the vulnerability of Dalits to enslavement in India means not only redressing their economic poverty but also challenging the caste discrimination and the lack of rule of law,” he says. “Human rights and international development should always complement each other. Only by linking all actors can the root causes of slavery be properly addressed.”
So why has collaboration proved so difficult for groups essentially all working towards the same broad aims?
“In the international world, there has been some good collaboration, but sadly much cross-working on this issue has historically been characterised by a lot of infighting and jealousy, for instance among the different UN agencies engaging on the issue of slavery or trafficking,” says Roger Plant, former head of the International Labour Organisation‘s programme to combat forced labour.
“The main problem is that they can’t agree on who can do what best and so trip over each other. Instead of resolving things, the problems have actually escalated when there have been efforts, as through the UN General Assembly, to set up coordination mechanisms. At the national level, some good collaborative tools have been set up on paper through things like national action plans, but it’s a sign that this is an issue where different bodies with different mandates, whether criminal or labour justice, don’t tend to work well together on this.”
There’s universal agreement that a lack of resources to combat modern slavery and human trafficking limits the capability of groups to work together effectively.
“They can barely service the large numbers of victims in front of them,” said Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labour Coalition, an organisation of 28 groups including Human Rights Watch and the National Consumer’s League, “and coordinating with other organisations, although vital, can be time consuming.”
On top of the issue of resources, the complexity of the crimes involving slavery, forced labour and human trafficking has meant that the movement, according to Marina Colby, director of public policy and government relations at ECPAT-USA, an organisation working to protect children from commercial sexual exploitation, “has suffered from some lapses in coordination when it comes to formulating a comprehensive local or national response to effectively identify and respond to the needs of human trafficking victims, or to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place.”
On a practical level, the knock-on effect of a lack of sector-wide effective collaboration can lead to pointless duplication of efforts and the waste of what few resources are available. For instance, one anti-trafficking group can be hard at work on a grant proposal to create a statewide database of shelters while a group within the same city has already compiled such a list.
Dave Batstone, president of Not For Sale, summed up collaboration within the movement:
“Collaboration is hard work because it runs counter to an agency’s instinct to think first of its own need for money and other resources. But cocooning your work in a social cause will prove even more costly because you will miss out on dynamic opportunities to grow your network and your influence.”
“Social movements are most successful when agencies can play to their strengths and unique competences and look for other agencies to bolster their weaknesses or gaps. Strategic alliances win important social landmarks; lone rangers win logos and egos,” he says. Yet in the past few years there are some positive signs that things are changing.
The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (Atest), the Child Labour Coalition and the Cotton Campaign are all examples of this new wave of cross-sector co-ordination. For example, Atest, an alliance of 12 US based groups including the Polaris Project, Verité and the International Justice Mission, has been praised for it’s work surrounding the Trafficking victims protection act through the US senate.
“I think we’re seeing a cultural sea-change starting to occur,” says Love146’s Waldron. “Social media and increasing recognition of anti-slavery and trafficking efforts by the private sector and public at large is certainly helping push this along. We’re beginning to see a more strategic approach to partnership working, with strategic thinking that is putting collaboration at the core of more long-term planning, which are all very positive signs.”