Women News Network / March 25, 2013

by Cameron Conaway

(WNN) Manila, PHILIPPINES, ASIA PACIFIC: Conference attendees tapped their pencils and ruffled through the blank pages of their new notebooks only to get to another blank page. As most international conferences, the July 2012 Asia Pacific Forum on Human Trafficking, hosted by Not For Sale in Manila, Philippines would begin a few minutes late.

We were all ready to learn, anxious to hear what the featured speakers had to say. Perhaps nobody was more anxious than me, as I would be live-tweeting the event and there were no outlets to charge my laptop. Oh, and because a highly-influential organization against human trafficking here in Bangkok told me they were refusing to go because they had problems with a group that would be there. I was on the lookout. Problems? Seriously? How bad could they possibly be?

When I say “ready to learn” what I mean is “ready to be taught.” There were hundreds of us. We were journalists, military personnel, musicians, psychologists, entrepreneurs, faith leaders, schoolteachers, doctors, NGO staff and laypeople all united in our want to end modern-day slavery. We had so many skills to offer each other and therefore the fight, yet we were all held captive by our ideas of how a conference was supposed to work.

“This fight is monumental. Not a single person or group here can dent the machine that is human trafficking. Working together isn’t something we should do. It’s something we must do,” was the mantra for the opening of the conference.

Collaboration might be uncomfortable

We were most comfortable in the role of passive participant: the speaker as sage on the stage and then us, gleaning whatever nuggets of wisdom were offered, nodding our heads in approval, catching snippets of phrases and jotting them in our notebooks or sending them into the Twittersphere. We talked to each other about the importance of collaboration but few actually collaborated. For all of two days, save for the final hour, the theme of collaboration floated around us like unseen dust particles. Each group came in together, sat together, took breaks together and then left together.

And so it was on the final hour of the final day that a local woman stood up and announced who she was and what sector she worked in. She rattled off what services her NGO offered to sex trafficking survivors then, in a move I can only describe given the context of this event as brave, she said, “Here are our weaknesses….” After listing them she said, “Is there anybody here with strengths to fill our weaknesses?” She was visibly frustrated, trembling and nearly moved to tears, perhaps at the larger horror of what she sees on a daily basis but just as likely by the absolute lack of collaboration among so many like-minded people. She came to collaborate and as the conference was about to end she about burst for lack of it.

Lack of collaboration kills

At the beginning of the first day I met a man from Manila who told me he was looking for funding to create a database of all the rescue shelters in the Philippines and eventually for Southeast Asia. As I was walking out at the end of the second day I overheard a woman from Manila talking about how her organization was nearly finished with such a project. I couldn’t find the man and didn’t catch what organization he was from.

To this day I wonder if their Manila-based organizations ever crossed paths, at how else that man’s energy could have been spent if he knew her organization existed. I felt sick. It reminded me of when I was researching malaria in Bangladesh and saw emaciated, burning-cold mothers dragging themselves and their babies to a makeshift, understaffed clinic where they were all diagnosed with the most deadly form of malaria. Meanwhile, brilliant malariologists sat bored stiff as they waited for patients at a hospital they’d been frequenting for years. The clinic didn’t know the doctors existed. The doctors knew nothing of the clinic. The mothers only recently discovered the clinic and had no idea there was a hospital. Such inefficiency gnaws at me daily because people have died and are dying of it.

The Practice of Collaboration

The 14th Dalai Lama often speaks about how happiness is a practice and takes practice, how we can exert control over its happening. The same can be said about collaboration.

How can linkages be created between like-minded organizations, between public and private sectors, among those offering services and those needing?


The art of collaboration should not be taken for granted as something we can all just simply do, as something that just happens. As the world continues to globalize, we must take seriously the idea of training and hiring dedicated collaborators – people whose job it is to create links, to troubleshoot weaknesses, to maximize strengths and foster win-win relationships.

There will be problems with this. Groups may be reluctant to work with one another due to fear of losing grant opportunities, or lack of time, or lack of energy or even because they believe in different approaches, but this reinforces the idea that collaboration is a craft to be worked on like any other. Those dying mothers could have had immediate care before they were on the verge of death. The man in Manila could have instead sought funding to build additional beds in his overflowing rescue shelter. A young six-year-old boy caught in a sex trafficking ring may have a better chance to lead the life he deserves.

In the field of human trafficking true collaboration is a terrain almost entirely unexplored.

The shining example is ATEST (The Alliance to End Trafficking & Slavery), which has brought together twelve diverse groups and as a result has had a significant impact on shaping public policies. They must be regarded as a beacon. We need more of what they’ve done and we need to apply it beginning at the community level and extending all the way to major international and governmental organizations. Each sector that works to combat human trafficking within a given community should, at the least, know about each other and, ideally, have each other on speed dial and communicate frequently. For collaboration to be something we do, it must also be something we’re willing to practice.