My first job out of college was helping the Department of State better coordinate its counterterrorism (CT) policies and programs with other government players, such as the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, and USAID. My directive was seemingly simple - encourage subject matter experts to agree to CT policy objectives for a region in order to ensure that we were working across the government to leverage each other's efforts, not to undermine them. Our primary concerns were maximizing our effectiveness and stretching our taxpayer dollars.
Despite the fact that the goal to create regional CT strategies was largely welcomed by my colleagues, few of the departments' funding streams were tied to these regional CT strategies. This meant that in practice, departments' programming rarely reflected our agreed upon objectives. Given the fact that I was not in a position to control purse strings, nor was I a senior official able to mandate collaboration, it did not trouble me when I was offered a different portfolio.
Years later, I left the Department of State to work on countering human trafficking at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a non-partisan, not-for-profit based in D.C., but part of Arizona State University. I had never formally worked in the NGO sector, so I assumed that coordination among NGOs would be closer.
I spent my first several months meeting with as many anti-trafficking non-profits, academics, and coalitions as possible trying to map out which groups were doing what. I noticed immediately that many of the players with whom I met were doing groundbreaking, inspiring work, but mostly by themselves. With a handful of exceptions, such as Humanity United's ATEST group, few organizations had ongoing collaborative relationships with other anti-trafficking NGOs or coalitions. I can't and don't blame any of them, as they are all under-resourced and under-staffed (true coordination takes a lot of time and patience!).
After talking to friends in civil society, and doing a little bit of research, I quickly learned that this dynamic is not unique to anti-trafficking. In fact, Stanford Social Innovation Review describes the need for, but lack of, coordination in the non-profit space in its Winter 2011 edition as "collective impact."
Large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination, yet the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations. Substantially greater progress could be made in alleviating many of our most serious and complex social problems if nonprofits, governments, businesses, and the public were brought together around a common agenda to create collective impact.
A sort of de facto tribalism occurs when there is a scarcity of resources, staff, and time, not to mention an overarching strategy or agenda. It reminded me of my first job, and it occurred to me that facilitating collective impact was not necessarily the job of the implementers, but of major funders and senior leaders in the anti-trafficking space. Few can argue with the premise that if all anti-trafficking groups share the ultimate goal of eradicating human trafficking, then identifying common objectives in the form of a strategy and coordinating to support this strategy would make all of our work more effective.
The largest single funder of anti-trafficking NGOs in America is the U.S. government. The U.S. government also has extraordinary convening power. Accordingly, I've become more and more convinced of the value of the U.S. government using its gravitas and funding power to facilitate collective impact among organizations working to combat human trafficking, including the various government departments.
Using an interagency working group, and with the leadership and input of civil society, the U.S. government could outline an interagency strategy to combat human trafficking. Existing models of the government generating broad collaboration include the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security and the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally, which both incorporated a wide variety of stakeholders. We wouldn't even have to start from scratch, as USAID has already produced an agency-specific Counter-Trafficking in Persons Policy on which we could build.
A multi-sector strategy to combat human trafficking could include clear objectives reflecting shared goals. Each government department and other major anti-trafficking funders could aim to resource against these goals and require that funding requests reflect priorities outlined in the strategy, as well as make a reasonable effort to coordinate with other anti-trafficking entities. This approach could provide the entire anti-trafficking space better transparency related to each other's activities and highlight shortfalls within the space (such as focusing on prevention). Most importantly, this approach could make a significant difference.
I've spent enough time in the U.S. government to know that coordination across the hallway, let alone with distinct agencies or departments, is exceedingly difficult, but not impossible. In order to increase the possibility of it happening among the government and NGO sectors, we should pick a specific and compelling issue, such as human trafficking, and give it another try.