GCM’s whole-of-society pathway to global migration governance:
Not all societal actors are created equal
Forum on the Partnership Principle in the UN Global Compact on Refugees
Contribution by Prof. Jorge V. Tigno, Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines, Diliman
20 March 2023
A Non-Traditional Approach to Global Migration Governance
The Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (otherwise known as GCM) offers a unique approach to managing international migration. GCM provides an issue-resolution modality that’s unlike any traditional intergovernmental track. While traditional pathways in the United Nations system aimed at addressing international issues involves states predominantly, GCM processes feature a more flexible and highly inclusive mode of engagement.
GCM rightly recognizes the reality that migration is a complex phenomenon and addressing its challenges requires the understanding and cooperation of various state and non-state actors across the spectrum of society. One of GCM’s ways of addressing the complexities of international migration is by adopting a cross-cutting guiding principle called the whole-of-society approach. This approach involves the promotion of ‘broad multi-stakeholder partnerships… [that include] migrants, diasporas, local communities, civil society, academia, the private sector, parliamentarians, trade unions, national human rights institutions, the media and other relevant stakeholders’ (GCM Resolution 15(j)).
GCM has (along with its predecessor, the Global Forum on Migration and Development or GFMD) made significant headways in promoting norms and good migration governance practices that are all-inclusive in character. Through its whole-of-society approach, GCM has managed to open spaces for multisectoral dialogue previously closed or ignored by state authorities. There are now these, as Stefan Rother (2022) notes, ‘invited’ and ‘invented’ spaces for representatives of civil society to participate and engage other more official actors in the GCM process that also allow for the potential to reshape current global norms, standards, and practices. As a non-traditional process, the whole-of-society approach can be a model for other global platforms where partnerships have the potential to be owned by the participants themselves making them more effective in the long run.
The Philippines and Migrant CSOs
It bears mentioning at this point that GCM’s non-traditional pathway to global migration governance is premised to a large extent on the participation of civil society. Migrant civil society organizations (CSOs) have played a key role both in terms of bringing issues up to the attention of Member States and also in proposing alternative directions for migration governing bodies to consider.
The Philippines has been seen as a key player in GCM processes for several reasons. It’s recognized as one of GCM’s so-called champion countries able to generate insights, lessons, and good practices that can be shared with and emulated by other Member States. The Philippines has had one of the longest- (if not the longest-) running overseas employment programs in the world. Its labor migration policy was officially established back in 1974 and continues to this day with the creation in 2022 of a Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) thus further cementing the country’s position as a migrant-sending authority.
The Philippines, especially since 1986, has seen the proliferation of thousands of CSOs seeking to represent the various marginalized sectors of society. Many of these non-governmental entities operate to address the needs of Filipino overseas migrants and their families. The national migration network from the Philippines taking part in GCM processes is made up of various groups and sectors ranging from migrant CSOs, private entity associations, government representatives (both local and national), academics, among many others. Without a doubt, the participation of such groups from the Philippines have contributed much to enriching the discourse on the global governance of migration. Moreover, the Philippines has served to inspire and partner with other migrant groups in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond towards making CSOs a potent sector in GCM processes.
Migrant civil society networks in the Philippines have always been active players in efforts to craft a global migration management framework. At the 2008 Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), for instance, ‘the Philippines had already begun a consultative process with its domestic civil society, which likely influenced the GFMD chair’s agenda-setting’ (Bloom 2017: 17).
Unpacking the Whole-of-Society Framework
In the whole-of society framework, not all societal actors are created equal. There is a need to unpack how migrant CSO efforts have made an actual impact on GCM processes and targets in relation to other non-state actors. How have migrant CSOs fared in the cacophony of voices that are heard in a whole-of-society setting? Furthermore, what kinds of CSO voices are heard in such GCM processes? I would argue that GCM has yet to incorporate the interests of migrant CSOs effectively and fully, let alone the voices of the migrants themselves.
Nevertheless, much of the CSO engagements in GCM whole-of-society processes have been touted as positive and have led to public pronouncements that seem to be headed in the direction of good migration governance. But how has this whole-of-society modality been put into actual practice? How has the accommodation of CSOs encouraged the migrants themselves to speak on their own behalf? Raising such questions is important given the fact that ‘society’ is multifaceted, broad, diverse, and in many cases, conflicted.
In theory, these whole-of-society-guided platforms provide an opportunity for CSOs to contribute to the intergovernmental process. In practice, however, these spaces can and do pose numerous challenges especially in relation to addressing the basic roots of the problems of migrants. While the whole-of-society approach can be seen as an opportunity for CSOs to be heard and to dialogue with governments and to put them to task to commit to the GCM’s goals, it can also pose a major challenge for CSOs jostling for position relative to a multitude of other non-state actors.
Commenting on this all-inclusive guiding principle, Stephane Jaquemet (2022) finds this approach problematic because of how loosely and vaguely it is framed, essentially leaving everything to the imagination and interpretation of states and non-state actors. Such mixed interpretations can lead to differences in expectations and misunderstandings between Member States and CSOs.
CSOs Navigating an All-Inclusive Process
The whole-of-society dialogue process can pose both a welcome opening as well as a challenge to many migrant CSOs. There are those organizations that manage to traverse this all-inclusive terrain while there are those that sense obstacles in it.
On the one hand, there is Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), a Philippines-based umbrella network of migrant organizations, trade unions, NGOs, and individual advocates, that has actively taken part in consultative initiatives with migrant networks elsewhere in Asia on the extent of GCM implementation. It has also participated in efforts to draft the Compact’s implementation report and can be seen as a major cooperation player in GCM processes.
On the other hand, there is Migrante International, a Filipino alliance of grassroots migrant organizations more critical of GCM’s goals and processes. At the multi-stakeholder meeting on GCM held outside the UN Headquarters on 16 May 2022, Joanna Concepcion of Migrante International criticized the Philippines’ labor export policy as a development strategy intended for the state to profit from the exploitation of its labor migrants. Like all other groups critical of the Compact’s overall agenda, Concepcion decried how the role of grassroots migrant organizations and, more importantly, the ‘voices, struggles, and experiences’ of the migrants themselves have been ‘diminished’ in defining the migration governance discourse. She states further that: ‘[W]e did not hear governments holding themselves accountable to the human rights crises faced by migrants on the ground’ (See Reflections of Grassroots Migrants and Migrants’ Rights Advocates 2022).
Part of the frustration of some CSOs is their perception that Member States are simply choosing the issues that they would like to take up and that the migrant organizations themselves have little say in determining the agenda of the proceedings. Such frustrations are to be expected in an all-inclusive process where everyone is welcome.
Some migrant organizations have grown frustrated with GCM. Their frustrations have reached a point where they have organized their own alternative grassroots-based spaces for confronting the issues outside of the CSO ‘side events’ to the GCM process. One was organized by the International Migrants Alliance (IMA) as a parallel outside event to the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) in May 2022 on the extent of GCM implementation. IMA is a global alliance that believes in the power of the migrants themselves to articulate their own issues and demands and provides them with spaces where they can speak for themselves.
GCM is Just a Space
At the end of the day, GCM offers spaces for all sectors of all stripes to come together to address the question of how to manage global migration. These spaces have been utilized by various groups to the widest extent possible within an intergovernmental platform setting.
While many migrant CSOs have looked at GCM as an opportunity where they can be heard, it cannot be denied that there are also those CSOs that look upon the whole-of-society approach to be more as an impediment. One challenge is to understand and speak the language of diplomacy. Many grassroots migrant organizations have been used to a more direct and confrontational approach which may not be wholly suited in intergovernmental and multilateral processes that utilize more diplomatic language. Not all migrant organizations have that kind of capacity or expertise to convey their positions in a non-confrontational tone.
Moreover, despite their grassroots agenda, some migrant CSOs can find it problematic that the so-called ‘migration experts’ speaking on behalf of the migrants at GCM platforms have, in effect ironically, rendered the migrants themselves voiceless. As well, through the whole-of-society approach, migrant organizations would also need to compete for the attention of state actors alongside other non-state actors including private business organizations, so-called experts and academics, and the like. The biggest threat to this whole-of-society undertaking is when migrant CSOs begin to see their participation merely as a kind of audience for the prepared statements made by state representatives who merely choose the issues they wish to put on the table. In not a few instances, migrant organizations and representatives have reiterated the need to address the structural or root causes of migration. Yet Member States seem avoid confronting this basic question and to choose the issues that they would like to take up or the accomplishments that they would like to foist for themselves.
Finally, a key issue raised by grassroots migrant organizations is the need to effectively institutionalize the freedom of association of migrants and to bargain collectively in their own behalf. Self-organization is key to effectively upholding the rights and welfare of the migrants so that they will not be dependent on the rather paternalistic generosity and benevolent understanding and goodwill of states.
Migrant CSOs taking part in the GCM process need to confront the prospect that not all their voices are going to be heard (much less followed) in their entirety given state realpolitik and also in conjunction with the multitude of other voices being heard in an all-inclusive arrangement. To paraphrase Joel Migdal (1988) in his classic work Strong Societies and Weak States — Migrant CSOs in inter-governmental arrangements like GCM are like big rocks thrown into a small pond – they make waves from end to end but rarely catch any fish.
Bloom, T. (2017). ‘The Critical Role of Civil Society in the Development of Global Migration Governance Frameworks’, Policy Report prepared by Tendayi Bloom (The Open University) for the United Nations University (UNU); commissioned by the UNU Institute for Globalization, Culture and Mobility in Barcelona, Spain, https://gcm.unu.edu/publications/policy-reports/the-critical-role-of-civil-society-in-the-development-of-global-migration-governance-frameworks.html.
Jaquemet, S. (2022). ‘Are the Global Compact for Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees Opening a New Chapter in the Relationship Between Civil Society and Governments?’ ASILE Forum on Partnership Approaches, 5 July, https://www.asileproject.eu/are-the-global-compact-for-migration-and-the-global-compact-on-refugees-opening-a-new-chapter-in-the-relationship-between-civil-society-and-governments/.
Migdal, J. S. (1988). Strong societies and weak states: state-society relations and state capabilities in the Third World. Princeton University Press. https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691010731/strong-societies-and-weak-states.
Reflections of Grassroots Migrants and Migrants’ Rights Advocates on the First International Migration Review Forum of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (2 June 2022), https://www.karibu.no/upload/IMRF%20Reflections%202022.pdf.
Rother, S. (2022). ‘Global migration governance from below in times of COVID-19 and “Zoomification”: civil society in “invited ” and “invented ” spaces’, Comparative Migration Studies 10(1): 1—21. https://comparativemigrationstudies.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40878-021-00275-9.
UN General Assembly (2018). Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 19 December 2018, (A/RES/73/195) https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N18/451/99/PDF/N1845199.pdf?OpenElement.
UN Network on Migration (2022). ‘International Migration Review Forum 2022’, https://migrationnetwork.un.org/international-migration-review-forum-2022.