It’s a complicated thing… participation of internationals in collaboration activities 

Some time ago, me (Satu from HIWE project) and Minna Franck had an insightful discussion. Minna is a board member and the current representative of the International Working Women of Finland (IWWoF) in the HIWE project’s steering group. We started to chat about the potential problems of collaboration – both from the perspectives of individuals and NGOs – as well as the role of the organizations of internationals in general. That was an eye-opening discussion for me. Here is a brief summary of what was discussed. 

Intro: our motives for inviting internationals to collaboration 

We try to ‘live as we preach’ in our own research activities to ensure the participation of highly skilled internationals throughout the process. We have asked internationals to join our co-creation processes in several roles, we have learned about their experiences through interviews, and we have invited a representative of the IWWoF to our steering group. 

Why did we want to have a representative of internationals’ organization involved? Three main motives can be recognised. The most important was increasing the relevance of our findings through their insights. Secondly, opening a communication channel to internationals that they represent, and thirdly, to be honest, increasing the odds to get funded. In addition to this organizational cooperation, direct collaboration with internationals whose life, employment, and participation opportunities we are studying had foremost importance in securing that the multiplicity of their experiences and their needs become rightfully articulated. 

Potential problems of collaboration from internationals’ perspective 

Satu: In what kind of initiatives of other organizations has IWWoF participated? 

Minna: Over the years we’ve had different types of collaboration partners. We have, for example, collaborated with municipalities and other types of public organizations, other organizations for and by internationals, and large and small private businesses.  

We have participated in or been the primary actor in awareness-raising campaigns or events, mentoring projects, educational or informational events and webinar series, hackathons, and networking events. 

Satu: What are your main motives to participate in those? 

Minna: We always base our decision to participate on our core mission which is to empower and support each other (international women in Finland) through our shared work experiences and ambitions. This means that we participate in projects that somehow advance the professional interests of our community, international women in Finland.  

As the years have passed, we have become more selective in our projects. Primarily that’s because we have become more knowledgeable about what goes on in Finland around our core interest, who the different actors are, and what our own resources are. We’ve become better at evaluating the benefits of participation and how exactly a proposed project benefits our community.  

Satu: What problems do you recognize in the current ways of collaboration or citizen participation in this area? 

Minna: I think there are several problems. When we first started as an organization there weren’t as many actors working to advance the cause of internationals as there are today. The increase in the number of actors and the amount of public money is naturally a good thing.  

However, this increase hasn’t translated into direct support of internationals and their organizations. Instead, there are now many more funded projects asking for more free labour from internationals. There are more events, workshops, surveys, studies, and projects where internationals are asked to give their expertise and points of view for free and sit across from Finns getting paid to be in these same events. And by getting paid I mean that they are in positions where a part of their job is to opine on these issues and/or listen to the volunteer internationals. Often it might be that the only ones volunteering their time are the internationals while Finns are getting paid a salary. There are clear ethical problems with this. Additionally, those who are getting paid increase their professional credibility and expertise through this participation. For volunteers, participation doesn’t necessarily translate into such direct professional benefits.   

Image of a dictionary defining words close to collaboration

Another problem is that sometimes partnership requests seem more of an afterthought than a general desire to collaborate with us. Sometimes they even feel like an attempt to benefit from our resources (people, their time and expertise, as well as access to our community). Funding programs often require or expect applicants to collaborate with NGOs and that’s when they think of us. Truly collaborative programs start from the premise that they should benefit all parties, that all parties should have a say about the means and goals of the project, and that project funding is fairly distributed based on tasks and responsibilities. This is very much the same type of gatekeeping and equal treatment problem as the first one I mentioned.  

Funny enough I think this is more of a problem with public organizations than with private businesses. Public projects and entities are perhaps so content with the idea of working for the benefit of the international community that they don’t see that they are actually upholding structures of inequality and functioning as gatekeepers. In their desire to include they are somewhat blind to their own practices of exclusion.  

Satu: Do you see some challenges in societal participation that are specific for organizations of internationals? 

Minna: The public sector in Finland has a long and well-functioning tradition of collaboration with NGOs.  There are also various funding possibilities for such NGOs (although the current government is reducing that funding). However, the way that the rules for such collaboration and funding possibilities are explicitly or implicitly written often means that the organizations of internationals are excluded. This may have to do with not being established or stable enough yet. It also has to do with language issues. Perhaps a particular funding agency or program only accepts Finnish-language applications. Or perhaps it expects documents in a very specific bureaucratic format or language that requires years to master even for a fluent Finnish speaker. The established public-NGO collaboration practices keep out those who are new to the written and unwritten rules of this collaboration.  

In this whole context, then, there are many structures, practices, and individual situations that if not result in, at least reflect inequalities and exclusion. I highly appreciate, though, the openness and interest with which you and the HIWE project engaged in this conversation with me and IWWOF. It indicates that we, people who are active in this field, are ready to discuss these problems and find solutions to them. This gives me hope.  

Satu: Many thanks Minna for this insightful discussion!  

Authors: Satu Aaltonen, HIWE project & Minna Franck, International Working Women of Finland