In a recent interview with Siddharth Kara, fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and one of the world’s foremost experts on human trafficking and modern day slavery, we discussed the evolution of his effort, the current landscape of these issues, challenges and opportunities to making progress, and much more.
Kara is also the author of the award-winning book, “Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery,” the first of three books he is writing on the subjects of human trafficking and contemporary slavery. “Sex Trafficking” was named co-winner of the prestigious 2010 Frederick Douglass Award at Yale University for the best non-fiction book on slavery. The Award is generally regarded as the top prize in the field of slavery scholarship, and Kara’s is the first book on modern slavery to receive the award.
Kara currently advises the United Nations, the U.S. Government, and several other governments on antislavery research, policy and law. In addition to several nonprofit board positions, Kara serves on the committee founded by Kirk Douglas that is lobbying the US Congress to provide an official apology for pre-bellum slavery. In 2009, he was selected as a Fellow for the acclaimed TED India conference. Kara has also written an award winning feature film screenplay on human trafficking set for production in 2011. Kara’s ongoing research into slavery around the world has been covered regularly by CNN.
Rahim Kanani: How would you describe your first encounter with modern day slavery?
Siddharth Kara: I first came across child labourers and bonded labourers in various sectors, such as agriculture and brickmaking, when I was a child in India. These early encounters made an impression on me, but it was probably my encounters in a refugee camp in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s that catalyzed my efforts in this area as an adult. As an undergraduate, I spent one summer volunteering in a Bosnian refugee camp near the Slovenian-Croatian border and heard numerous tales of genocide and sex trafficking. A few years later I decided I needed to understand how and why these crimes were occurring, so I set aside my corporate career and commenced what has now become more than eleven years of almost entirely self-funded research into all forms of contemporary servitude around the world.
Rahim Kanani: As you survey the landscape of these issues, what does slavery and human trafficking look like today?
Siddharth Kara: Slavery today functions for the same purpose it has throughout history: to maximize profit my minimizing or eliminating the cost of labor. Having said this, there are several key differences with modern slavery that make it in many ways more expansive and pernicious than ever before. First, slaves today can be exploited in dozens of industries that are intricately woven into the global economy, as opposed to just agriculture and domestic servitude as centuries ago. The costs of acquiring a slave and/or the time of transporting him or her from the point of acquisition to the point of exploitation are miniscule today as compared to Old World slavery. These and other dynamics make slaves more accessible, expendable, exploitable and profitable than every before. Whereas the average slave two centuries ago could generate a 15% to 20% annual return on investment for his or her exploiters, that same “ROI” today is several hundred percent per year (over 900% per year for sex trafficking). This is perhaps the primary reason why there is such demand among exploiters today to acquire more slaves through the practice of human trafficking, or what we used to call “slave trading.”
Rahim Kanani: What are some of the biggest challenges to ending trafficking and other forms of contemporary slavery?
Siddharth Kara: A lack of detailed understanding of how and why slave-like exploitation functions in various sectors of the global economy is a primary barrier to a more effective response. Much effort in the field of combating modern slavery has focused more on anecdote and sensationalism than on actual analysis of the problem. A paucity of resources deployed to understanding and combating slavery is another primary barrier. The US government spends 350 times more money each year to combat drug trafficking than slavery. This does not mean that we will end slavery by simply throwing money at the problem, but it gives a sense of the anemic level of resources that have been allocated towards this issue. And by the way, the US government spends more money to combat slavery than most any other government in the world, so that gives you a real sense of how big the gap is globally. Another primary challenge has to do with the inability of activists in the field to catalyze a more unified grassroots movement to combat the issue. The antislavery movement remains highly fragmented, and as a result, its ability to mobilize social opinion and lawmakers on the issue has been hampered.
Rahim Kanani: Have we made any progress in the last decade and if so, what’s changed?
Siddharth Kara: Without question we have made progress. The primary area of progress relates to a massive increase in awareness of the issue. When I started my research in 2000, very few people knew about human trafficking and contemporary slavery. Since that time, there have been many films and TV shows about the issue, many new organizations created to combat slavery, many new laws passed around the world to do the same, and an overall increase in general knowledge of the issue. However, not all awareness is good awareness, and at times the awareness raised has been sensational, inaccurate, and more focused on personal or organizational gain. Another area of improvement has to do with the engagement of the commercial sector on the issue. More and more companies in several industries have become aware of human trafficking and have taken modest steps to understand and combat the issue. This is a good sign that, if continued, promises to be very beneficial to the field. Finally, charitable foundations and governments have been providing more funding to research and combat human trafficking, and while the gap between supply and demand of resources remains very wide, at least it has closed somewhat in the last decade.
Rahim Kanani: As one of the world’s foremost experts on modern day slavery and human trafficking, what are some of the leadership lessons you have learned over the years?
Siddharth Kara: The main task that I have taken upon myself has been to continue providing the best analysis I can of various aspects of contemporary human servitude. I believe that my work has helped shift the needle away from the anecdotal and towards the scholarly, which has been an important shift in the field as we try to move beyond general awareness and towards actual detailed analysis and understanding of how to combat these crimes more effectively. In particular, recognizing that sex trafficking is different from labor trafficking is different from debt bondage is different from organ trafficking, and analyzing how these sectors functions as businesses in the context of the global economy has provided interesting insights into the kinds of policies, laws, and tactics that can be more effective at combating each type of slave-like exploitation more effectively.
Rahim Kanani: With respect to influence and pressure, what have you learned about the world of advocacy?
Siddharth Kara: In a crowded global human rights agenda, the primary lesson for antislavery advocacy has been to base that advocacy on sound research and analysis. Anecdote is not sufficient to secure adequate resources and move high-level policy. Many governments that I have met with have expressed a keen interest to do more about the issue and have regretted that lack of reliable knowledge and analysis on which they can base persuasive arguments that certain laws needs to be passed or certain resources need to be allocated, especially during challenging economic times.
Rahim Kanani: If you could point to a few organizations that are truly making a difference and moving the needle on this issue, who would you point to as great case studies of impact?
Siddharth Kara: Some of the most exemplary organizations that operate with integrity and are making a genuine and unique impact on human trafficking and modern slavery include Apne Aap International (New Delhi), the American Himalayan Foundation, Humanity United, HopeNow International (Copenhagen), Maiti Nepal (Kathmandu), Bandhua Mukti Morcha (New Delhi), the New Life Center (Chiang Rai, Thailand), Nomi Network, the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, La Strada, The Cuff Road Project (Singapore), Girls Power Initiative (Nigeria), and a handful of other local organizations in several countries from Mexico to Malaysia that are doing tremendous work.
Rahim Kanani: Lastly, and looking ahead, what is the way forward, and how can ordinary people contribute to this cause?
Siddharth Kara: The first thing ordinary people can do is to inform themselves of the issue by reading as many books that focus on some level of actual analysis as possible (admittedly, there are not many). it is also important for ordinary citizens to understand that many products they purchase everyday may be tainted by slavery or child labor somewhere in their supply chains on the far side of the world. These products could be frozen shrimp and fish, rice, tea, coffee, electronic devices, apparel, salt, matches, cigarettes, sporting goods, and numerous other products. Catalyzing a consumer awareness campaign around tainted goods and demanding that companies do more to certify that their supply chains are untainted by slave-like labor exploitation are important steps individuals can take today.
Rahim Kanani is a writer, interviewer, advocate, strategist and entrepreneur for global social change. His articles, opinions, and interviews with global leaders can be found at www.rahimkanani.com. In addition, you can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.