Holly Burkhalter is a senior adviser at International Justice Mission.
Billionaire Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post, recently tweeted his intention to create a philanthropic strategy “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact” and asked his Twitter followers for ideas. I have one for him.
There are more than 45 million children, men and women in slavery today. They are a naked 6-year old slave boy on a fishing boat on Ghana’s Lake Volta, a bonded laborer at a brick kiln who has never left the factory and a 14-year-old girl behind a locked door in a brothel who suffers a dozen customers a day. A global strategy to rescue millions of slaves and dry up the crime once and for all needs a champion. Welcome, Mr. Bezos.
To get a sense of the depth and breadth of modern-day slavery, take a look at the State Department’s just-released “Trafficking in Persons Report.” Covering more than 160 countries, the report is a horrifying encyclopedia of suffering. It illustrates the enormous gap between laws prohibiting slavery — virtually every country has them — and their enforcement. The fact is, slavery flourishes in the year 2017 because buying and selling human beings for sexual or labor exploitation is highly profitable. Those who engage in it face almost no risk in most slavery-burdened countries.
But there is good news. Slavery is peculiarly vulnerable to the rule of law. When local police are equipped and mentored to investigate real-time cases of slavery and trafficking, they have a disproportionate impact on the crime. It turns out that traffickers and slavers leave the business when the risk of arrest and imprisonment goes up. My own organization, the International Justice Mission (IJM), saw this in Southeast Asia, where commercial sexual exploitation of minor girls was commonplace. Relatively modest investments in special anti-trafficking police units resulted in the arrest and prosecution of hundreds of pimps, brothel owners and customers. The prevalence of minor girls in the sex industry plummeted by more than 80 percent in IJM project areas
Last year, Congress enacted the End Modern Slavery Initiative (EMSI), a global grant-making foundation that will collaborate with national governments of slavery-burdened countries to rescue victims and prosecute traffickers and slave-owners. EMSI, which will receive its first $25 million contribution from the U.S. government this year, will be funded as well by private philanthropists and other donor governments.
It is notable that a fiercely partisan Congress nonetheless managed to enact a major piece of human rights legislation with real money attached to it. The reason it did so was because Americans from across the political spectrum are revolted by slavery and want their government to do something about it. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) saw the opportunity to do great good in the world. He wrote the EMSI legislation and shepherded it to final passage with the support of Congress’s most liberal and most conservative members.
And now we need a champion from the private sector. Bezos could be to EMSI what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is to the Global Fund to Combat AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Gates Foundation was one of the Global Fund’s first donors, and to date has committed upward of $1.4 billion to the effort. Bezos’s resources, energy and talent would provide the liftoff that the fledgling EMSI foundation needs, and encourage philanthropists and donor governments from around the world to join him.
Jeff Bezos’s tweet said he wants his philanthropic activity to help people “in the here and now,” as well as ensuring lasting consequences. It is hard for me to imagine a more urgent “here and now” than the life of a slave or a finer legacy for Bezos than bringing slavery to an end in his lifetime.