Ending Slavery: Book Review

Last month I shared a documentary with a youth group about the Karen people of Burma who are victims of much abuse, including slavery. We were moved by the stories of despair and hope and left with the natural and necessary question, “What can we do to help?” This question, which I have asked many times before, stuck with me again. While it’s a great question, it’s not an easy one because there are many things we can do that are not actually helpful. One of the youths suggested that first we get learn about the problem. And that’s what I realized I needed to do.

With that, I finally picked up a book that had been sitting in our bookshelf for a while, Ending Slavery, by Kevin Bales. In it Bales, in quite practical terms, lays out a plan for what we all can do to help end slavery. Kevin Bales is a greatly respected man, having researched the problem of modern-day slavery extensively and having met with slaves and anti-slavery workers around the globe. In his book Bales shares stories of slaves in Ghana, India, Japan and the USA. I was impressed by his knowledge and wisdom, insprired by his passion and resolve to see victims of slavery brought to freedom, and surprised by many of his findings.

Ending Slavery is a Process

With brutal honesty Bales shares the story of the end of debt-bond slavery in 2000 in Nepal. He himself was part of pressuring the government to bring an end to systemic slavery in the country, but could never have predicted the results when they got their wish and the king abolished debt-bond slavery on July 17, 2000. Although the law had been passed, none of the details, such as after-care and protection of slaves, re-distribution of property, or even the communication of the huge overhaul, were processed well. The results were devastating, leaving 40,000 former slaves as refugees with little support in the process of living free lives.

Sometimes we think that something needs to happen now, or that a simple law would fix everything, but the fact is that a quick fix often isn’t the best long-term solution. There are many factors involved in brining freedom and changing cultures and systems. Bringing full freedom requires everyone coming to the table, including anti-slavery workers, governments, businesses and entire communities.

Keep Eating Chocolate!

When it was uncovered in 2000 that cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast (one of the largest exporters of cocoa), the discovery sent shockwaves around the world. Afterall, no one wants to carry the guilt of eating a product tainted by slavery, especially not a treat like chocolate! Although some have turned to boycotts on chocolate to fight this problem, one of the more surprising things I learned was that quite often combatting labor slavery using boycotts isn’t effective. Bales pointed out while there are indeed slaves working on the cocoa, 99% of farms don’t use slave labor. Boycotting cocoa entirely hurts everyone, not just farms using slave labor. Instead, government leaders, chocolate companies like Hershey, Mars and Nestle, and anti-slavery groups have come together to take slavery out of their product.

Awareness & Resources

By the end of this book, my question remained, “What can I do to help?” Bales put it simply: the two most effective things that most of us can do is help raise awareness and to donate. “When Americans finally realize there are tens of thousands of people in slavery in the United States today and next to nothing is being done about it, an outcry will be heard.” Additionally, to give a small monthly donation to an anti-slavery group, such as Free the Slaves means that you will be helping further countless projects on the ground in many countries that free slaves, rehabilitate them, and support them as they return to (and help transform) their own communities.

“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King

Bales is hopeful that we can see the end of slavery. This book is filled with stories of children, families, and entire communities who realize freedom and become creative, contributing, productive citizens of our world. Bales invites us to imagine a world where we honor the value of each human being, and suggests that bringing freedom to slaves will in turn give freedom to us all.

Check out Kevin Bales’ talk at TED in 2010 below.

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