THE BLOG
04/02/2014 01:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2014

An Urgent Letter to Australian Billionaire Andrew Forrest

Dear Mr. Forrest:

I'm writing with great urgency in hopes that my meager voice might help correct a mammoth miscalculation. I saw the March 17th announcement that leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Muslim faiths had teamed up with you, Mr. Forrest, to form the Global Freedom Network. The express purpose of the initiative is to "eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking by 2020." While your objective is brilliant, the timetable is unfeasible. Please consider a very liberal extension of your deadline.

Proposing to eradicate slavery by 2020 ignores the enormous complexities presented by one of humanity's most persistent challenges. It ignores that slavery has likely plagued human kind without pause throughout all of recorded history. And, that it perseveres despite the triumphs of emancipation and abolition. It ignores that, 20 years in the making, the modern anti-slavery campaign appears to be losing ground to the crime of slavery, which now is called human trafficking -- a nomenclature shift that may have given years of cover to modern slavers while the public still struggles to understand a newfangled term which could more easily be described as old-fashioned slavery.

A proposal to eradicate slavery by 2020 ignores that we still don't comprehend the true scope of contemporary slavery. Despite having educated guesses on the number of slaves in the world (including one by your own organization of 29.8 million), the absence of universal agreement on definitions and terminology for slavery leaves no reliable method for measuring it.

I believe that efforts to understand and combat contemporary slavery more effectively have been hampered by a lack of careful thinking on these issues. Rather than sensationalize these terms and invoke them carelessly, scholars and activists must take pause to be more precise in their understanding of the nature and extent of contemporary slavery, including the definition and use of the term itself.

-- Siddharth Kara, Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia, 2012

A proposal to eradicate slavery by 2020 also ignores that anti-slavery activists have failed to work in unison toward common goals, in part, because a horizontally designed community is funded vertically and now appears like a city with three 2,000-story buildings and 2,000 one-story buildings -- gravity sees the anti-slavery establishment and licks its chops.

Proposing to eradicate slavery by 2020, Mr. Forrest, ignores the realities associated with legislative reform. It ignores that unsuitable laws and regulations are everywhere and behind each fix is a fight -- some more drawn out than others. It ignores that slavery is not defined in black and white terms and that gray areas mean debate. What we see as crime others may see as a right. Slavery exists on a spectrum and it won't be easy to confine that spectrum within the bounds of law.

Proposing to eradicate slavery in just six years doesn't allow time to develop and implement a system of training community stakeholders from law enforcement to health care workers to teachers. It doesn't allow time for students to learn the how and why of slavery so that each year when a new class of young adults graduates, it places another brick in the growing barrier that we build against this beast moving into the future. It doesn't allow time to change deep-rooted cultures of complicity that disregard, encourage, and participate in the exploitation of the victims of modern slavery. (If we begin now to teach boys about the positive contribution of reducing demand for prostituted individuals, how many years until we've flushed out the unenlightened? Until there's an understanding of gender equality?) It doesn't allow time to develop and implement solutions to the most fundamental contributing factor to the dilemma of human exploitation -- poverty. How will you eliminate the vulnerability of the desperately poor, numbering in the hundreds of millions, in a period of six years?

Mr. Forrest, please don't initiate a plan to eradicate slavery by 2020 because it will fail. If this stated mission comes from the advice of trusted advisors, you would be wise to no longer trust them. It makes sense to lead a movement with an inspirational idea, but there's no strategy good enough to make this one work. What worries me, and should worry others, about this undertaking, is not just that your enterprise will fail, but, because of the sheer size of your vision, it may come to define the entire anti-slavery community drawing other organizations into its orbit before it collapses. Here's where good intentions turn very bad.

A proposal to eradicate slavery by the year 2100 is one that makes more sense. It gives time to institutionalize solutions and allows them to germinate organically. By all means, use your substantial influence to raise lots of money to fight slavery, but distribute that money more evenly amongst the organizations doing good work around the world through innovative programs. Fund extensive research on slavery. Fund the development of long-term residency and care for the survivors of slavery. Fund education, both public and in the classroom, and begin to change the culture of complicity associated with slavery. Use your celebrity to communicate a new narrative about slavery that reframes our challenge: not just to seek triumph against the transient threat of human trafficking but a permanent liberation for the species from the dehumanizing grasp of exploitation.

Your mission is historic, Mr. Forrest. We hope you will adjust it accordingly.

P.S. to anyone else that might read this: Kindly forward to Mr. Forrest at your earliest convenience.