walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 23, 2010
Fools Rush In

Regular longtime readers of this blog know about E. Benjamin Skinner, a former Team Mead research associate who has gone on to great things.  He wrote a book on slavery in the contemporary world, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery, which received the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction. In the course of researching this book, Ben traveled all over the world, meeting modern day slaves and slave traders in Asia, Africa and Europe as well as both North and South America.  These days, he’s become very grand.  He is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of Harvard Kennedy School, and a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. But his passion for fighting slavery and protecting the poorest and the most vulnerable among us continues, and this is the spirit that inspires the guest post below.

Ben’s first encounter with the realities of contemporary slavery came when he went to Haiti some years ago and negotiated the purchase of a young child from one of the traffickers who exploit the desperation of poor parents to ‘place’ children in homes where they are forced to work as domestic servants, beaten and abused in many other ways.  Over the years he came to understand how widespread this practice is, and how deeply rooted it is in the poverty and inequality of Haitian life.  The recent earthquake in Haiti not only created orphans; it has brought many more families into the destitution and hopelessness that can make placing ones child in the hands of strangers and hoping for the best seem like the only option. Ben’s reflection on the misadventures of the Americans detained in Haiti for child trafficking share one of my frequent concerns on this blog: the degree to which good intentions so often go horribly wrong when fools rush in.

In the weeks after the January 12 earthquake, anonymous Americans saved many lives. Keziah Furth, a 24-year-old Bostonian, had been volunteering with Angel Missions Haiti as a nurse to homeless Haitians for months before the quake. Despite barely having enough aspirin let alone sophisticated medical equipment, she had the skills and dedication to save dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives in the makeshift refugee camp near her Port-au-Prince clinic. Among those she saved, as I wrote about in Time, was someone who once saved my own life.

Free the Slaves

Of course Kez’s work, and the work of thousands of other well-trained American health care workers, military personnel and disaster specialists now in Haiti, no longer makes headlines. Predictably, the fool’s errand of the Baptist missionaries from Idaho has instead consumed the post-earthquake news cycle. On January 29, that group tried to smuggle 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic. Laura Silsby, their doe-eyed leader, claimed the children were orphans. The Associated Press now reports that all had living parents.

But for the media, these clowns fit the stereotype of the American do-gooding rubes, guided by God, unruffled by facts. They are a corny sideshow at a time when the main event seems far too depressing to watch. For the rest of us, there are some inconvenient but vital truths uncovered by their actions.

Firstly, there is no indication that the Baptists intended to enslave the children, but they leveraged the social isolation and withering poverty that enable human traffickers—those who recruit, transport or harbor slaves—to lure their human prey in Haiti. Prior to the earthquake, there were some 225,000 child slaves in Haiti, forced into domestic servitude, for no pay beyond subsistence. Without a concerted international effort, that slave population will grow in the wake of the disaster.

As I wrote about in A Crime So Monstrous, I was once offered a 12-year-old girl for domestic and sexual slavery in broad daylight in Port-au-Prince. The price was $50. The trafficker told me that he could easily convince parents to send their children from the grossly underdeveloped highlands of southern Haiti. It was from a similar vineyard that the missionaries harvested children from vulnerable parents. I did not pay for human life in Haiti or anywhere else. Unlike Silsby, I did not want to break apart families.

Secondly, their one-time legal advisor, Jorge Puello, a man with an Interpol warrant for his arrest on human trafficking charges, served as a reminder that the crime of modern-day slavery is not limited to Haiti. A native New Yorker, Puello is charged with luring girls from Nicaragua and forcing them into prostitution in El Salvador. In fact, human trafficking plagues every country, and today there are more slaves worldwide than at any point in human history.

Finally, the Baptists once more showed that simple fixes to complex humanitarian problems rarely work. Prior to the quake, Silsby had aspirations to build an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, but hadn’t even purchased the property. Nonetheless, when the quake hit, she sent emails across the country,  drawing together a team with no knowledge of Haiti, and clearly no respect for its legal institutions. Their stated goal was to “save” Haitian children, even if that meant imitating human traffickers to lure the children from their parents, then working with shady operators who offered to bribe officials in order to spirit them from the country. “Our hearts were in the right place,” Silsby told The New York Times after her arrest. Their heads were another matter.

Americans with their heads in the right place, former president Bill Clinton for example, understand that the only sustainable interventions involve helping Haitians help themselves. The United States has spearheaded the relief effort, leading donations that now top $1 billion. While that is less than 10% of what the Inter-American Development Bank estimates will be needed to rebuild Haiti, it will go a long way toward recovery if invested in the right way.

One faith-based American NGO that gets it right is Beyond Borders. This top-rated organization has over three decades of experience in Haitian child protection, and focuses on strengthening communities, not separating families. I spent months studying their partner Limye Lavi’s work to prevent children from entering child slavery. It’s painstaking and effective, and involves working to provide the rural education that the Haitian government has promised but never delivered. Currently, Beyond Borders is desperately trying to raise the funds to purchase 425 festival tents—at a cost of some $500,000—to replace the destroyed school houses of some 10,000 rural students.

With the rainy season looming, Haitian children need those tents. They can do without the circus offered by Silsby and her ilk.

[ Photo courtesy of Free the Slaves ]

show comments
  • Busterdog

    It seems to me that Haiti would be far better off with a thousand Sislbys running around than a thousand Bill Clintons. If you know that there are 225,000 slaves in Haiti, that means you probably know where many of them are. The failure then is a government (and a society) that obviously tolerates slavery. I am sure the arrests were a godsend to the government who could claim to be doing something about child trafficking. The same government which is obviously turning a blind eye to real traffickers.
    It is wonderful to them, I am sure that the arrests were of the Left’s favorite Bete Noir, white evangelical Baptists! Those same people who want a Theocracy in the good old USA. What better way to deflect criticism of the govt than this media side show aided and abetted by the NGO crowd like your guest author who want to hold some kind of monopoly on the whole do gooder business.
    The one thing I do know is that if those kids had left Haiti, none of them would have been sex slaves. They would have been adopted into American homes and their families would have ecstatic at the outcome. As they got US citizenship they might have brought their families here. I am sure that is what their parents had in mind. But no, as usual you know best. Poor people are too stupid to know their own interests.


  • Teresa

    Mr. Mead,

    I makes me continually happy to see those who address the issues with child exploitation, as Laura Silsby has so obviously tried to do. However, in regard to your posting, I would like to point out a few things and comment on them.

    “Predictably, the fool’s errand of the Baptist missionaries from Idaho has instead consumed the post-earthquake news cycle.”

    I have to disagree that this was a fool’s errand. Laura Silsby knew EXACTLY what she was doing, she just failed to plan it well. If you remember the WSJ article a couple weeks ago stating that Silsby, prior to the Haiti debacle, had big plans to open up a “runaway home” in Kuna, ID. My personal experience and research tell me that Silsby got the idea for this place from some very well-known fundamental preachers, or at the very least one of their affiliates.

    Totally setting the abuse topic aside, it needs to be noticed how much MONEY has been and continues to be made by those running unlicensed, “faith-based” church supported children’s homes here in the UNITED STATES! The exploitation of children and teens by these places is RAMPANT. All these directors have to do is load the kids on a bus, and travel to different churches begging for money so they can continue doing “God’s” work.

  • Quentin Todd

    This post has confirmed my suspicions that slavery is still rampant in contemporary settings, rich or poor. It also encourages me to continue to develop my desire to be an effective and caring foreign policy advisor, either for government or independent. I am looking forward to helping other people to see as you have done here.

    Thanks Walter and Ben.

    PS Walter: I have enjoyed reading your books for University. (am an adult student [50] embarking on a new career.)

  • Steve

    Mr. Skinner,

    Your problem is that, like so many other liberals, you see everything from a systemic viewpoint. You say that giving a handful of children a chance at a decent life is a fool’s errand because it leaves Haiti without a systemic remedy to the problem. We have heard the same argument with regard to school choice (giving a few children a chance to escape weakens the school system), abortion (abortion will go away when the system supports mothers) and other issues and, frankly, we are sick of it.

    People like you are busy inventing new societies. The Silsby’s, with a more realistic and modest self-regard, just want to help someone in need.

  • Big E

    “it (1 billion in funds ed) will go a long way toward recovery if invested in the right way.”

    Yes and if I had superpowers I could just fly over there and fix everything myself. However I don’t and the funds almost assuredly won’t be spent in the “right way” unless by “right way” you mean spread out among the corrupt government which exists for the sole purpose of protecting the 1% of the Haitian population that doesn’t live in abject poverty. So lets be honest, the odd’s of Haiti not being a third world hellhole 50 years from now are slim and approaching none even if the world gives them the $20 or $30 billion the UN and NGO dogooder network think they’ll need to “rebuild”. I’m sure the Presidential Palace will be much nicer but I doubt the average Haitian will notice much difference.

    In addition I found the scorn you heaped on the missionaries for not respecting Haitian laws to be particularly amusing. Certainly Haitian law and government has done a wonderful job of protecting the innocent and providing a stable civil society. So by all means lets work within the unbelievably corrupt and incompetent Haitian “government” to save the children. It will probably only cost us about $100,000 per child saved and thousands will die or be sold into slavery while we try to figure out who to bribe next but hey at least we wouldn’t have shown disrespect for the haitian legal system. In contrast buying children off the street for $50 from the monsters who sell them actually kind of sounds like a decent way to cut through the red tape. And we could keep a list of the slavers and reward them with a bullet to the head at some later date.

    It won’t solve all of Haiti’s problems but I’ll bet the kids that get out of that hellhole and get to go live in America will probably be pretty happy about it.

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