Saturday, January 15, 2011

Interview With IJM's President Gary Haugen

Today there are close to 30 million people living in slavery. Almost half of them are under the age of 18. That’s more than at any other time in the history of civilization. During the height of the American slave trade the average cost of a slave, adjusted for today’s inflation, was 40 thousand dollars. The average cost of a slave today is only 50 dollars. People have become disposable. It’s no longer smart “business” to give medical attention to a hurt or sick slave. The savvy slave owner just disposes of them and buys or kidnaps another. This is 2011.
People’s lives should not be judged by their fiscal viability. But this is going on around the world right now, every two seconds a person is trafficked, that is, bought or sold into slavery. This crime of crimes, and yet so few voices crying out for justice; so few heroes risking their lives to abolish slavery. Where are the Harriet Tubmans of our generation? Where are the Harriet Beecher Stowes, the Sojourner Truths, the William Wilberforces, the Fredrick Douglasses?

Gary Haugen is one such modern day abolitionist, who not only cries out for justice, but fights for it. Whether it’s undercover investigating in a brothel putting together an airtight case for trial, or the subsequent raid to free underage girls from the tyranny of sexual perversion, Gary and his International Justice Mission team battle the evil of injustice with relentless passion and unwavering conviction. And although we're sure he would take exception to his name being placed alongside such great names of the anti-slavery movement, it’s important that there be a new batch of heroes for the younger generation to emulate, living, breathing heroes that can inspire us all as we battle a new generation of slave owners and traffickers hell-bent on gain by any means and power at any cost.

Conspiracy Of Hope had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Haugen and we found his answers tempered with deep wisdom, the kind that can only come from years in the field, and countless hours of deep reflection. We hope the
intensity of his words and the conviction of his answers inspire you the same way they did us.

Many abolitionists have said they experienced a “call”. How did you come to the
anti-slavery movement?

As a little boy, I came across a huge book in the public library about Abe Lincoln and found myself utterly enthralled with the horrific story of slavery in the United States. Lincoln described it as a great offence against God – and as a simple second grader looking at 19th century photos of scars across the back of a slave, that description seemed right to me. Then, thirty years later, Christian friends working amongst the poor overseas showed me pictur
es of a boy in leg irons in India and described brothels in the Philippines where young girls were held as sex slaves. I’d been raised with the simple command of Jesus to “do unto others ….” So, with these very personal images from my friends of very real slavery in our world today, the rest seemed quite straightforward.

Is there one particular historical or current abolitionist that you consider a hero?

Saju Matthew is a hero to me. He was born into a home of humble means in India – but
miraculously ended up graduating from an Ivy League school and became an elite lawyer in America who never lost a case. Eventually, he felt God wanted to do something greater with it all. So now Saju and his wife and five children have all returned to India, where he leads IJM’s struggle against slavery in southern India. His team of fellow Indians has embarked on the most significant, direct confrontation with slavery in 150 years – and despite the violence and corruption, I don’t have any doubt that their grandkids are going to grow up reading in their history books about the generation that eliminated slavery from India’s soil.

As a member of the UN’s Center For Human Rights you were in charge of the horrific task of gathering evidence against the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. This included the exhumation of mass graves of tortured victims. How do you keep from becoming desensitized to suffering?

By relentless focus on the humanity, beauty and infinite dignity of the individual person. Despite the massive scale of human tragedy, the truth is, human beings suffer, hurt and die one at a time. This is what the Maker sees and never loses sight of. So I seek to his vision and view of the individual. But in the midst of dark evil and human suffering, I also must intentionally and vigorously seek out refreshment in beauty, light, joy and laughter. Joy is the oxygen that sustains service over the long haul and keeps us from hardening our hearts against the pain of our own compassion.

Above, Gary revisits a massacre site in Rwanda.

What has been the lowest point in your fight against slavery?

The lowest point was at the beginning, when we got started in the mid-nineties. Very few had even heard of contemporary slavery. The term “trafficking” had barely been invented. And those who knew anything about it were pretty sure there was nothing that could be done about it. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It looks impossible until it’s done.” The hardest nowadays may be when a child rescued from a brothel is in a nice aftercare home but nevertheless perishes from AIDS contracted in the brothel. I don’t have a good quote for that.

What about your greatest day?

There have been a lot of great days. I will never forget meeting the girls that we rescued from brothels in Cambodia when they were 6, 7, 8 years old and seeing them as thriving, healthy teenagers in school 5 years later. Or just a day spent watching the expertise, courage and mastery of our indigenous staff as they lead the fight against slavery in their own community. That’s a pretty great day because the future of the fight is so well secured.

Is there one story that stands out from your years of fighting slavery?

Kunthy or Kumar’s stories both stand out- they’re both in the 10th Anniversary Edition of Good News About Injustice. (Kumar’s is on p. 143; Kunthy’s is on page 180)

There are an estimated 35 million orphans in India alone, with 18 million of those being homeless, what can realistically be done to get them out of the reach of traffickers?

The most important thing we can do, I believe, is make traffickers afraid of going to jail. We know the traffickers – and they are not brave. They only abduct and sell kids because they (and their buyers) think they can get away with it. If they think they’ll go to jail, they leave the kids alone and find something else to do. And it’s not that hard, because if the customers can find the trafficking victims (and they do), then so can the police. So when the police and justice authorities start protecting the kids – the fight is pretty much over.

Is there a ground zero for modern slavery?

There are a few, but I’d rather not alert the opposition at this point. I would, however, mention a place that I think is one of the ground zeroes in the fight against slavery – and that is Cebu, the Philippines. The Gates Foundation helped IJM establish a pilot project in this city to see if IJM could help local law enforcement actually reduce the victimization of children in sex slavery by objectively measurable amounts. And indeed, at the mid-term assessment of the project, outside auditors found a 70% reduction from the initial survey of the victimization of children in the commercial sex trade. This is huge – and we think the impact of the project will only be strengthened. The success of this project is bringing great hope to an issue where so many have been paralyzed by despair.

Justice seems to be at the core of your Christian faith. Do you think there exists a discontinuity between faith communities and their commitment to justice?

For a variety of reasons, there are some dysfunctions in our churches that insist on trying to put the commands of Christ – to love God and love your neighbor – in opposition to each other. Of course, what Jesus and his disciples have been teaching for 2,000 years is that we can’t do one the way we ought without the other – and we have really had to work hard over the last hundred years in contriving a teaching that would separate out the two. Indeed, Jesus put faith and justice together in Matthew 23:23 by calling them “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith.” Fortunately, I think this newer generation sees that separating love of God and love of man is ridiculous for the follower of Jesus.

IJM is very careful about not leaving a western cultural imprint on the rescued victims of slavery. How important is this for them in the reintegration process?

This is a no-brainer for us. The victims of brutal injustice that we serve are being re-integrated back into their own communities; they are not being transported to some foreign or western context. And our teams are exceedingly well positioned for this task because almost all of the IJM staff in the field are non-westerners who are simply serving their neighbors in their own community. Our indigenous staff own the mission, innovate the path, and make the commitment required to restore our clients to wholeness in their community.

Trailer for IJM's documentary At The End Of Slavery narrated by Danny Glover.

In the anti-slavery movement, is there presently an inordinate need for certain types of professionals?

What I see is that a lot of people know how to educate, teach and campaign about slavery – but very few people know how to practically go to where the slaves are, to get them out of slavery, provide a safe place of healing for them, and then see the perpetrators actually brought to justice. There is, therefore, a great need, I think, for public justice professionals (criminal investigators and lawyers) and social workers who can work in the world’s poorest communities to bring direct rescue and restoration to slaves, and then work with local authorities to actually send the criminals to jail. There is also a great need for community mobilizers in these indigenous communities where slavery is tolerated to change the local political will to do something about it.

If someone was only going to read one book on modern slavery, which one should it be?

Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures, and then Disposable People by Kevin Bales

There are a lot of young people wanting to enter the anti-slavery movement. What is the most important thing they can do to prepare themselves?

Be humble, patient learners – about love, from God. The struggle against the aggressive, resilient evil of slavery is far too difficult to be sustainable without the deeper transformation of the interior to a place of deep compassion, courage and commitment. The slave masters and traffickers know that the "do-gooders" show up late and quit early, and they’re not intimidated. What they do not have an answer for, however, is fearless sacrificial love that does not go away.

For more from International Justice Mission’s president and CEO visit


  1. Wow, thanks for sharing that wisdom with us.

  2. You are so welcome Rebecca! Thanks for sharing your sister's trip to Thailand with us.

  3. Great interview, Mark. Thank you ... for this and for all you do.

  4. Aw thanks Brad. My pleasure. Same to you brother.