South-Western College Publishing - Economics  

Policy Debate: Do slave redemption programs reduce the problem of slavery?


Issues and Background

The civil war in Sudan has seen southern villages raided -- the men killed, the women and children taken north as slaves. Slavery involves both a practice and victims, and there are both simple and more complex approaches to the issue...
  • You can simply focus on eliminating the practice of slavery.
  • You can simply purchase freedom for slaves.
  • Or you can deal with both aspects of the issue -- you can work to build international pressure against slavery, in the meantime freeing slaves in the safest possible way.
~Christian Solidarity International (CSI) - Canada,


Slave redeemers enrich every element of the trade: raiders, owners, and traders. Once, the main objective of roving militias and Baggara raiders was simply war booty: goats, cattle, and other valuables, with a few slaves taken to make a little extra money on the side. The price of a slave rose to $300, however, and slaves became the focus of the raids. By the mid-nineties supply had outpaced demand, and prices began to fall -- to about $100 in 1995 and then to $15 in 1997. Plunging prices threatened to put the traders out of business: paying and arming raiders, and feeding and watering their horses in a dry region, is very expensive.

What seems to have kept the slave business afloat is the high prices paid by the slave redeemers. Though redemption prices also fell, they stayed far above the $15 paid in slave markets. CSI, according to its publications, paid the equivalent of about $100 for each freed slave from 1995 to 1997 and since then has paid about $50. In effect the redeemers are keeping prices high and creating a powerful incentive for raids.
~Richard Miniter, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1999


In the U.S. and other industrialized countries, slavery is generally viewed as a part of the distant past. Slavery, however, still exists in some parts of the world. In recent years, substantial attention has been focused on the existence of slavery in Sudan.

Sudan is located between Egypt and Ethiopia. The northern portion of Sudan is populated mostly by Islamic Arabs. Southern Sudan, however, has a relatively large population of Christian and Animist black Africans. Slavery in Sudan was virtually eliminated under British control. In 1989, however, slavery resumed after the fundamentalist National Islamic Party, lead by Lt. General Umar Hasan Amad Al-Bashir, took control of the Sudanese government. The Sudanese government, located in Khartoum, has supported a jihad (a holy war) designed to convert the southern portion of Sudan into an Islamic state. As part of this process, government-supported militias have conducted slave raids in southern villagers. Their captives, mainly Dinka tribespeople, are either kept as slaves by the raiders or sold in open markets in the north.

As world attention focused on the problem of slavery in Sudan, several religious and human rights groups attempted to deal with this issue by buying the freedom of these slaves. Elementary school classes, high school classes, and college groups have also engaged in fundraising efforts to free Sudanese slaves. The purpose of these programs, of course, is to free people from the tyranny of slavery.

Several concerns have been raised, however, about the unintended consequences associated with these slave redemption programs. A simple demand and supply model of the market for slaves can effectively illustrate these concerns. The equilibrium price and quantity of slaves sold on the open market is determined by the interaction of supply and demand. With a given supply curve, slave redemption programs raise the demand for slaves. This increase in the demand for slaves leads to an increase in the price of slaves and an increase in the number of slaves sold. While slave redemption programs free some slaves, they also increase the profitability associated with capturing slaves. The resultant increase in slave raids is an unintended consequence of slave redemption programs.

Reports suggest that the introduction of slave redemption programs raised the price of slaves from $15 to $50 or more per person. Initially, elderly, sick, and young slaves were often freed voluntarily because they were not very valuable as slaves. Slave redemption programs, however, raised the value of these individuals as slaves and made it less likely that they would be voluntarily released. There have also been reports that fake slave redemptions were staged by individuals on both sides of the conflict.

While the civil war in Sudan ended with the signing of a peace agreement in January 2005, Sudan remains troubled by conflict. Most of this conflict is now focused in Darfur in western Sudan. The current conflict is primarily among different Muslim groups. The slave raids that characterized the civil war have mostly disappeared. Many of the slaves captured during the civil war, however, have not been freed.

While there has been much international concern over the problem of slavery in Sudan, there is also a great deal of controversy over the best method of dealing with this issue.


Primary Resources and Data

  • Christian Solidarity International
    Christian Solidarity International has a major organizer of slave redemption programs in Sudan. This web site contains information on their programs as well as statements by former slaves who were freed as a result of these programs.

  • American Anti-Slavery Group
    The American Anti-Slavery Group maintains this website that describes programs designed to eliminate slavery. It contains information on slavery in the Sudan, as well as modern forms of slavery occurring in the U.S. and India.

  • CNN, "Forum Focuses on Modern-Day Slavery in Northern Africa"
    This February 26, 1999 report discusses a symposium on modern-day slavery at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum. Much of the focus of this discussion was on slavery in Sudan and Mauritania.

  • Phillip Smucker, "Market Thrives for Sudan's 'Human Capital'"
    In this March 21, 2001 article appearing in the Christian Science Monitor, Philip Smucker describes the failure of the Khartoum government in Sudan to abide by its agreements to take actions to end slavery.

  • American Anti-Slavery Group, "UN Reports on Slavery in North Africa"
    The American Anti-Slavery Group provides this collection of excerpts from UN reports dealing with slavery in Sudan and Mauritania.

  • James Yugu Yangkole, "Some Features of the Civil War in the Sudan"
    In this September 19, 2000 online document, James Yugu Yangkole provides a discussion of the history of the civil war in Sudan.

  • Eric Reeves, "Slave íredemptioní wonít save Sudan"
    In this May 26, 1999 Christian Science Monitor article, Eric Reeves argues that slave redemption programs will not solve the problem of slavery in Sudan. He argues that efforts should be devoted to ending the civil war since this is the source of the slave raids. Reeves argues that payments from slave redemption programs are providing hard currency that makes it easier for the war to continue.

  • Kathy Blair, "Canadians turn attention to Sudan's civil war: Slave redemptions raise questions"
    In this January 3, 2000 article appearing in Anglican Journal, Kathy Blair discusses the ethical issues associated with slave redemption programs. She notes that they provide immediate relief to some captured slaves, but provides increased incentives for further slave raids. In the article she also cites evidence of a wide range of other human rights abuses in Sudan.

  • Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State, "Slavery, Abduction and Forced Servitude in Sudan"
    This May 22, 2002 report provides a detailed description of the history and background of the use of slavery in the Sudan. The authors of this report argue that steps should be taken to end this practice.

  • Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, "Slavery in Sudan"
    This page, sponsored by a group supporting religious tolerance, provides useful background information concerning the existence of slavery in Sudan. It is noted that people have lost their freedom as a result of:
    • slave raids by government-supported militias,
    • slave raids by rival tribes in the south,
    • being captured as prisoners of war who are ransomed to their families, or
    • being captured and forced to serve as conscripts in the rebel army.
    It is noted that slave redemption programs provide freedom for "slaves, abductees, and prisoners of war." Slave redemption programs, however, also raise the profitability of these activities. They also often do not provide adequate follow-up support for those who are freed, but have no homes to return to (since many villages are destroyed as part of the slave raids and tribal warfare).


Different Perspectives in the Debate
  • Charles W. Moore, "The Cruel Illusion of Slave Redemption"
    Charles W. Moore, in this 1999 online essay, argues that slave redemption programs do more harm than good. He suggests that, while well intentioned, these programs raise the profitability of slave raids and increased the number of individuals captured as slaves. He suggests that military intervention is an appropriate response to the issue of slavery in Sudan.

  • Richard Miniter, "The False Promise of Slave Redemption"
    In this July 1999 Atlantic Monthly article, Richard Miniter argues that slave redemption programs adversely affect the battle against slavery. He provides a detailed history of the ethnic tensions and traditions of slavery in Sudan. Miniter argues that "[s]lave redeemers enrich every element of the [slave] trade: raiders, owners, and traders." He suggests that more direct actions should be taken to stop the slave trade.

  • Christian Solidarity Worldwide, "Stories from Sudan"
    This page contains discussions of the living conditions facing slaves in Sudan, as stated by former slaves whose freedom was acquired through slave redemption programs.

  • European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, "The Media, Sudan, and Darfur"
    The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council argues that reports of slavery in Sudan are false. (The U.S. State Department, the U.N. Special Rapporteurs, and Amnesty International disagree with this assessment.)

  • Christian Solidarity Worldwide, "CSW-USA Slave Redemption Policy"
    In this March 2002 document, Christian Solidarity Worldwide discusses its slave redemption programs. They note that they had received reports of fraud in the slave redemption program. It is indicated that concerns over this was one of the reasons for their suspension of their slave redemption programs. They note that they have shifted their funding toward efforts to improve health care in Sudan.

  • Anne D. Zimmerman, M.D., "The Sudan Story"
    Anne D. Zimmerman, in this Christian Solidarity Worldwide webpage, provides a discussion of the history of the civil war and slavery in Sudan. She also provides arguments for slave redemption programs. She notes that hoaxes and corruption often occur in slave redemption programs and suggests that caution must be used to ensure that these programs have the desired consequence.

  • Doug Gavel, "Sophomore Skips Orientation to Free 4,000 Slaves in Sudan"
    This September 28, 2000 article in the Harvard University Gazette describes the experience of a Harvard sophomore who participated in a slave redemption program,

  • PBS NewsHour, "Crisis in Sudan"
    This webpage contains a transcript of a NewsHour discussion of the issue of slavery in Sudan. Participants in this program include Sudan's Ambassador to the United Nations, a U.N. special representative for children in armed conflict, and a representative from World Vision Sudan (a relief agency). A RealAudio broadcast of this segment is also available at this site.

  • Human Rights Watch, "Slavery and Slavery Redemption in the Sudan"
    This March 1999 Backgrounder Paper (updated in 2002) discusses the abuse suffered by slaves in Sudan. Problems associated with slave redemption programs are discussed. They raise concerns over fraud and the increased incentives for slave raids that may result from, slave redemption programs.

  • Dean S. Karlan and Alan B. Krueger, "Some Simple Analytics of Slave Redemption"
    Dean S. Karlan and Alan B. Krueger examine the economic effects of a slave redemption program in this document. They note that a slave redemption program raises the price of slaves, but this occurs only because it reduces the number of slaves in captivity. If the goal of a redemption program is to reduce the number of slaves in captivity, Karland and Krueger argue that it is likely to be successful. They note that the welfare effects associated with a slave redemption program will depend upon whether the existence or magnitude of "scarring" effects (since slave redemption program are expected to increase the number of individuals captured as slaves (even though it reduces the number of slaves living in captivity).

  • Carol Ann Rogers and Kenneth A. Swinnerton, "Slave Redemption When it Takes Time to Redeem Slaves"
    Carol Ann Rogers and Kenneth A. Swinnerton, In this October 29, 2004 working paper, use a matching model to analyze the impact of slave redemption programs. This model takes into account the fact that it takes time to buy and sell slaves. Under this model, slave redemption programs need not increase the price of slaves. It will, though, increase the number of slaves that are captured. They argue that the welfare effects of a slave redemption program is likely to be determined by the treatment of slaves at the time of, and just after, capture. (To view this document, the Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • American Anti-Slavery Group, "Slave Redemption FAQ"
    The American Ant-Slavery Group responds to critics of slave redemption programs in this FAQ. They argue that slavery is a political behavior that does not respond to economic incentives. In their words: "...slavery in Sudan is not economic. It is a terror-weapon revived in 1985 by the Northern government in its civil war against the South."

  • Karl Vick, "Ripping Off Slave 'Redeemers'"
    Karl Vick, in this February 26, 2002 Washington Post article, argues that slave redemption programs had sometimes been the victim of hoaxes in which people had fraudulently pretended to be freed slaves. He suggests that the numbert of "freed slaves" substantially exceeds the number of individuals reported by tribal chiefs as having been captured.

  • Charles Jacobs, "Redeeming Values: Media Says Slave Redemption is Fiction."
    Charles Jacobs responds to published reports that indicated that slave redemption programs had been victims of elaborate hoaxes. He notes that Karl Vick (see the link above), in his Washington Post article, had not interviewed either former slaves or the alleged perpetrators of this hoax and relied instead on unnamed sources. He argues that slave redemption programs have made very positive progress in reducing the amount of slavery in the Sudan.

  • Dan Connell, "Sudan: Recasting U.S. Policy"
    In this November 2000 policy brief, Dan Connell examines U.S. policy towards Sudan. He argues that U.S. policy towards Sudan has "veered among extremes for decades, driven largely by shifting geopolitical imperatives." Connell suggests that U.S. policies designed to punish Sudan for human rights violations have not been effective. He argues that the U.S. "should support an international arms embargo against the Sudan government" and "support the consolidation of competing peace initiatives." Connell believes that nonmilitary sanctions are ineffective.

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