A conversation with Nick Kristof, humanitarian provocateur

Nick Kristof inspires at Seattle Biomed's Passport to Global Health celebration 2013
Nick Kristof inspires at Seattle Biomed’s Passport to Global Health celebration 2013

The renowned New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a Pacific Northwest native (who with his daughter is hiking a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail this summer), was in Seattle this week to speak at Seattle Biomed‘s annual Passport to Global Health celebration.

I had a brief conversation with him, mostly about Being Nick Kristof, on our weekly podcast and in the transcript below.

Kristof is, for many, the voice of the humanitarian movement. Not surprisingly, he gave a rousing, moving talk Thursday evening for the Seattle Biomed crowd in which he emphasized the stunning progress that has been made in global health over the past few decades. He also spoke on the danger posed for sustaining this success story due to public apathy and the mistaken sense that the fight against poverty is too overwhelming, a ‘hopeless’ task.

“That’s one of the biggest misconceptions out there,” he said. “The sense that it’s hopeless.”

Kristof cited a number of stunning statistics: Child mortality has dropped from something like 20 million deaths in the 1960s (equivalent to nearly 60 million child deaths today) down to about 8 million deaths per year; smallpox has been eradicated and other diseases like polio are on their heels; HIV in Africa is no longer a death sentence for many millions.

“It used to be so dispiriting to travel through Africa,” Kristof said. To help readers in the West get a sense of how things have changed, he once wrote a story about the ‘recession in the coffin making industry’ in parts of Africa.

“The story of global health is a story of success,” he said. But it is a success story now under threat, he added, due to the economic downturn, the implosion of the media (and its dearth of global news coverage) and the basic challenge of competing for people’s much-divided attention.

That’s what Nick and I talked about, for the most part. The need for the public to recognize why the fight against global poverty and injustice matters to them, the need for more powerful and compelling storytelling on these issues and what it’s like to be Nick Kristof.

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Q In the Nick Kristof Wikipedia entry, it notes that the Washington Post once said you ‘rewrote’ the rules for opinion journalism by focusing on human rights. It also notes you are frequently the target of criticism for doing that. You seem to provoke strong reactions, positive and negative. Why is that?

NK: I spend a lot of time criticizing other people so I guess it’s fair to take some jabs myself…. But part of it is probably because I often address moral issues. I’ve written about Darfur as something that is truly evil. I’ve written about mass rape in Congo, sex trafficking … There are some people who really welcome that approach, of using moral calipers to look at policy. For others, it comes across as sanctimonious and preachy.

Q You don’t mince words. Would you agree with the characterization that you are the leading voice of the humanitarian movement, at least in the United States?

NK: There are an awful lot of people in the humanitarian world who disagree with me on important issues. Many would blanch at that idea… But I think it’s generally true that issues of social justice or global poverty really haven’t had much of a voice on opinion pages.

Q Do you think that the reason you are so often a target of critics in the aid and development community is because you make people uncomfortable?

NK: I’m often trying to get people to spill their coffee at breakfast (laughs). Sometimes it works; sometimes it just gets them irritated… People often aren’t interested in poverty or social justice issues. When I write about those issues my readership tends to dip compared when I write about a political issue. It’s hard to get people engaged.

Q So how do you get around that obstacle?

NK: I do everything that can possibly stick… I did a lot of research in social psychology and neuroscience about what people connect to… Part of the answer is about finding the right kind of anecdote. I try to find the right stories that will suck people in. I also try to interject a sense that progress is possible, that it’s not hopeless.

I also try to make as many connections as I can to the audience and to foreign problems so that they don’t seem like these are problems just happening on the far side of Pluto. My annual win a trip contest is one example. With our documentary Half the Sky, we used celebrities to try to bring people in. We have a Facebook game… The idea is to come up with a low barrier … a gateway drug to get people interested in global poverty.

Q You come to Seattle frequently and are a Northwest native (not to mention local backpacker).

NK: Well, it’s not quite as much God’s country as Portland (laughs). Seattle is kind of remarkable for its expertise on global humanitarian issues. It’s not just the Gates foundation; there are so many here. That has created this real community that’s full of some very smart people and a lot of interest and passion directed towards these issues.

I think Seattle just sort of intuitively gets that it is part of the world in a way that people don’t always get, even on the East Coast.

Q We talked about how your rights-based approach to global issues both inspires and irks people. Do you think the Seattle approach to these issues tends to be a bit shy about raising such highly political concerns – that we have a tendency to want to find apolitical, technical solutions to poverty and injustice?

NK: I do believe in a rights-based approach. Helping people is harder than it looks. There tend not to be magic bullets. And yet I also find people who spent their entire career in Africa are often pretty pessimistic while people in Asia seem more optimistic. It can be difficult to figure out what the interventions should be.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.