Nick Kristof Q&A on the new book: A Path Appears

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is in Seattle today, to participate in a social media-oriented event hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote innovations in global health and to celebrate some examples of progress already made. He will also speak at a sold-out lecture tonight at Seattle Town Hall. Kristof, with wife and co-author Sheryl WuDunn, has written a new book, entitled A Path Appears, that celebrates much the same – with a focus on individual innovators and reformers. I talked to Nick (whom I just missed by a dog’s leg last summer when we were both hiking the same section of the Pacific Crest Trail) about what he hopes to accomplish with this new book.

TP: You and Sheryl wrote the book Half the Sky to make the case for empowering girls and women, but also in the hopes it would spark a movement. What are you trying to do with A Path Appears?

Nicholas Kristof NK: After we wrote Half the Sky, many people kept coming up to ask us what can they do. We wanted to address this broad yearning by so many people to make a difference out there and to show they should not be constrained by the skepticism some have that any one person can make a difference. We wanted to show indeed that one person can make a difference, sometimes a big difference.

There’s a national debate right now about inequality. It seems to us that many of the roots of that inequality have to do with lasting pathologies created by lack of opportunity, especially in early childhood. Maybe the best way of addressing that inequality is through various childhood interventions. We hope to cast a spotlight on some of the early childhood interventions that we think have pretty robust evidence of effectiveness, impact.

TP: So the book is, in part anyway, intended as a how-to manual?

A Path AppearsNK: Yes, I guess there’s a little more how-to in this book than in Half the Sky. We also expand this from putting our lens on women abroad to include the U.S. and to also include men. A lot of people complained that Half the Sky was too focused on women, on gender. We continue to argue that one of the main reasons people lack opportunity and are prevented from living up to their potential is often because of their gender, because they are female. But that’s not the only reason

TP: You also were criticized for presenting these issues as if the best solution was the action of heroic individuals. Why focus on individual stories?

NK:  If you want people to engage, you have to tell stories and the stories usually work best if they are about individuals. We actually have a section in the book about how to engage people on these issues. We look at research on what connects people. It’s an emotional process, not a rational process. But once those pathways are open, then you can throw in the broader data. But we think you have to start with individuals.

TP: That’s a standard story-telling device. But aren’t you worried this can be misleading and even divert attention from the fundamental changes many contend we desperately need to do to make life better for the poor and disenfranchised? Curbing massive global tax avoidance comes to mind as one big driver of poverty and inequality. 

NK: Yes, but one of the reasons those kinds of issues haven’t gotten a lot of attention is they are kind of wonky. We do need systemic change. For example, you can’t build an interstate highway system based on individual actions.

On the tax issue, that’s an issue that can get some resonance, I think. There’s a fascination with billionaires and there is this whole absurdity that carried interest is taxed at a lower rate than earned income. It’s a ridiculous loophole and these kinds of policies do contribute to the problem. We subsidize private planes but fight over funding foreign aid. Trade policy is also crucial to fighting poverty. But it is hard to put a face on these broader, systemic issues. And I’d say one of the mistakes my generation made is we often sought solutions through legal or political changes that didn’t accomplish much. I think we need to get people engaged first.

TP: How did you select who to profile and why?

NK:  One from Seattle is Rachel Beckwith, a girl who tried to celebrate her 9th birthday by raising money for Charity:Water. She was critically injured in a car accident and so friends and supporters wanted to do something. Rachel ended up raising enough money to get water to 37,000 people. We wrote about an American epidemiologist working on infectious disease in Africa who came back to US looking for a cause. He ended up reducing inner city violence in Chicago, gang violence, as if it was an infectious disease. We wrote about Biti Rose, who showed how micro savings allowed her to empower her family and others. We selected stories based on the evidence of success for the interventions as well.

TP: You are often criticized for focusing on these kind of stories, heroic individuals and success stories. Yet many of the columns you’ve been writing lately seem to be better placed in the category of moral outrage over policy and systemic failures. Are you getting more cranky these days?

NK: (Laughs) I’m not sure I’m the best one to judge that. I definitely can get cranky at times. My writings on Darfur can be blistering and I’ve been critical of how late we came to dealing with the Ebola crisis and how we still lack a coherent policy on the catastrophe in Syria. Some of these issues really frustrate me and I share my frustration with readers.

TP: But you still say you’re an optimist and that we need to focus on solutions? 

NK: Absolutely.  If you look at what we’ve accomplished in international development, there’s great reason for optimism. We’ve probably saved the lives of 100 million kids through multiple health and social interventions over the last few decades. Education is reaching so many more people today, and so many more girls especially. I think literacy is one of the most transformative changes that can happen. For most of human history, the vast majority of people were illiterate. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the majority of adults became literate. That improves lives, reduces poverty and creates a world of more accountability.

There is no single path, so silver bullet to making the world a better place. I guess you could say the book is more about silver buckshot, a collection of the various paths select people have taken to accomplish some pretty amazing things. One of the great things about Half the Sky was it wasn’t just used as a book. It also launched discussions, events and other actions. Last Friday, I ran into the engineer who did the recording for the audio book. It was on 42nd street in New York City. He told me that after he did the recording, he decided to do something and now he’s recording stories of young children for families that don’t speak English or don’t have any books at home.

That’s very heartening and what I hope to see more of with this new book. It’s exciting when words lead to actions that deeply affect people’s lives.

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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.