Nick Kristof


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.”

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Making a game of Nick Kristof’s Half the Sky movement | 


A new game released on Facebook wants to raise awareness about the challenges faced by women around the world. Half the Sky aims to be a movement about empowering girls and women worldwide, fighting gender discrimination and oppression.

“We don’t just want to preach to the choir, but rather to build the choir, so we were looking for ways to reach people who have no interest whatsoever in these issues,” Kristof told Humanosphere.

The game has been met by praise as well as criticism, see below, of its portrayal of women living in poverty.

Nicholas Kristof
New York Times

When writing the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, renowned New York Times columnist Nick Kristof said he also wanted a game to be part the movement he and his wife Sheryl WuDunn were trying to foment. The book prompted a TV documentary of the same name, but Kristof said he was  inspired to make a game of it by the 2006 release of Darfur is Dying by MTVu.

Kristof stressed that the game is an experiment.

“One challenge is that here in the U.S. right now, I think the public is retreating from an interest in global affairs, so in that sense we may be sailing against the wind,” he said. “My hunch is that the news media will have less coverage of global issues in the coming years.”

In the midst of the genocide and atrocities committed in the Darfur region of Sudan, activists used the game Darfur is Dying to reach 800,000 people within a few months of its release. In one year the game was played by 1.2 million people worldwide. Players had to navigate a Sudanese refugee camp and learned about the problems faced by Darfuri’s through play.

At the end, users were encouraged to send a message to a member of Congress and some 50,000 of the game’s players took the advocacy step at the end of the game.

The release of Half the Sky the Movement: The Game this week is the culmination of three years of work by Kristof and WuDunn. With an estimated $15 million budget for their project, the movement is now turning to social media, gaming and video as a way to maintain momentum and bring in more advocates. Continue reading

The heroic humanitarian narrative: A force for good or bad? | 

Flickr, Stephen Poff

The heroic narrative is almost irresistable as a storytelling strategy.

But many in the aid and development community think it frequently does more harm than good:

  • By implying individual, private efforts (i.e., DIY or “Do-It-Yourself” aid) are somehow superior to large-scale organizational or government-run programs when the evidence (one rebuttal to DIY aid) suggests otherwise;
  • By disguising a poorly functioning program (e.g., Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea scandal) or perhaps advancing a commercial interest (e.g.,TOMS shoes) through compelling personal stories that may do more for the hero than those he/she is supposed to be helping;
  • Or by simplistically glossing over the complex political, economic and social problems that often contribute to the problems of poverty, disease or inequities these humanitarians say they are trying to solve.

It is the dog days of August, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fairly strong negative reaction based on these kind of concerns to a recent column by the New York Times’ David Brooks. Other such tales — though usually well-intended — tend to really irritate those working out there in poor countries for humanitarian organizations actually trying to help poor people.


David Brooks

Brooks, who is traveling in East Africa, wrote about The Rugged Altruists in which he — perhaps taking a cue from his NYT colleague Nick Kristof, champion of DIY aid — celebrates the good work of some individuals he’s encountered on his trip. Brooks opens by saying:

Many Americans go to the developing world to serve others. A smaller percentage actually end up being useful. Those that (sic) do have often climbed a moral ladder. They start out with certain virtues but then develop more tenacious ones.

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New humanitarian standard for warfare? | 

Flickr, Jayel Aheram

Except for euphemistically calling warfare “intervention,” I think this article in The Atlantic about our current military efforts in Libya “The New Standard for Humanitarian Intervention” is a good read. Says the author Robert Pape:

We may be witnessing an historic shift in international norms.

Flickr, Runs with Scissors

Gandhi and Che, two kinds of freedom fighters

Pape’s article answers a question I raised a few weeks ago in my post asking “What determines the humanitarian military response?”

I will refer Pape’s article to my brother who, over the weekend, was challenging me on this — about Obama deciding to wage “intervention” against Libya without congressional approval, about the geopolitical wisdom of using warfare as a means to stop or resolve conflict and so on.

And it’s not just me and my brother. The chattering class (of which I am a card-carrying member) has been all over this issue as well, with some pundits who had been criticizing President Obama for not taking action in the Middle East now criticizing for him taking this action.

I recently looked at the reasons why I believe it is in our national interest to take aggressive “humanitarian military action” in Libya, as did Nick Kristof, who argues it is the better of several bad choices. For more than a month now, I’ve been citing stories about Ivory Coast that raise the question of why there has been so little international response to that crisis so similar in nature to Libya.

Pape goes beyond these specific cases and issues to look at what the rapid military intervention in Libya may mean for the future of foreign policy, and if it signals a more “humanitarian” approach by the international community — a lower threshold of intolerance for brutality. Says Pape:

Crises short of genocide, such as the Libyan conflict, justify a military response when it can save thousands of lives with reasonable prospects of virtually no or only very low casualties to international allies.

Nick Kristof and George Clooney on malaria | 

The New York Times’ Nick Kristof is taking questions from readers on malaria with actor George Clooney while simultaneously criticizing the media for being too celebrity-focused. Says Kristof:

We in the news media aren’t always very good at covering issues of global disease like malaria, which kills about 850,000 people every year (about one every 38 seconds). But we’re amazingly proficient at covering celebrities.

But then Kristof (or should it be Hypocristof?) simply wheels on his heels and engages in this same media proclivity he criticizes. He even has a photo of him and Clooney waving (and oddly, wearing sort of matching outfits) while hanging out together in Chad.

Yeah, you can argue — as Kristof does — that he’s making the best of our tendency to ignore stories about malaria and focus on celebrity.

But is the solution to simply pander to this distorted focus? Are two celebrities (Kristof is really as much a celebrity these days as he is a journalist) who happened to get malaria really the best to be fielding questions on malaria?

I’d really like to know if this kind of thing helps or hurts. Thoughts? I’m not sure, and I actually think Clooney did help draw attention to Sudan’s referendum, but I also know hypocrisy when I see it.