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Foreign Policy: Nick Kristof is wrong

Nick Kristof of the New York Times recently wrote a popular article about individuals launching humanitarian efforts that he celebrated as the “D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution.”

The humanitarians he profiled (most were women … Kristof’s thesis is that women are more focused on helping the most vulnerable, which are often women) were an impressive lot. One was a Seattle couple, Eugene and Minhee Cho, who ask people to donate one day’s wages to help fund certain causes they vet and select.

Many of my friends said they found the article inspiring and encouraging. As Kristof put it:

“It’s striking that the most innovative activists aren’t necessarily the ones with the most resources, or the best tools…. Rather, what often happens is that those best positioned to take action look the other way, and then the initiative is taken by (these lone activists) of the world, who are fueled by some combustible mix of indignation and vision.”

All of these efforts are admirable, but something about this DIY aid idea bothered me. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read this article “Don’t Try This Abroad” by Dave Algoso in Foreign Policy magazine.

Algoso says he, too, gets all “warm and fuzzy” reading about these people trying in some small way to make the world a better place. He acknowledges that many great movements begin with a single step taken by one person.

But Algoso said he was disturbed by Kristof’s simplistic description of the problems of poverty and the “implicit arrogance” that a groundswell of well-intentioned outsiders represents a solution. He says:

“Many globally minded, can-do Americans these days have come to believe that the world’s major problems have solutions, and that these solutions are within reach. This feeling often leads to frustration: Why doesn’t someone just do something about these problems? Are the NGOs and foreign aid agencies lazy, incompetent, or both?”

The reality, Algoso says, is that these problems are often way more complex than they appear. Building an orphanage may end up disrupting a community’s extended family social order. Donating goods can rob locals of a chance to address a need by instead starting a business. Outsiders coming in to help may diminish efforts aimed at empowering people to help themselves.

“Yet Kristof’s headline is: Do it yourself. Bring the same attitude you would have toward re-painting the living room or installing a new faucet. After all, how hard can it be? The developing world is like your buddy’s garage. Why not just pop in, figure things out, and start hammering away?”

The road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions, Algoso reminds us. It’s easy and sometimes justified, he says, to criticize the big, established assistance organizations, aid agencies and government development programs.

It’s not so easy to criticize individual humanitarian efforts, Algoso says, in part because they exist in isolation, they assume (and advertise) that they are doing good — and yet are accountable to nobody.

Update: Today, Friday, Nick Kristof responded to Algoso (indirectly, and directly to others’) criticism.

Another update: I’d somehow missed it but Sarah Arnquist of earlier wrote a good post in response to the Kristof piece drawing attention to the DIY underbelly.

Is Do-It-Yourself foreign aid a step in the right direction? Or is it a misstep based on naivete?


About Author

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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.