by Sasha Alyson
If you live in the global South, you probably never heard of Nicholas Kristof.
But he’s been busy shaping Western attitudes about you. He spent four decades as a Pulitzer-winning reporter and columnist at the New York Times, covering a range of social issues.
He left that job last October to run for governor in Oregon, on the opposite side of the country. But Oregon law is clear: You can’t be governor unless you’ve lived in the state for three years. Nicholas Kristof grew up in Oregon and owned property there, but he lived in, and voted from, the swank suburb of Scarsdale, New York. He soon ended his bid for the governorship, and the Times has proudly announced that Nicholas Kristof will return to its pages.
Kristof is probably the most prominent journalist covering development and the aid industry. In fact, he’s a virtual industry in himself, with not just newspaper columns, but also books, a blog, a newsletter, a charity fund named for himself, and speaking engagements. He’s in a position to raise critical questions about foreign aid. Instead, he’s a cheerleader for karma colonialism.
Twice I started writing this story, then set it aside, because I don’t like singling out one individual for criticism – in this case, one who seems to be a super-nice fellow. There are bigger fish to fry, fish whose names often start with the letters UN. But they couldn’t get away with so much without support from acquiescent reporters who make modern colonial practices seem super-nice.
Nicholas Kristof provides this service from a more prestigious platform than anyone else. He represents the essence of karma colonialism in the mainstream media. Let’s look at some examples.
The liberal paternalism
In one column, Kristof explains that he sponsored a child in the Dominican Republic through Plan International. He liked giving money through Plan, rather than having it go directly to a family which, he noted, “might spend it on beer.”
Numerous studies have shown otherwise. The system of giving directly to the people you want to help, rather than to a large INGO which promises to do things for them (after taking out a substantial amount for its own overhead and salaries) is called “cash transfers.” Again and again, cash transfers have been found effective. A World Bank analysis concluded that “A growing number of studies from a range of contexts… indicate that concerns about the use of cash transfers for alcohol and tobacco consumption are unfounded.”
But INGOs don’t like cash transfers because if the money doesn’t pass through them, how can they grab a big share for themselves? They prefer child sponsorships, like the one Kristof describes, which pull in donors who want to feel good about helping an individual child and won’t pay attention to details, as long as they get a photo of “their” child. Kristof had an opportunity to show the flaws inherent in this system. Instead, he bought into it, and perpetuated the myth that poor people are incompetent to run their own lives.
Ignoring the impact
In that column, Kristof tells of giving a baseball glove to the boy he sponsored, who promptly ran off to play with friends. Kristof was pleased with himself; his column is titled “Changing Lives, Mitt by Mitt.” So both Kristof and the boy were happy. But how exactly was the boy’s life changed? What was the wider impact?
The next time a white foreign man walks into that village, in which direction will every child turn their attention? And the next, and the next. Some of these men will indeed produce goodies. And soon, children will learn what type of behavior gets rewarded. If you ignore the man and continue playing with friends or working in the field – that is, if you are independent – you’ll get nothing. Say a few flattering words, offer to carry his bag, find the right tone of sweet servility – rewards await you. How long before this all gets internalized?
We don’t even need to think about the more nightmarish possibilities, to question sharply whether children should be taught to look to foreign visitors, rather than their families, for their needs.
Greg Mortenson became a celebrity as the man who built schools in poor villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan. His best-selling book Three Cups of Tea told his inspiring story. Nicholas Kristof became his friend and booster.
But Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes smelled something funny, investigated, and uncovered what Krakauer called “Three Cups of Deceit.” Mortenson had spent enormous amounts on himself, promoting his own celebritydom, falsely claiming to have been kidnapped by the Taliban, taking vacations with money intended for school-building. Kristof is fond of white savior narratives and despite all the resources at his disposal, he swallowed the lies and encouraged readers to send Mortenson their money.
When confronted with the reality that he had promoted a fraud, Kristof could have admitted the mistake, apologized, and explained how it happened. Instead, he kicked the ball down the road: “My inclination is to reserve judgment until we know more, for disorganization may explain more faults than dishonesty.” But Krakauer and 60 Minutes thoroughly documented fundamental dishonesty. Mortenson had published a photo of himself with friends, and claimed they were his kidnappers.
Kristof wrote, “Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”
Really? I doubt that Kristof knows what you have done. Nor what I have done. And obviously he didn’t have a clue what Mortenson was up to, that’s why he resorted to a tongue-tied effort to muddle the issue, instead of just saying, “I got it wrong.”
Money as the solution
“For one-half of 1 percent of global military spending, we could achieve universal global literacy,” wrote Kristof in 2018. Says who? It’s impossible to calculate such a thing but based on my own experience, I expect the money would make things worse. Loosely-controlled aid money (and rarely is there any other type) draws in all the wrong people, and even the best people become distracted as they wonder: “How come he got that big consulting fee? How can I get some?”
Aid money will not end poverty. “More money” is the approach preferred by those people who plan to get their hands on some of the cash as it passes through. After 20 years covering the aid industry, Kristof ought to have noticed that.
Parroting the U.N. line
More kids than ever are becoming educated, Kristof wrote in 2015, spreading the U.N. lie that increased school enrollment was the same as more education. The U.N. didn’t ask if children were learning, nor did Kristof ask. Today the U.N. continues to push for every child to be in school – although now it admits what everyone else knew, that many learn little or nothing.
Soon Kristof was revealed to have swallowed another pack of lies. He befriended and promoted boosted Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who, he wrote, had been “sold as a child to a Cambodian brothel. After enduring torture and rapes, Somaly escaped and reinvented herself as an anti-trafficking activist.” In a particularly moving story, he told of a young woman named Long Pross, who Somaly claimed to have rescued after she had been sold into sex slavery, following which a brothel owner had gouged out her right eye.
But even as Kristof was packaging Somaly Mam for an American audience and appearing with her at fundraising galas, many in Cambodia knew it was a myth. Some tried to alert Kristof; he wasn’t interested. Finally journalist Simon Marks revealed the truth in Newsweek. Friends recalled that Somaly Mam had been a pig-tailed girl with a happy, fairly normal childhood. The story about Long Pross was also a lie. Marks found the doctor who had removed her eye because of a tumor.
Again, Kristof avoided admitting his error as long as possible. When he finally did so, he repeatedly excused himself on the grounds that many others had also been hoodwinked. He wrote of the difficulty knowing the truth in a story of this sort. But others had found the truth, and had even tried to alert him. He didn’t want to hear.
Ignoring the important stories
After realizing that he had too often put his seal of approval on far-fetched lies, Kristof could have written a genuinely useful article along the lines of “If, with all my resources and experience and time to work on a story, I can’t tell which charities are honest, how can you pick a good spot for your donation?”
But he cannot write that. High-profile pundits are famously reluctant to admit their mistakes, and are not about to write a column which highlights those blunders. Their credibility, and thus their income, might suffer. Instead, Kristof hurried to say that Glamour magazine, Fortune, CNN, the Washington Post, and others had also been taken in. But it was Kristof who had been Somaly Mam’s biggest booster, writing about her repeatedly, featuring her in a documentary, and contributing the foreword for her autobiography. Columnists should view groupthink as a trap, rather than as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
With Kristof’s eager support, Somaly Mam became a celebrity. They each basked in the spotlight reflected from the other.
This is a popular type of synergy. UNICEF, for example, has its celebrity “Goodwill Ambassadors.” Both parties benefit because they get more attention, even though the care and feeding of your celebrity (“No, I want diet Pepsi, not diet Coke. And with ice but not too much.”) requires a lot of attention. Meanwhile, any group that focuses on truly solving a problem, but without a celebrity in tow, is squeezed out of the spotlight – and out of the funding cycle.
Celebrity spotlights are the wrong way to decide what works. Most celebrities focus relentlessly on building their fan base. They deliver feel-good messages. Uncomfortable truths, and failures from which we might learn, are shoved under the rug.
Writers, like celebrities, want an audience. So do their editors, who know which story almost went viral, and which one flopped. Kristof has been more honest than most about this dynamic. He wants readers, and he wants them to do something, such as making a donation.
But this mindset leads to certain types of coverage, and away from other types. It leads to stories about inspiring heroes, mostly Americans. Kristof did cover Somaly Mam. But he did not go to Asia and identify Cambodians who were doing good work. Somaly Mam married a French NGO worker and they moved to France; that’s where she learned to play the media, which resulted in Kristof covering her. Finding the unknown local person doing a good job is hard work for little payoff. The splashy American, on the other hand, will find you, and knows how to weave a story that your readers – and editor – will love.
This leads to ignoring stories about people doing things for themselves. No need for donations! A sad tale of helplessness, with a savior who needs your money, is a proven formula.
Likewise, he avoids stories which reflect badly on the aid industry. In 2010, criminally careless sanitation at a U.N. camp introduced cholera to Haiti, eventually killing some 10,000 people. Kristof was there, writing about the epidemic, but he joined an aid industry conspiracy – that’s truly the best word in this case – to stay silent about the cause. Cholera, he wrote, “is a disease of poverty – abysmal sanitation and lack of potable water can create an epidemic.” By then, overwhelming evidence pointed to the U.N. as the cause, but you wouldn’t have known it from Kristof’s reporting.
People might not donate to charities if they knew how much is wasted, misused, or stolen – or if they knew about U.N. recklessness. He decided that we shouldn’t know about it.
Kristof has been explicit that he wants to get his readers – largely Americans – to help solve global problems. That may seem worthy. But the corollary is that he largely ignores what people are doing for themselves, and ignores the forces that keep them from doing more.
American readers want heroes, preferably American, and Kristof aims to please. He boosted Greg “Three Cups of Tea” Mortenson into saviordom, and for all his lip service to gender issues, he seems particularly drawn to white American men as his heroes.
Including himself. In one over-the-top stunt, he “rescued” two under-age prostitutes in Cambodia by paying the brothel for them, taking them out, tweeting as he went, finally reassuring followers that “I’m safe & my live-tweeting of the raid on brothel in northern Cambodia is over. You can see them all on my Twitter page.”
Under-age prostitution is rooted in the dismal range of options that these youth face. A publicity stunt which “buys” a couple teenagers, and refers to that as a “raid,” does nothing to address the problem. It hides the problem, while perpetuating the fantasy that another Western savior is needed.
Fascination with money and power
After Barack Obama won election in 2008, Kristof wrote that if the incoming president created “a new Department of International Aid and Development, he should invite Bill Gates to be its first head.”
Ten years later, looking for insight into “Barriers for Women Around the Globe,” did he look for a woman who had faced and overcome such barriers? No, he interviewed “somebody I admire a lot” – Melinda Gates, who got herself a giant stage, and an opportunity to be fawned over by journalists, not through her insights but because she married the world’s richest man.
The super-rich are happy to increase their status by tossing a bit of their wealth toward the less fortunate. But they are not looking for insights about how to change a system which allowed them to acquire massively more wealth and power than people who are just as smart, and work harder, but were born into different circumstances. Bill and Melinda Gates do not offer new ideas, but they do draw readers who, like Nicholas Kristof, are fascinated by wealth.
Spoon-fed by the people you cover
Psychologists tell us that if you wish to spread a preposterous lie, you should not begin by saying “Here’s a fact you should know…” That triggers the listener to wonder whether it’s actually true. Instead, slip it through parenthetically, as something everyone already accepts, so that their brain processes the message without ever questioning it.
Save the Children clearly made a conscious decision to do precisely this. Google for these two phrases (keeping the quotation marks):
“As the world’s leading expert on childhood,” “Save the Children”
I stopped looking at 50, mostly on the charity’s various websites, some from other sources which simply copied Save the Children’s phrasing as if it was their own.
The “Kristof Impact Initiative” is among the copycats. Under the heading “Nicholas Kristof Presents,” it uses this precise phrase to explain why he supports Save the Children, and urges you to support it, too.
But Save the Children’s expertise centers around fundraising, not around children.
In another holiday column, Kristof told readers that “you can … help educate a girl for $75 at Save the Children.” I have previously reported on Save the Children’s duplicity. They tell donors: “Indonesian students recorded a three-fold increase” in reading comprehension because of its Literacy Boost program. True. But Save the Children fails to mention that students who did not get Literacy Boost increased comprehension more than five-fold.
I uncovered that deceit, and more. Why couldn’t Kristof? Because it wasn’t the feel-good story he wanted.
Why not let us hear direct from the people Kristof writes about?
The New York Times has run many excellent investigative stories and features, including a recent series about Haiti. It has made some progress toward publishing more diverse opinions. Rehiring Nicholas Kristof is a step backwards, giving further voice to old notions that “the West has the answers for the Rest.”
The newspaper could have taken a different approach. Every Times columnist tends to repeat certain themes too often. It’s impossible to always be fresh, twice a week, year after year. What if the Times were to find 20 commentators from around the globe, and have each of them contribute just once a month? Instead of a over-confident, wealthy white American man telling us about the rest of the world, let’s hear direct! That would be, almost literally, one gust after another of fresh air in an editorial section that sometimes gets stale.
Top illustration: The New York Times announces that Kristof will return to its pages.
At some point, I asked myself, “Am I the only person fed up with Nicholas Kristof’s superficial, arrogant, and neo-colonial approach to world problems? Not at all. Here are three smart related stories:
The White Knight, on Slate. Amanda Hess asks: “Why are Kristof’s save-the-world columns so often wrong?” She explores his admirable desire to get readers to think beyond their own world – and how it leads him astray.
The Con Man and His Pet Columnist. “Why does Nicholas Kristof continue to defend the charlatan Greg Mortenson?” James Kirchick offers some insights in Commentary.
‘Victims Can Lie as Much as Other People.’ Pat Joseph, in The Atlantic, explores “what the Somaly Mam scandal says about the media’s treatment of humanitarian heroes.”