Journalist Nicholas Kristof MAG

May 10, 2010

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times since 2001, is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. A native of Yamhill, Oregon and a graduate of Harvard University, Kristof has traveled to more than 140 countries to report on news, politics, and culture. He and his wife, journalist Sheryl WuDunn, were the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism; their most recent book is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. He blogs at

One of the ideas you champion most is economically empowering poor women. Can you explain specifically how targeting women would help alleviate poverty?

One, it brings down birth rates, and over-population is a problem in many of these countries. When you educate women and bring them into the labor force, they'll have dramatically fewer children. One reason for a lot of the suffering in poor countries isn't just low incomes, but bad spending decisions, which are made disproportionately by men. The amount of money very poor families spend on alcohol, tobacco, prostitution and Coca-Cola – instead of on educating their kids – is pretty dramatic. This is essentially a function of the men controlling those purse strings. So when you educate a girl, for example, and give her the extra earning power that comes from having a better career, she'll earn more and will invest that money in her kids, while a man is more inclined to invest in beer.

What impact on this situation has your book, Half the Sky, had as a result of its great success?

I think that it's helped build a broader conversation about the role of women in development. I think its impact is less in terms of surprising people about bad things that happen, and more in terms of making people think that if you want to address problems of global poverty, the most cost-effective way is precisely to invest in educating girls and bringing women into the labor force. Frankly, we are pushing on an open door. This is an issue whose time has come.

You've traveled extensively throughout the world. In what ways do you think we all share the same values, and in what ways do you think that differences and backgrounds truly divide us?

All of the above. One's always reminded, while traveling, of our common humanity: you know, parents' fears for their children.

I remember on one of my first trips to Cambodia in the mid '90s, somebody had told me that Cambodian child mortality was so high and parents were losing so many children, that it was something they got used to and accepted. But as I was walking through a forest, I heard these simply unearthly screams, and I came across a father who had moments before lost his son to malaria. That grief was as wrenching as it would be for any American to lose their child.

Having said that, there are true cultural differences and in Half the Sky's depiction of the role of women, I think we sometimes have the misperception that this is really a gender battle between men and women, but it's not. The best predictor of who is in favor of wife-beating isn't your gender, it's your level of education and whether you live in a city or rural area. And women are often just as likely to think that wife-beating, or girls not getting educated, is the right thing.

In that respect, there really are different cultural values. I tend to think we psych ourselves out too much about the fact that people have different religious or cultural values. China, after all, had had foot-binding for hundreds of years. That was a deeply embedded cultural value but it disappeared very, very quickly. It went from being nearly universal to non-existent in about 20 years. And the same can be done with girls not getting educated.

How has the global poverty situation changed in the past 20 years, both positively and negatively?

I think there's an awful lot more hope. There is East Asia's success; East Asia has really shown that we don't have to put up with poverty, we can make incredible progress against it. More recently, India is beginning to show that as well. And some countries in Africa have been growing incredibly quickly.

We're also getting a better sense of what works, partly because there are more Americans who have been living embedded in rural areas in the middle of nowhere. For example, we always think that to get more girls educated we just need to build schools, but we're also learning that if we de-worm kids, that will get them to school.

There was a study from Ghana that showed that if you help high school girls manage menstruation, that reduces absenteeism by half, because they stay out of school when they don't have hygiene products, and then eventually drop out. This is a really cheap intervention, but because it's something that tends to be hard to talk about, nobody studies it, and it gets neglected. But we're getting a much better sense of these kinds of interventions that really do lead to better outcomes.

Given all the problems of poverty, education, illness, and women's rights in the U.S., why do you think it's so important to work on these ­issues in developing nations?

I don't think it should be either/or. I think we need to address problems at home, but in the same way that I don't think we should care only about our families and ignore the neighborhood, or the state, I think we also need to address problems internationally. They're a part of our larger family, and often you can get the most bang for the buck – the needs are most acute internationally – when you've got people dying.

One good example is that girls lose 10 to 15 IQ points if they're not getting iodine in their salt; for about 5 cents a year, that's something we can make a difference on, very cheaply. Or when kids have intestinal worms because they're not getting a 50-cent de-worming pill. That's the attraction of a lot of international interventions. These fixes are so cheap and make such a difference.

How do you feel about the idea that Westerners should stop interfering in African, Asian, and South American problems and let the people in those places work out their own problems?

I'm very skeptical of this, because in places like Darfur, the way their problems are being worked out is that the guys with the guns are shooting the people without the guns. So, in that kind of situation I don't think we should stand back to let the problems work themselves out.

But, in another sense, I do think that too often Americans march in and say, “We're educated. We know about the world.” And then pick up the megaphone and tell everybody, “Okay, here's what we're going to do.” And they don't listen enough. I think that's one reason our development efforts haven't gone as far as they could. We often don't fully understand the societies we're trying to tinker with. We have great intentions, but spend too much time organizing and not enough empowering local people, with the result that we accomplish less than we could.

At my school there's not that much of a problem with racism, sexism, or religious tolerance, but I know it's a problem at many schools. What do you think teens can do to make a difference?

I think a lot of our lifelong attitudes and approaches tend to be embedded when we are in adolescence, and so it becomes especially important in high school to build a more tolerant approach. And I think that there, one of the crucial things is simply exposure and building friendships that cut across different ­barriers.

I think one of the unfortunate trends is that the U.S. has become more divided in some ways, so that a given school is likely to be overwhelmingly minority, black or Latino, for example, or overwhelmingly white, and that people often don't have warm friendships that aren't about race, but are just about a friend who humanizes different groups.

What are some of the ways that teens can fight global poverty from within their ownenvironment?

One thing I think today's teenagers are really good at is starting projects that make a difference abroad, instead of supporting some kind of symbolic protest that feels good but doesn't make a specific difference in people's lives.

Last night, for example, I met Brittany Young, a young woman who started a group called “A Spring of Hope.” [Editor's Note: Find Brittany's essay, “A Spring of Hope,” on] In high school she started this group which essentially builds wells for schools in Africa. Although this is not going to solve the world's problem of bad water, or solve education problems in Africa, for a few specific schools, it's going to mean they're going to get water where they didn't have it before.

That's a real difference, and I think that there are a lot of young people who are not put off by the vastness of the challenges, but are making these incremental differences in real places. I think that's the way to go.

I recently spent a summer in South Africa in an AIDS orphanage, which was an unbelievable ­experience, but a lot of my friends feel that one short trip can't really make a difference. Also, a lot of their parents wouldn't let them go because of the fear of crime and disease. How do you think these attitudes can be changed?

One of the things that I think we've learned is that Americans ­typically go off to an orphanage in South Africa or build homes in Ecuador intending to help other ­people and in truth, helping others is always harder than it looks and those trips have a mixed record. But I ­believe they have an almost perfect record in helping us.

My hunch is that you managed to help some orphans in South Africa, but I bet it had an absolutely transformative effect on you, and they ended up helping you a lot more than you helped them.

So, if the question is, “Is a summer too short a time to really have a transformative effect on AIDS ­orphans?” the answer is probably yes. But is it too short a time to have a transformative effect on the American kid going over there? Not at all.

How one deals with parents who are understandably concerned about their kids, that's a real problem. One thing I would say is that American girls tend to often think that travel in Latin America or Asia or Africa is something guys can do, but it's too scary for them. I think that's a misperception. It's not clear that it's any more dangerous for girls to travel than for guys.

Australia's and New Zealand's young people travel in the developing world all the time and they don't have the perception that it's more dangerous for young women. This seems to be an American perception and I fear that that kind of self-imposed restriction ends up keeping young women away from experiences that would be completely transformative. There are enough constraints in our lives that we don't need to impose our own upon ourselves.

How do you think being from a small town in Oregon affects your views on issues that involve the entire world?

Probably in a couple of ways. One is that small-town Oregon really seems to me kind of central to what the United States is, and so when I go to other countries, I also feel it's really important to get out of the capital and go to the equivalent of Yamhill and talk to people who aren't university-­educated and don't speak English.

I think in covering American politics it has also helped to come from an area that is quite rural, with quite conservative values, that is on the fringe of the Bible Belt, if you will. One of my Sunday columns, for example, was about evangelicals in foreign policy; I think I'm more open to them, even though I disagree with them theologically and on most political issues. I'm more open to their influence because I grew up in an area that was full of similar churches.

Kids in school often hear that you should stick to writing about things you know, and I've definitely been told that. But your whole career has been about going to completely foreign places and writing about those. What advice would you give to teen journalists?

If I limited myself to writing about things I knew, I'd be writing about nothing! One of the great pleasures of journalism is that it gives you an excuse to approach an issue you know nothing about and ­educate yourself. There are obviously risks of ­malpractice when you write about things you're not familiar with, and pontificate about them, and I've engaged in that malpractice periodically.

But I think it's really important for young writers to be enthusiastic and care deeply about the topic, then approach that issue and learn about it. Will they make mistakes? Sure, but they'll also learn in the process.

Is there anything you wish you had studied, or paid more attention to, in high school?

There are two subjects, or maybe three. One is I wish I had read more fiction with an eye for “How is that author writing? How are they connecting to the reader?” I wish I had read more critically, trying to understand that author's art.

The other two subjects, which may be more college-level, are psychology and economics. I think that we can learn a lot about ourselves from research in psychology, and about how to connect with ­others. And likewise, I think that economics is ­increasingly moving into other fields and offering really interesting explanations of things, because economists tend to approach topics with real rigor.

If you could meet any writer, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Probably William Shakespeare, partly to see if he was indeed the author of the plays, and to quiz him about some of his sonnets.

The family lore is that we're related to Shakespeare through his cousin Humphrey Shakespeare, so I'd want to ask him if it's true. He'd be high on my list. He had a mastery of writing, of expression, that has seldom been equaled, and never surpassed.

You mentioned earlier the perception that people in developing countries don't grieve as much as those in first-world countries. Are there any other myths about developing nations that you'd like to dispel?

There is a fairly common feeling among Americans that Africa is hopeless, and that Africa tends to be shaped by the worst-performing countries there. When they think of Africa they think of Sudan, Congo, riots, war, religious conflict. All those things are real, but they're also unusual in a continent that overall is actually enjoying economic growth and more stability with a slow move toward greater democracy.

This is one of the things I worry about as a ­reporter: by focusing on the massacres, and the mass rape, and all the other bad things, I leave people with a misperception of the continent as a whole that discourages tourism, that discourages studying abroad, that discourages investment. That's a fine balance for a journalist to maintain. So, one misperception would be that we don't adequately account for the successes.

Another is the sense that many of the problems are due to very different cultures and that as a result, there's nothing we can do. If one looks at Afghanistan, for example, there are certainly a lot of Afghans who think that girls shouldn't be educated. You tend to say, “Well, that's religion. That's culture, so you can't do much about that.” And in fact, this is an element of Afghan culture – but cultures change. They're not impervious to internal and outside pressure. One good example is that Bangladesh was part of Pakistan until 1971, and then it invested heavily in girls' education, so today there are more girls in high school than boys. While in Pakistan, on the other hand, girls lag way behind boys and in their tribal areas, female literacy is three percent. Cultural obstacles are real. So are religious ones. But those obstacles can be overcome.

What's the scariest thing that's ever happened to you in your journalistic travels?

Well, one trip, my first trip to Congo, began with a plane crash. That was quite scary because we knew we were going to have to crash land and there was actually a body dangling from the undercarriage of the plane and we couldn't dump fuel. We had about a half an hour before we crash-landed, so that was quite scary.

So I decided, after that experience, to drive out of Congo, but promptly ran into a Tutsi warlord who was busy slaughtering Hutus and was not happy with my arrival on the scene. So, for the next week, he chased me through the jungle until we got to Uganda. And then, to top it off, I got the most lethal kind of malaria, so that was a tough trip!

How do your children cope with your traveling to so many dangerous and remote places?

The boys have been pretty blasé about the trips. My daughter was not happy about me traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular. I've taken them on a bunch of trips and I think that has helped them understand what I do and has also given them a sense of satisfaction, that it does make a difference.

But it's hard because there are real trade-offs, since if I'm worrying about Afghan kids one week in Kabul, then I'm not around to read to my daughter. I had just taken her through Central America, and our next trip is to Southern Africa as a family, and she was saying, “Dad, can't we ever just go to a beach?”

You and your wife, Sheryl WuDunn, often work together. Which came first, your romantic relationship or your work relationship?

The romantic relationship, and in fact, that was a bit awkward at first because I was working for the New York Times in Los Angeles covering business, and Sheryl was there with the Wall Street Journal, also covering business, so we were competitors. This meant we couldn't really talk about anything that ­either of us was doing and my calls to her at the ­office were always … you know, I was always afraid I was going to get her fired! But it's been terrific not only to share a marriage but also these professional projects.

Can you describe the process of writing ­together?

We tend to talk about how we want to approach a project. One of us will do the reporting, and then typically that person will do the writing and the other will edit it quite heavily and make a lot of changes. And then the reporter will look indignant and tinker some with it.

With Half the Sky, I think by and large it's pretty hard to figure out which parts began to be written by Sheryl and which were started by me. Part of that is that we tend to think a lot alike, but it really was very much a combined work product.

Do your perspectives on any of the women's issues differ at all from Sheryl's?

I think Sheryl had a more intuitive awareness of the issues, while mine is more learned, if you will. I really can't think of any policy disagreement between us. The only major type of disagreement was in the balance between research and studies and stories. I was always trying to insert studies, and Sheryl was always saying, “That makes it too boring.” And so that tended to be part of the balance.

Given the current proliferation of news sources, what can young people do to educate themselves about which media reports are worth paying attention to?

Well, of course my answer would be to read the New York Times every day! Maybe the biggest thing I would caution against is something that is very human, which is to seek out sources we agree with. There is a deeply ingrained tendency for liberals and conservatives alike to find sources that just seem incredibly reasonable, and tend to be those that confirm our every prejudice.

For conservatives, that would be to watch Fox News, and for liberals it would be MSNBC, plus websites and blogs on either end. And I think that tends to be bad for democracy and for one's own intellectual development. So, I would encourage students to bite the bullet and go out and seek out intelligent views that challenge the things they hold dear.

What would it take to get mainstream media to cover the overwhelming number of girls and women who are forced into sexual slavery and to get people to take action?

I think what it takes is just getting the issue on the agenda. I think that the only reason it's not acted on is that people aren't aware of the stories. It always seems ironic that if a white, middle-class girl goes missing, there's going to be an Amber Alert, CNN is going to put out bulletins about “missing blonde.” And yet every day there are many girls from less advantaged backgrounds, typically of color, who run away from a bad home situation, go to the bus station and the only person looking out for them is a pimp. I think if people were more aware, and understood the brutality of some of these situations, they'd be more inclined to act, and that's where we writers come in.

One of the shortcomings of the news media is we're very good at what happened yesterday. We're not very good at covering what happens every day. One of the ­reasons we don't tend to cover human trafficking is because it's a part of the background noise.

How would you explain to teenagers the importance of being aware of what's happening in Congo today?

The truth is that for an average American, what happens in Congo isn't going to make a huge difference in their lives. But I would argue that it's really important for young people to find some cause they believe in, some cause larger than themselves to get engaged in. It could be Congo, or it could be kids dropping out from a nearby school, but I think it's a good anchor for one's emotional fulfillment and a good way of putting one's own difficulties in ­perspective.

If your parents are being unreasonable, as every teenager's parents in the history of the world have been, then it's useful to remember that there are other kids who are orphaned by AIDS by the million, who have enormous problems of predation by teachers or principals. And maybe that helps put issues in some perspective.

You've written that huge natural disasters, like the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, garner more attention and aid than ongoing problems. What could be done to change this?

That's a challenge for journalism. The reality is there is huge interest in these events and there isn't huge interest in ongoing challenges. But, if we in journalism claim very special privileges because we think we fulfill a very important social role, then we have to push back against that human tendency and try to give coverage and shine a spotlight on the daily, mundane tragedies that typically don't get attention.

It must be very depressing to witness so much tragedy. How do you stay optimistic?

It actually is much less depressing than one might think, and I'm sure you, Eliza, encountered this in the orphanage. When people get tested, there are some who do terrible things, and there's unavoidable ­brutality, but you also see unbelievable courage and altruism, people rising to the occasion, expressing their humanity by just doing things that are almost unimaginable. So in places like Congo or Cambodia, I see extraordinary levels of brutality but also extraordinary levels of courage and compassion and activism, and I manage to come back a bit reassured about the wonderful things that human beings are capable of, and I'm often truly inspired.

Other than your own writing, of course, are there any sources you would recommend for teenagers interested in learning more about the issues of women in developing nations?

There are a bunch of books: one is called I Am Nujood, Aged 10 and Divorced. There's a book about sex trafficking by a survivor named Somaly Mam. There's a wonderful book by a Darfur survivor called Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival by Halima Bashir. They all fit this rubric of people who offer us a window into very different societies but ultimately end up being inspiring.

Journalists often speak of being torn between writing about terrible situations they witness and trying to fix them. How do you personally strike that balance?

By and large, I'm not torn in that way. There are moments, but in general, I think that the greatest impediment to change tends to be public awareness and that's what I'm pretty good at. I have this great spotlight and I can shine it on an issue and help project it on the agenda which tends to be a pretty effective way to start building the political will to generate change.

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