Nicholas Kristof Keynotes UCSB Conference

A Q&A with the New York Times Columnist About Technology, NGOs, and Charting Change in a Wayward World

Nicholas Kristof writes a biweekly op-ed column for the New York Times. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, and in 2011 he was a finalist for columns that focused on the world’s most impoverished and disenfranchised people. His just-released book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, co-authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, combines scholarly research with concrete examples to show how ordinary people can make a difference in the world today.

A Path Appears is the subject of this interview, as well as a keynote address Kristof will deliver November 13 at 8 p.m. in UCSB’s Campbell Hall. His talk kicks off a conference on Democratizing Technologies: Assessing the Role of NGOs in Shaping Technological Futures, that will be hosted by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society and held in Corwin Pavilion on November 14-15. Visit for more information.

Nicholas Kristof
Click to enlarge photo

Courtesy Photo

Nicholas Kristof

You open A Path Appears with a quote from the Chinese writer Lu Xun: “Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing — but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears.” This is a lovely metaphor, but how applicable is it in a world beset with so many seemingly intractable problems? How do you derive hope that a well-trodden path will indeed result from many individual actions?

We have seen real progress. If you think about children dying each day, which is a very basic metric, the number has dropped about half since I started covering global poverty. Since 1990, 100 million children’s lives have been saved through pretty basic interventions.

In one of our chapters we talk about blindness. We saw a glaucoma operation that costs $40 and can be done by a nurse in 20 minutes that restored sight to a woman who had been blind for years. Things like this make us pretty optimistic about the world. We do have to acknowledge the challenges that exist, but it is also important to acknowledge that there really has been progress, and that we have a toolbox now of understandings that can enable us to address many of the remaining challenges.

The first section of your book provides numerous examples of significant changes that have been made by ordinary individuals — a micro-savings program in Malawi that enabled an impoverished couple to start a business; a Teach for America volunteer who works with 5-year-olds who otherwise would grow up functionally illiterate; a boy from the world’s largest slum (Kibera, in Kenya) who created the Kibera School for Girls. Your stories are moving and hopeful, but do they add up to the large scale change that is needed?

One of the crucial things that individuals can do is demonstrate what works and what doesn’t work. The Kibera School for Girls isn’t going to solve the global problem of kids out of school, but it can provide lessons for the state school system. For Kenyans it shows that kids in the slums are not helpless. These are demonstration projects that can also inspire others. I also think it is important for governments to step up to the plate; these are individual efforts that can fill in some of the gaps, and also show the way forward.

The second section of your book examines the role of charity. While there is no question that philanthropy can make a difference in the lives of some people (as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done with regard to global health), critics point out that when the charity stops, the benefits also stop. Charities often fill in the vacuum left by government, which should be doing the job. In your view, what is the proper role of philanthropy?

One of the most crucial kinds of intervention is in advocacy. We can think about charities in the context of delivering services, and indeed that is part of their job, but advocacy is also getting governments to step up to the plate. They can also give more voice to those who don’t have one. If governments aren’t doing their job, people may argue that everything else is merely a drop in the bucket. There is some truth to that. But charity can have a transformative path for some individuals. You and I can’t get all 50 million kids who are out of school in school, but for modest sums of money we can help a few kids get the education they otherwise would not get. For those kids, it can be transformative. Just because you can’t help everybody, it doesn’t mean that you should help nobody.

In failed states it’s obviously much harder. But that’s not the typical situation. Usually when governments are failing, it’s because they’re making other priorities. The challenge becomes trying to get a government to spend a little less on military and a little more on education or health care, for example.

Successful efforts also provide a demonstration effect for other countries. If a neighboring country does better, then other countries notice it, and they step up to the plate, and they get a little better. In Africa, for example, there were a lot of countries with really bad governments, but some have improved and have shown others that your really can do good governance. For example, Rwanda has dramatically improved technology, agricultural development, and governance in ways that other African countries have really taken note of. It shows the region that they can have lack of corruption, and people realize they don’t have to pay bribes everywhere they go.

It doesn’t all work perfectly, but I think that just as bad governance can be contagious, so good governance can be as well. This is part of the process of scaling.

The third section of your book draws on recent brain research to argue that we are hardwired to be at least partly altruistic. (According to the psychologist Dacher Keltner, whose research you discuss, humans are 40 percent benevolent and 60 percent selfish.) You give many inspiring examples to make the case, but every day we are bombarded with evidence to the contrary: religious fanatics who post their gory executions on YouTube, the rise of xenophobia and nationalism everywhere. How can our better angels be made to overcome the demons that seem to lurk in all of us?

That is kind of a critical question. I think that part of it is contagion, that good behavior results in more good behavior. And I wonder if education can play a role in teaching kids more empathy. The power of women plays a key role here as well. This is one of the great challenges we face. I think over time the better angels have tended to come to the fore.

NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are playing an increasing role in areas that have traditionally been the responsibility of government. Is this a good thing? Many NGOs are from the Global North; they are often beholden to their funders; they have been criticized as being the most recent incarnation of the “white man’s burden.” What do you see as the appropriate role of NGOs in making sustainable change in the Global South? Businesses? Social business?

I think that the general point you make is true, but I would push back a little bit that it’s not the entire picture. There are extraordinary NGOs from the Global South — for example, BRAC [formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee]. These NGOs don’t suffer the backlash that American NGOs sometimes experience. I think that one crucial thing is for NGOs to do more listening. They need to have a lot of people from the countries in which they operate. Over time, gradually, these efforts can make a difference. Ideally, these countries [like South Korea] will develop, and can graduate from NGOs; NGOs will help the countries that are still lagging.

I think we’re beginning to see more of a role for business. There used to be a distinction made between for-profit companies as evil, nonprofits as noble. Now we know that things are a lot more complicated than that. There are some nonprofits that accomplish very little, and some businesses that do good. The thing to look for is the impact. For-profit companies can have a social mission as well; this is a model that potentially can do a lot. I think there is potential for more companies to step up to the plate. I think that they will have to, partly because if they want to hire and retain millennials, they’ve got to have that social engagement somewhere. That will be a source of pressure on companies to step up their social purpose. These are tough issues, and there are a lot of fine lines to be made. There are real trade-offs between for-profit roles and values. But I think that in general we are going to see, over time, the for-profits filling in more of the social purpose base that is being filled by nonprofits now.

What are your thoughts on the role of technology in forging the path that will improve the lives of the poor around the globe?

Technology has a huge role to play. Whether it’s health care or agriculture, there are enormous gains to be realized — technology can be transformational. In terms of social media, this can create a measure of accountability. If a government announces its education budget and $100,000 is going to a school in that town, and the people access that information and realize that there is no school in this town but that the $100,000 is going into the pockets of a corrupt mayor, that creates a toolbox for people to know what is going on. I think we are seeing, already, that access to information creates a toolbox for accountability; it makes it a little harder to steal money. I would say, though, that the banking applications of mobile phones are the most important of all. They enable people to store money safely, transfer money — that may trump everything else.

Although this is not a topic directly taken from your book, I have to ask you the same question I asked you when I interviewed you for The Independent in 2009. In 2000 you and your wife wrote a famous (and controversial) New York Times piece called “Two Cheers for Sweatshops,” arguing that while many factories are horrible, they are for most workers better than the alternatives. On April 24, 2013, an industrial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, claiming more than 1,100 lives and injuring thousands of others, the worst factory disaster in history. The factories in this building were making garments for major U.S. and European brands. Are you now down to one cheer for sweatshops?

The danger issues are the strongest argument against sweatshops. Workers may be able to choose to work or not in a particular factory for a certain amount of wages per day, but when the fire escapes are padlocked, the workers can’t negotiate the issue. There is nothing they can really do about a building collapsing. This is not information that workers can make a decision about. But I still think that the greatest need is for jobs, and the risk of working in a sweatshop has to be solved by moving countries to more capital-intensive ways. One of the reasons I feel this way is because one of Africa’s problems is that nobody wants to build sweatshops there; nobody wants to move manufacturing there. I think this is as great a problem as the sweatshops themselves. The only way this problem can be solved is that if countries get richer, as has happened in the West. I think it is really a function of economic development. Maybe one and a half cheers. [Laughs.]

In your final chapter, you comment: “We sometimes paralyze ourselves with the conviction that global problems are hopeless, but in fact this should be a remarkably hopeful time to be alive.” What are some of your suggestions for things that the readers of this interview can do right now to make a difference?

There is no one transcendent thing to recommend. It really depends what the reader is interested in. If the reader is interested in global development, then the Deworm the World Initiative is incredibly cost-effective; you can deworm a child for a year. If it is poverty in the U.S., then how about Reach Out and Read, where for $20 you can sponsor a kid. The program improves reading and gets kids ready for school. Or browse sites like, which describes itself as “a charity fundraising web site that gives social entrepreneurs and non-profits from anywhere in the world a chance to raise the money that they need to improve their communities.” One of the basic challenges we face in the US is an efficacy gap — people can be judgmental about the needy and step away from it. We need to counter this.

Finally, of course, our own website is for people who have read the book and decide to do something. You can also follow us on Facebook, and Twitter, join our mailing list, and watch our three-part documentary series, which premieres on PBS on January 26.

Richard Appelbaum is a lead organizer of the Democratizing Technology conference, the MacArthur Chair in Global & International Studies and Sociology at UCSB, and on the Executive Committee of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society.

Be succinct, constructive, and relevant to the story. Leaving a comment means you agree to our Discussion Guidelines. We like civilized discourse. We don't like spam, lying, profanity, harassment or personal attacks.

comments powered by Disqus
event calendar sponsored by: