Nicholas Kristof Hashes Out How To Help

Nicholas Kristof
Courtesy Photo

If Nicholas Kristof is sure of one thing, it’s that helping people is harder than it looks.

Best known for his writing on humanitarian crises and social injustice, Kristof returned to Santa Barbara this week for a round of UCSB Arts & Lectures appearances. Before joining KEYT’s John Palminteri for a discussion at Campbell Hall Monday evening, he spoke alongside nonprofits at the Central Library on a panel called “Taking Action Matters.”

The panel tackled the issue of how nonprofits can have the meaningful impact they aspire to, and Kristof drew on years of reporting abroad to share his thoughts. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for reporting on the genocide in Darfur, the other for covering Tiananmen Square. No one seemed surprised when he peppered the conversation with Chinese sayings — his books, A Path Appears and Half The Sky, are also named for Chinese phrases. These days, Kristof writes two columns a week for the New York Times.

Kristof lauded recent evidence for cost-effective programs tackling global problems. Although deworming medicine for kids isn’t as sexy as constructing an entirely new school, he pointed out that such medication has a huge effect on children’s access to education. And while he celebrated progress, he also acknowledged the ongoing difficulty of translating programs that “make sense when you’re sitting around a conference table” into crisis zones.

Four local nonprofits also presented their work — although, as Randal Avolio, CEO of SEE International put it, “somewhere in a book on speaking it says: don’t follow the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author.” With SEE international, Avolio works to correct unnecessary blindness with surgeries abroad. Linda Cole, executive director of African Women Rising, shared how she and her team support communities in Northern Uganda with microfinancing, agriculture and education initiatives. Amy Steets, a senior program manager of Vitamin Angels, outlined how providing children and pregnant women essential vitamins in places like Calcutta, India, improves overall health. And Cydney Justman detailed the supplies Direct Relief sends to combat poverty and emergency situations.

As the panel moved into dialogue, Kristof wanted to know the main challenges that nonprofits face. The issue of having enough funding and expertise came up, as did the idea of making a sustainable imprint — helping communities in ways that outlast one-time purchases, like automatic water pumps.

Kristof sometimes receives flak from members of the development community who feel he portrays countries in crisis as helpless and hopeless. He acknowledged the need to defer to local knowledge abroad, but not on issues like female genital mutilation, where traditions are rooted in the oppression of women and girls.

When an audience member asked what Kristof considered the single most-ignored issue of our time, he didn’t have an immediate answer. After considering malnutrition and issues of gender, he settled on mental health, in the U.S. and abroad. “The issues that we address worst in terms of our policy are those that are hard to talk about.”

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