Nicholas Kristof is my idol. For those who don’t know his work, he’s the author of Half the Sky and an Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times. He has this uncanny ability to be a realist and optimist simultaneously. It must be the journalist gene.
Yesterday, Sarah forwarded me his essay in the Sunday Times titled D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution. I was glued to every story, every word. His essay is about how individuals can make a difference rather than machines like the U.N. or World Bank. He tells the stories of one woman’s effort to create a cheap sanitary pad for Africa, another’s work to fight mass murder in Congo, a gap year turned into orphanage in Nepal, and a Seattle couple’s effort to encourage ordinary people to become philanthropists. Several parts of his essay hit close to home.
Are these young idealists unsophisticated about what it takes to change the world? Yes, often.
They usually overestimate the odds of success. They also sometimes think it will be romantic to tackle social problems, a view that may fade when they’ve caught malaria.
Check on overestimation. I take my malaria pills [during rainy season].
In short, [international development is] complicated. Scharpf is engaged in a noble experiment — but entrepreneurs fail sometimes. And anybody wrestling with poverty at home or abroad learns that good intentions and hard work aren’t enough. Helping people is hard.
It’s fair to object that activists like Doyne are accomplishing results that, however noble, are minuscule. Something like 101 million children aren’t attending primary school around the world, so 220 kids in Doyne’s school constitute the teensiest drop in the bucket. The larger problem can be solved only if governments make education a top priority (which they haven’t), just as ending the wars in Congo may require the concerted action of states. Well-meaning individuals like Doyne help at the edges but don’t fundamentally change the nature of the challenge; indeed, charitable construction of schools and hospitals may sometimes free up governments in poor countries to use their money to buy weapons instead.
All that is true — but it’s equally true that if you happen to be that drop in the bucket, Doyne is transforming your life. And afterward, you may become an education advocate as well, transforming other people’s lives. As Doyne herself puts it, “If your own children were born orphans in Nepal, you wouldn’t wait for the U.N or the government to do something about it while they were hungry and cold and breaking rocks by the side of a riverbed.”