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Nicholas Kristof Saves the World

In his new project, Nicholas Kristof argues that hope, not politics, can solve poverty.

Rahoul Ghose / PBS

In his latest big project, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof prescribes hope as the solution to poverty. It’s another dose of misinformation that prevents viewers from recognizing the systemic roots of gross inequality.

Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue in A Path Appears, a new book and three-part PBS series, that donating $20 to well-run nonprofit organizations — plus program evaluations and scientific research — can give children all over the world the opportunity to reach their potential.

But their call for action ignores the structural factors that actually cause people to live without sufficient nutrition, health care, and shelter amid great wealth. The capitalist system that produces this misery is entirely absent from their presentation.

Their misdiagnosis has serious consequences, in part because so many people seem to be buying into it. Kristof is everywhere talking about the “empathy gap” in the United States, and thousands of supporters post encouragement and appreciation on his Facebook page. While his misguided savior complex and muddy thinking about the real impacts of rescuing the poor are well documented, the size of Kristof’s following indicates the criticisms are not getting through.

This film series, unlike his previous work, includes some domestic stories and depicts an array of social ills. In the second episode, “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty,” Kristof returns to his roots: foreign poverty porn. Journeying from West Virginia to Haiti to Colombia, viewers see mothers and children in tears, facing terrible choices. Assisted at each location by celebrity guides like Jennifer Garner — an attempt to reach audiences otherwise uninterested in such gloomy subjects — Kristof tries to explain how global poverty works and what Americans can do to get these kids out.

The errors of Kristof’s ideas come into special focus when the film takes us to Haiti. Here he follows a thirteen-year-old girl who wants to leave the home where she lives and works because she says the matron of the house beats her. The girl, Marilane, is a restavek — a rural child who has been sent to labor as a house servant in the city. Kristof calls this a form of slavery, as restaveks have no recourse or protection if they are abused.

This is obviously a deplorable situation, but the phenomenon of sending children away to strangers does not happen in a vacuum (nor just in Haiti). Kristof does not explain the forces that push people to such extremes.

The US-backed coup of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which prompted a United Nations peacekeeping mission that will enter its eleventh year in June, goes unremarked. The conditions that caused the 2008 food riots and unseated the prime minister are not discussed. And the cholera outbreak after the 2010 earthquake that the UN is blamed for starting is nowhere mentioned.

The problem here is Kristof and WuDunn are pretending that small donations to nonprofit organizations will change the balance of forces that keep people mired in poverty. Or that whisking people away to a suburban-style home — as happens to Marilaine — is a genuine solution.

Their bad thinking is a toxic compound of economist Jeffrey Sachs’ throw-money-at-it approach and economist Esther Duflo’s empirically rigorous, but ethically empty research. Sachs has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to overhaul some of the poorest places in Africa, but has struggled to demonstrate the project’s positive impact.

Duflo, along with co-author Abhijit Banerjee, has championed the use of randomized control trials to test the effectiveness of aid, whether it’s providing credit or mosquito nets. Similar to the development process for a new drug, an intervention is introduced to a test group (though in the world, not in a lab), while a control group is left to its own devices. Outcomes are measured, knowledge is gained.

This precise, step-by-step approach produces the painkillers — cost-effective development interventions — that Kristof most favors. He is hooked on finding “what works” and at what cost. But, like Duflo, he imagines and argues that all this development can happen without disrupting unjust social orders.

There is a ready-made data set in the postwar experiences of then-developing nations that illustrates the way to raise a country’s standard of living. If they were to consult this history, Kristof and his allies would learn that nongovernmental organizations have never driven a transformational, countrywide improvement in welfare. Rather, the path ahead for Korea, for Japan, and others like it was through massive, government-led development programs.

Getting the kids out of the favela or the trailer park or the abusive home does not mitigate the stark inequality that our global economy creates. The best way to give children a shot at a hopeful future even within capitalism’s boundaries is to support progressive governments, encourage public spending on public goods, and foster local industries through trade regimes that give them a chance to grow.

We cannot solve problems that we don’t know about, as Kristof himself says in the film. But his work encourages viewers to think that individual courage and well-run nonprofit interventions can upend the entire systems that make people poor.

Deeper reforms like a living wage or a universal basic income would be a better bet.