Nicholas Kristof: An American with a Global Perspective
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
No one has done more to motivate Americans to engage with people from other countries and cultures in the last two decades than Nicholas Kristof. The New York Times columnist is unique among his peers in inspiring us to look beyond America’s border and our own interests to seek justice, promote peace, help entrepreneurs, empower women, save children and build schools to transform not only ourselves but our foreign policy as well.
Kristof won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his reporting on the genocide in Darfur. His graphic description of how the armed Janjaweed militia, backed by the government of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, were ‘killing, burning villages and farms, terrorizing people, confiscating property from members of African tribes and forcing them from Darfur,’ compelled us to act. Thanks in part to his reporting, American schoolchildren raised money for building schools in Darfur and wrote impassioned letters to their congressmen and senators to stop the genocide. It’s from a Kristof column (Dec. 17, 2009) that many of us learned about Valentino Deng, one of Sudan’s “lost boys,” who built a school in his hometown of Marial Bai (http://www.valentinoachakdeng.org), after suffering unimaginable horrors in his young life.
Kristof has often written about women because of his conviction that unless they have free and easy access to education and entrepreneurship, particularly in developing countries, there will be neither peace nor progress in the world. (In his latest book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” co-written with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, Kristof expands on his argument that developing countries can best fight poverty and promote democracy by helping women achieve personal and financial independence.)
“Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer,” he wrote in a column. “So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women? It is not that warlords in Congo cite Scripture to justify their mass rapes. It’s not that brides are burned in India as part of a Hindu ritual. And there’s no verse in the Quran that instructs Afghan thugs to throw acid in the faces of girls who dare to go to school.” Kristof concludes that “any person’s human rights should be sacred, and not depend on something as earthly as their genitals.” His story on Mukhtaran Bibi, a Pakistani woman who was gang-raped in her village but who set an example by testifying against her attackers, moved many readers to raise more than $133,000 for her. With the money, Mukhtaran built a school for girls in her tribal village. Her memoir, “In the Name of Honor,” became an international best-seller. Although her troubles are far from over, she now has a global audience that the Pakistani government will have to contend with if anything bad happens to her.
His column on “Bead for Life” (http://www.beadforlife.org) was another inspiring story about the vision and generosity of ordinary Americans. Torkin Wakefield and Devin Hibbard, a mother-daughter team from Colorado, set up the “Bead for Life” organization after stumbling upon a Ugandan woman in the slums of Kampala making beautiful jewelry from garbage. One thing led to another and now the nonprofit recruits hard-working entrepreneurial women from Uganda earning $1 a day or less who get training in “how to cut strips of scrap paper, roll them tightly, glue them and seal them, and, presto, a beautiful bead!” The beads are marketed mostly in America through Tupperware-like parties. In 2009 alone, there were 3,000 parties attended by about 100,000 Americans. Annual jewelry sale runs at $4 million. How can you not become curious about Ugandan beaders whose products you are wearing?
I wonder how many Americans were inspired to act by Kristof’s column on the Salwen family of Atlanta but I suspect that there were many. The family discovered “the power of half” by cutting down on everything they owned or consumed (house, car, everything) and channeling the savings (about $800,000) through the Hunger Project (http://www.thp.org) to sponsor health, micro-financing, food and other programs for about 40 villages in, get this, Ghana.
Since 2007, Kristof has been sponsoring a “win-a-trip” contest for American university students. The winner goes on a reporting trip with him to Africa to cover issues of global poverty and come up with solutions. The number of participating students has been increasing dramatically each year. It goes to show how passionate many young Americans are to do something with their lives that will make a difference in the lives of those for whom everyday is an existential battle.
The columns cited here offer only a glimpse into the global humanitarian work that Nicholas Kristof promotes through his powerful and persuasive pen. Americans ask him for suggestions as to which charities around the world they should contribute to, without worrying about tax breaks. He has written about Greg Mortenson, the Montana native who started from scratch but built hundreds of schools in the remotest areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has written unflinchingly about male domination in Muslim societies and its terrible social, economic and political costs. At the same time, he has also written about how easily and unjustly many Americans stereotype Muslims and attack the religion of Islam. He has written heartbreaking stories about children forced into prostitution and the flesh trade. His writings on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, in its historical context and complexity, have probably been fairer than those of any other American journalist.
Not all of Kristof’s columns are noteworthy. He has missed his mark on occasions. Some of his pieces are predictable. But what distinguishes him from his peers is his desire to make the world a better place. He does this not by wearing rose-colored glasses but by describing what he sees with direct and clear prose and offering solutions that manage to be at once practical as well as altruistic. It is a tribute to his humanity – and his status as a global citizen - that more Americans ask him than they ask any other journalists that most telling of questions: “What can I do?”