New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and investment-banker wife Sheryl WuDunn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that brought you Half the Sky, return with a new book. A Path Appears brings their fight to end oppression and advocate for humanitarian causes stateside, but who benefits?
The latest media offering from the best-selling authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, award-winning, married journalist couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is a book that comes out today called A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity. Press materials from publisher Alfred A. Knopf herald a first edition of 200,000 copies, and rights for translated editions in European, English and Asian languages have already been sold. The story will also be shown on PBS as a film, in January 2015. Still, it’s a modest print run for the follow-up to the book we are given to believe started a movement, a book that, according to the Half The Sky Movement website, “is essential reading for every global citizen,” of which who knows how many of the earth’s 7.3 billion people count themselves. A Path Appears is clearly just a small part of a very large project, likely to encompass even more social media platforms, online video games, educational initiatives, in-person events and appearances, international screenings, small start-up companies, good-sized aid organizations, mega corporations, and entire villages, towns and cities throughout the developing world and here in the United States.
Millions of dollars will change hands in the name of this book, possibly billions. In fact its goal, when boiled down, is to convince the reader to spend as much money as possible. For A Path Appears aims to bring the global struggle against poverty first presented in Half the Sky back home, the main difference in the new book being that the authors aren’t highlighting international NGOs aiding women’s productive capabilities; they’re showcasing NGOs and nonprofits in the United States – and sometimes for-profit companies – with the hope of inspiring financial donations.
While policy changes will result from the wide dissemination of their Gladwellian-level take on social ills, systemic shifts are not Kristof and WuDunn’s intention.
Seem strange? It is. For despite the inclusion of buzzwords “transformation,” “oppression” and “opportunity,” the aim is not to end global power imbalances, nor their most damaging effects, such as corruption, violence against women, incarceration or economic inequality. There is no magic-bullet solution to such ills, the authors state repeatedly. This may be true, but it is notable that many of the scattershot solutions proposed in their text prop up systems that perpetrate all of the above forms of oppression, a tendency that can be found in previous work from the couple as well. (The most famous of these instances, Kristof’s steadfast support for recently discredited anti-sex trafficking crusader Somaly Mam in his New York Times column as well as the book and film Half the Sky, goes unacknowledged, possibly because he’s upheld her story to justify crossing clear ethical and legal boundaries. In 2004, he purchased two “sex slaves” of his own, in violation of Cambodian law and possible violation on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and, alongside Mam, locked up many more sex workers in brothel raids on the dime of the garment companies they were then trained to work in.) In view of the authors’ oeuvre, the dismissal of magic bullets reads a bit as a lesson half-learned.
While policy changes will result from the wide dissemination of their Gladwellian-level take on social ills, systemic shifts are not Kristof and WuDunn’s intention. No, their hopes are more modest, as indicated by the code word “opportunity” in both books’ subtitles. They seek opportunities. But for whom? In seeming response, the authors pose the thesis of their work: “efforts at altruism have a mixed record of success at helping others, but they have an almost perfect record of helping ourselves.”
Putting the self back in selflessness is absurd, of course, and one wonders for whom they are writing, and who does benefit from such a calculated, narcissistic pitch for altruism. Plus, Kristof and WuDunn hold themselves up, repeatedly, as models of altruistic behavior: So to what, exactly, are they helping themselves?
The 350-page book is framed by the story of Rachel Beckwith, a young Seattleite who wanted to raise $300 for her 9th birthday to give to an organization that digs wells in developing countries. She only raised two-thirds of that, unfortunately, and then died after a car accident. A tragedy.
Charity: water, which touts fiscal transparency to raise money for clean drinking water projects around the globe, has been praised for its ability to turn such heart-wrenching tales into popular and financial success. The NGO raised a total of $93 million with these methods in its first five years – over a third of that in 2012 alone, nearly $1.3 million of which came from the Beckwith campaign.
It was enough money, Kristof and WuDunn write, “to provide clean water for 37,000 people.” The wording is vague – it doesn’t say that 37,000 people reliably receive clean drinking water due to the Beckwith campaign – and comes directly from charity: water’s own press materials (in which Kristof’s NYT-published support for the organization also appears). Given the myriad of things that could go wrong with well building or maintenance in any developing nation, and the lag it would take for the New York City office to hear about and correct them, the outcomes from donations can be hard to pin down despite charity: water’s hopes for transparency.
They position their work not so much as “journalism” as “raising awareness,” a project that, like charity: water, amounts to a branding campaign.
Efforts toward greater assurance are in place. Since this reporter first looked into the organization in January 2013, a spokesperson tells me that charity: water has implemented Pipeline, a job-training program that gives local mechanics the resources to keep wells functioning. The NGO was also awarded a $5 million Google grant in 2012 to create tech to ensure that the home office in New York City is alerted when wells fail, and installations are currently being implemented around the globe. What the charity: water spokesperson can tell me with certainty via email is that they have completed a total of 2,275 water projects in Tigray, Ethiopia, to which the Beckwith funds contributed. And another 1,410 projects there are in the works.
Commendable actions, to be sure. Yet of greater concern to clean water advocates is that charity: water supports no policy initiatives to ensure improved or sustainable public water access through local governments. The underlying conditions that lead to economic inequity and resource scarcity, therefore, stay firmly in place, ensuring that vital resources continue to be meted out on a case-by-case basis, at charity: water’s – or their local partners’ – discretion. “You could almost imagine us a Kayak.com or an Expedia,” CEO Scott Harrison told The New York Times in August 2013. Indeed the use of local partners, while aiding on-the-ground expertise in distant regions, makes accountability and true transparency in project implementation impossible. This may be a minor problem for reporters seeking to confirm the efficacy of charity: water’s work, since locals may never have heard of the NGO. But it is a more significant problem for many donors if the local organization uses their funds for activities that have nothing to do with water. If money from birthday campaigns is used to convert Buddhists or Muslims to Christianity prior to well building, for example, advocates for religious freedom would likely prefer to know. (“Through our water projects, we are often able to share the Gospel with people who don’t know Christ,” charity: water partner Samaritan’s Purse explains.)
It’s murky, this charity: water. Kristof and WuDunn don’t settle the sediments, either, noting none of the above criticisms. Their book tends to rally support for organizations, in fact, instead of report on them. Details, however, sometimes get lost.
In the section on charity: water, the authors describe one Tekloini Assefa as the head of “an Ethiopian well-drilling organization.” In fact, Assefa is the executive director of the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), the on-the-ground charity: water partner, and his first name’s Teklewoini – an oversight the authors may have caught if they had asked him about water issues in Ethiopia, or if they had sought any information besides charity: water press materials, where the error seems to originate. (This reporter alerted charity: water to the error on September 16, so it may soon be corrected.)
These seem like minor things – to overlook criticisms, to misspell names – and they are easy to explain away. But effective humanitarian work, like journalism, can only be founded on small details, relayed accurately and completely.
If it looks bad for two Pulitzer Prize winners to get an international subject’s name wrong – particularly when one of the reporters has been steadily criticized for misreporting on issues in Africa – it’s downright unseemly to rely exclusively on an organization for information about its effectiveness. The authors don’t see it that way, however, for they position their work not so much as “journalism” as “raising awareness,” a project that, like charity: water, amounts to a branding campaign.
In support of this aim, the authors quote a conspicuously unnamed “leading expert on global health” in chapter two, who ponders the best use of a hypothetical, million-dollar donation. “I would take that money and spend it on a big public advertising campaign and a lobbying campaign to raise more money,” they transcribe approvingly. “I bet with $1 million I could raise $100 million for the cause.”
Rise up, they demand! Embrace efficiency and eliminate the pesky “non” from your nonprofit status!
Such logic is the product of a sadly limited political imagination, one bred on too many conversations between Bono, Angelina Jolie and the CEOs of multinationals about the needs of the poor. (The first two have blurbed the book, alongside Bill and Melinda Gates, Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and, strangely, Anne Rice.) For in addition to replicating and deepening the economic inequity that underlies most forms of oppression, urging charitable endeavors to focus on the accrual of money erases the original legal and cultural distinction between for-profit and not-for-profit businesses. Many nowadays embrace the erasure as a survival mechanism, a way of staying afloat in an increasingly privatized world. But not too long ago, many more understood that eliminating the distinction between the nonprofit and for-profit realms primarily serves the shareholders of the latter.
Oh, but this kind of thinking is stuck in “the eighteenth century pre-industrial economy,” the authors warn in chapter 11, and it’s impeding progress. “The tendency in the humanitarian world has been to see corporations as part of the problem,” they write. Nonprofits would do much better to implement, immediately, “businesslike steps that would allow them to scale up and modernize.” Rise up, they demand! Embrace efficiency and eliminate the pesky “non” from your nonprofit status!
Prior to the authors’ claims, in fact, there is a magic-bullet solution presented in Kristof and WuDunn’s latest, and it is the public-private partnership. Its logic shines through not only the constant stumping for specific (and named) entrepreneurial brand initiatives, of which several examples fill out each chapter, but even in described relationships between individuals. The authors might write of “how parents invest in their children,” for example, or quote an economist in support of early childhood education programs, who suggests we can “close disparities and prevent achievement gaps [or] remediate” them later, but “either way, we are going to pay.” One starving boy, afflicted with debilitating illness, merits the gut-wrenching description (albeit perhaps for the wrong reasons): “you look at him and want to reach for your wallet.” (This last reads particularly odd; I’ve watched enough Nick Kristof on video to surmise that his own tendencies rush to hugging more often than not.)
But does this “good” – however “real” – offset the carbon footprint of the constant imports, the disruption to local diet and ecosystems and costs to families in need? Or perhaps the “real” benefit here is to shareholders, who enjoyed record sales topping 20 billion euros in 2012 “due to [the company’s] expansions outside Europe.”
The ideology that equates cash flow with value builds on itself. In support for whatever they believe altruism to be, the authors note in chapter 13 that it increases profits. “Nearly one-third of customers want to increase purchases from companies that are socially responsible,” they write. Along the dichotomy of need, the logic extends in the opposite direction, too, for not only should companies engage in humanitarian issues to make a buck, so too should the individuals served. Kristof and WuDunn applaud the successful Malawi businesswoman in chapter three, for example, who plans to use her earnings to buy the first television set in her village. Instead of sharing the resource with her neighbors, however – nurturing community as a benefit of personal success – she plans to charge folks. “If there’s a soccer match or something,” the authors proudly quote, “anybody who comes in my house to watch will have to pay.” It’s an awkward inclusion, although fits right in with other asides the authors make regarding appropriate spending of earned income (liquor is out, something men are described as favoring, and child-focused spending is in) and how it is come by. (Sex, for example, cannot be work, for in chapter 10 we learn that “even when a woman is now selling sex consensually, she often entered the sex trade involuntarily, typically as a minor.” These claims are not backed up with reliable, or any, data.)
Over the last 20 years, even nonprofits have begun to embrace the for-profit mindset. It’s commonly heard now that 501(c)(3)’s suffer from a lack of business savvy. Many that survived the economic recession have hired business consultants, raised wages for staff and developed benefits packages. They’ve spent money for on-message web design, built boards with or hired CEOs and developed long-term strategies. Gone are the days when nonprofits sought to work themselves out of a job; nowadays one can happily strive toward a long and healthy career addressing wage inequality. With benefits.
All good news for the Half the Sky Movement: “Nonprofits will accomplish far more if they can bring for-profit corporations with them into battle,” Kristof and WuDunn argue. And while I’d never wish to suggest that for-profits aren’t capable of decreasing their own negative impact on the world, a hypocrisy lies hidden in this approach.
Despite the “.org” website, the nonprofit language (“take action”; “movement”), and the issue-based approach, this “organization” does not have 501(c)(3) status. It is merely a website, an advertising platform for their own brand and the not-for-profits they cover in the articles, books, films and games that comprise it, as well as a seemingly random listing of other companies that somehow support their work.
Take one company named in A Path Appears, a company that “is doing real good with yogurt in Bangladesh,” the authors write. The statement follows descriptions of the local disinterest in the foodstuff, the utter lack of native, milk-giving cows, the need to import sweetener, flavors and the micronutrients added to the substance to address the specific needs and wants of Bangladeshi kids, several failed marketing campaigns, and the high cost of the end product for impoverished families. The “real good” seems to be that the company has created a handful of jobs for local women, and therefore is making enough money to continue the experiment. But does this “good” – however “real” – offset the carbon footprint of the constant imports, the disruption to local diet and ecosystems and costs to families in need? Or perhaps the “real” benefit here is to shareholders, who enjoyed record sales topping 20 billion euros in 2012 “due to [the company’s] expansions outside Europe.”
In clear indication of the exact variety of good being done, a press release for the company that Kristof and WuDunn applaud for humanitarian efforts concludes, “We must make every effort to pursue lasting expansion in these markets.” Their profit margin, after all, relies on it.
Kristof and WuDunn aren’t technically in the marketing game. But if you’ve followed the Half the Sky Movement over the last couple years, you may be surprised to read that they’re not really in the charity game either. For despite the “.org” website, the nonprofit language (“take action”; “movement”), and the issue-based approach, this “organization” does not have 501(c)(3) status. It is merely a website, an advertising platform for their own brand and the not-for-profits they cover in the articles, books, films and games that comprise it, as well as a seemingly random listing of other companies that somehow support their work.
From the every-other-page refrain on the significance of maternity to the consistent reminder of women’s superior bookkeeping abilities and commendable disinterest in liquor, the middle-aged, upper middle-class North American female homemaker is practically enshrined in these pages. If a reader requires a less charitable means of contributing to social good, for example, the authors suggest they “simply join a country club.”
Quickly, commerce overtakes other messaging, and what the Half the Sky Movement advocates for or against gets confused in the hubbub. The “Movement” page, for example, claims the listed entities are united “across platforms to ignite the change needed to put an end to the oppression of women and girls worldwide.” The text then names several small-scale consumables – the book, a link to the Instagram account, classroom curriculum – before ending with a heavy-hitting list of media, entertainment and marketing companies. One agency, Blue State Digital, counts among its PR successes the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, Vogue magazine, Ford and Google; another, Chermayeff & Geismar, designs logos and materials for clients like Mobil, Chase Bank and Hearst. What any of these entities have done or are doing to eradicate gender-based oppression remains unclear. In fact, most of the companies seem focused on advancing men and the businesses they run.
What we do know about the Half the Sky Movement is that it is definitely not a not-for-profit. In chapter 19 of A Path Appears, the couple tells us that they “have deliberately not started our own foundation or aid group to gather contributions for causes we believe in. Instead, we point readers and viewers to the many existing ones doing great work.” Their expressed ire about the not-for-profit model would seem to corroborate.
Except there is a nonprofit arm, called the Force Film Foundation, “the official 501(c)3 of the Half the Sky Movement,” as described here and confirmed by variousdonors. This foundation has, in the past, operated as an “aid group to gather contributions for causes [the authors] believe in.” As the nonprofit side of Show of Force, the production team behind the PBS version of Half the Sky (as well as other cause-focused films; they are represented by the Creative Artists Agency), the Force Film Foundation has contributed substantially to the Half the Sky Movement.
And vice versa. For as it turns out, however unseemly the authors may find it, nonprofit status still provides essential support for cultural production. In 2012, the year Half the Sky aired on PBS, Force Film Foundation received $2.2 million in donations, according to tax records – a ninefold increase over the 2011 budget – nearly $2.1 million of which was designated for Kristof and WuDunn’s project. Donation figures for A Path Appears have not yet been made public.
A Path Appears is not a book for businesspeople; however, they may be partial to its logic. It’s also not a self-help book. (Although nuggets like “There are few more selfish pleasures than altruism,” from the introduction, may confuse.) In fact, considering the modest run of the first edition – compared to the estimated 1.4 million who watched Half the Sky when it first aired on PBS, and the 500,000 more who played the Half the Sky Facebook game withinthe first month of its launch – one wonders why they wrote it at all. Particularly since every entity mentioned already has an entrepreneurial outlet and web presence, and most individuals their own TED talks.
But A Path Appears holds central importance in the Half the Sky Movement, because the audience for whom it is written – as Half the Sky itself pointed out – has been historically disadvantaged on the world stage, continues to be slighted economically and is prone to unpaid care work. Women are the audience for Kristof and WuDunn’s latest, as they were for the last, particularly those in book clubs, with disposable incomes, and who have kids in school and who might therefore suggest it be added to the school’s curriculum. Upper-middle-class North American women, in other words, who feel disenfranchised by gender-based discrimination themselves but may not have the vocabulary to articulate it. (Having written a book that competes with Half the Sky on school curriculums, I’ve met many of these women. They are delightful. My concern here is not with what they choose to do with their time, but with the calculated way they are being galvanized to advance an agenda that may not correspond with their own interests. Check, for example, the logic they are asked to accept in this blog post headline from the book’s website.)
This audience is never profiled outright, but alluded to constantly. From the every-other-page refrain on the significance of maternity to the consistent reminder of women’s superior bookkeeping abilities and commendable disinterest in liquor, the middle-aged, upper middle-class North American female homemaker is practically enshrined in these pages. If a reader requires a less charitable means of contributing to social good, for example, the authors suggest they “simply join a country club.”
Reminder: Those for whom it is simple to join a country club are a very select group of people. These are people more likely to identify, say, with the observers in a scientific experiment than with the rats. Such experiments are described, fairly frequently, in A Path Appears. More often than not they are used to explain the behavior of people in poverty – the books’ subjects – in impartial terms, presumably because the intended audience has no personal experience with economic hardship. Sometimes, as in this excerpt published in the Times, the scientific experiments involve actual rats, here used to explain the antisocial behavior of a friend of the couples’ daughter. Addressing social ills via laboratory findings has certainly been done in other books to helpful effect, but considering the multiple means through which these authors dehumanize their subjects and strip them of autonomy, the association of folks in poverty with rats may strike readers as alarming.
At other times, the associations are more fun, if equally improvable. In chapter six, “Who Grabs the Marshmallow,” the authors use Walter Mischel’s famous test to advocate for programs that promote self-control and goal-setting in young people. In Mischel’s original experiment, they state, “children who delayed eating the marshmallow did much better as teenagers and earned significantly higher SAT scores than those who gave up and chomped on it.”
Kristof and WuDunn call the operating principal at work “grit” – the ability to delay gratification for a larger reward – but Mischel himself found the experiment much more complicated. So did his test subjects.
“Factors like poverty play a huge role in how kids decide to handle the challenge of the experiment. If you’ve grown up in a situation of scarcity, it’s probably a very smart thing to take what’s in front of you when you can get it,” artist and researcher Nina Katchadourian told me. You’ve probably seen her “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style,” photographs taken in airplane bathrooms that are on constant, viral, social media rotation. Recently she’s been studying the marshmallow test. She also remembers taking it.
“In my own experience as a 4-year-old,” she said, “I was focused much more on figuring out how reliable I thought the grown-ups were. Would the experimenter really return with the reward I had been promised? It turns out there have been many studies that also look at how trust affects the child’s ability – and decision – to wait or not wait.”
Kristof and WuDunn’s assertion of “grit” as the determining factor in future success, in other words, is not proven by the marshmallow test, despite the easy magic-bullet solution this characterization provides. The experiment can also be read, plainly and simply, as a test for the larger social factors that limit success, such as poverty and lack of security. The kid who waits on the marshmallow might just be used to getting marshmallows. Of course she or he will receive more opportunities in life than a child who’s rarely handed anything at all.
A Path Appears is a book for those who are used to being given marshmallows, although it does nothing to ensure that others in need receive them, too. For many of the solutions proposed – the organizations Kristof and WuDunn suggest readers support – tread in streams fed by charity: water. What they claim to get done might happen, yes, but what else happens along the way is never acknowledged. And in some cases, as in public-private partnerships, the auxiliary effect of profit-minded, anti-poverty work directly undermines the cause at hand.
A bait-and-switch happens, but it’s unclear who perpetrates it. It is only clear who benefits. Kristof and WuDunn, as earnest and engaged as they are in these issues, fail to follow through on the mandates of journalism that would allow the perpetrator of the bait-and-switch to be revealed.
Still, the project of the Half the Sky Movement is to ensure this book will become a bestseller. The couples’ previous attempts to cure social ills abroad have gone over fairly well in this country, even though large swaths of Half the Sky have been revealed as factually inaccurate.
But remember that teaching “grit” won’t end global income inequality. Neither, for that matter, will an extremely innovative kind of yogurt or a well-planned, clean-water birthday campaign. Global income inequality could end, but its elimination won’t happen through the bolstering of in-place, profit-minded organizations with half an eye (or more) on their own bottom lines. It will come through the close examination of the real causes, effects and perpetrators of all forms of oppression.
Including Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.