The other day I listened to an interview with Nicholas Kristof on the role of storytelling in development and its importance for advancing the cause. Kristof has received a lot of flak from development bloggers for oversimplifying issues and focusing the narrative around a single, white, typically American protagonist. In doing so, Kristof misrepresents the problem, which leads his readers to believe that, for example, Western sex tourists are the reason for child prostitution in Cambodia, or diamond mining is the cause of all of the problems in the Congo. These causes, however, are a) easily understood, and b) resonate with Kristof’s readers on an emotional level. It is easier to get people fired up about an issue they wouldn’t normally care about when you elicit feelings of empathy and anger about grave injustice. But once you start to talk about the deeper roots of these problems – the boundary-based ethnic conflicts, the desperation of poverty, and the gangsterism of warlords and army generals – the eyes of the marginally-interested reader begin to glaze over as the words “impossibly complex” and “hopeless” come to his mind.
I agree with Kristof here. He makes the (good) point that many people make the mistake of dismissing marketing for development causes to be irrelevant or cheap. In doing so, the issues they support languish without financial or political support from people who either don’t know or don’t care about their cause. The cause-and-effects of poverty and its ills are impossibly complex. There is a tendency, I think, among career development people to become increasingly dismissive of anyone or anything that oversimplifies these issues they have spent their lives trying to understand. But, unfortunately, most people don’t like complexity, and it has a tendency to turn people off an issue.
Kristof relies on social psychology to understand how to resonate with his readers. After writing an article about Darfur back in 2004, he became frustrated that people didn’t respond, despite all of the terrible things that he felt should have stirred anger and action. Here is how he thinks about his articles now:
So I turned to the field of social psychology, trying to understand how I could craft my writing so that it would generate a response rather than a turned page. Over the past 20 years, there have been many studies that shed light on this question, and, increasingly, I’ve come to believe that those of us who care about human rights and global poverty can do a far better job in our messaging. Like Pepsi, humanitarian causes need savvy marketing. Indeed, they need it far more than a soft-drink company.
Good people engaging in good causes sometimes feel too pure and sanctified to sink to something as manipulative as marketing, but the result has been that women have been raped when it could have been avoided and children have died of pneumonia unnecessarily—because those stories haven’t resonated with the public. So for God’s sake, let’s learn how we can connect people to important causes and galvanize a robust public reaction.
It is not that he himself does not understand the issues, or that he genuinely believes that magnanimous foreigners are driving improvements in developing countries. Rather, he knows that his readers will find more in common with a white protagonist fighting to make the world a better place, than they will a Congolese or a Nigerian slogging away to improve the lives of people living on the margins.
What Kristof understands that his critics may not is that, regardless of how he gets his readers to care, their response will be the same. Many of them will continue to read more about Cambodia or Nigeria or the DRC. A few of them will take an active role in spreading awareness and rallying political support for an issue. And, on a rare occasion, a reader will become so inspired as to start his own organization or begin an effort to make things better.
Marketing is important. Treating a cause like a product will benefit the mission. And having an ally in a journalist with the New York Times as his platform is a blessing for the mission, even if he doesn’t always get the facts right.