Development Economics

Nicholas Kristof and the Marketing of Development

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. (more…)