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…)

Development Economics

The Awareness Dilemma: How Nicholas Kristof Gets Us to Care

For those who do not know, Nicholas Kristof is an incurable optimist who writes a column for the New York Times on aid, development, foreign policy, and all things related.  In a video posted to his blog, he took questions from readers.  The author of one development blog point out that most of Kristof's articles follow a standard narrative that: "one that often focused on the foreign, typically American "savior" helping the poor Africans in need, to the exclusion of efforts of black Africans themselves to bring about change on the ground."  It is a good question, since most of the development workers in this world making things happen are locals, not foreigners.  Here is Mr. Kristof's response:

I do take your point. That very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who’s doing something there. And let me tell you why I do that. The problem that I face -- my challenge as a writer -- in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I'm writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that's the moment to turn the page. It's very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that. One way of getting people to read at least a few paragraphs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character. And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty.
I think this is a pretty thoughtful and right-on response.  (more…)