Thoughts on Kristof’s Moonshine
I’m late to the game here (some traveling outside of the Internet-zone kept me in the dark), and much has already been said in the development-related blogosphere about Nicolas Kristof’s op-ed last week in the New York Times. For the most part, the reaction has been extremely critical. A number of bloggers have denounced Kristof’s article both academically and personally. Other influential voices have been more tepid, but they are in the minority, and still are quite far from an endorsement.
The way I see it, Kristof had one main and major flaw in how he approached a serious and influential topic: he severely misinterpreted the data. This has been well documented by others, but it is worth repeating some of the major points here.
Kristof cites one well-known academic paper in his column, and uses it to justify stating that the poor spend as much as four times as much on alcohol, parties, and prostitution as they do on their children’s education. It’s a shocking conclusion, mainly because it is, by and large, wrong.
As discussed by many other bloggers, the supporting paper explains the low expenditures on education by stating that they tend to be in countries where education is, in fact, free. Furthermore, Kristof seems to manipulate the numbers when he speaks of worldwide averages on education spending. Prostitution, commonly mentioned in Kristof’s article, is not discussed anywhere in the source material. And finally, while I believe this is inadvertent, his column sounds like it is applying the issue to every poor African family.
This is shoddy journalism and disrespectful to everyone ranging from the writers of the supporting article to the readership of the New York Times to, most importantly, the impoverished themselves. These mistakes should not have been made to begin with, and certainly should not have survived editors and fact-checkers to make it all the way to publication. They should be acknowledged in an apology by Kristof, which does not seem to be forthcoming.
Kristof has been heavily criticized for this misrepresented data and misguided conclusions, and rightly so, in my opinion.
However, some of the other criticisms have stood out to me as either irrelevant or significantly less valid. A lot of these criticisms seem to be forgetting that Kristof does not have a target audience of the aid/development community. He is writing for the general public in one of the world’s most widely read news sources. Kristof’s goal, in this column and others, is to introduce a relatively uninitiated culture (for example, mainstream America) to how the rest of the world lives. As such, his content is going to be oriented accordingly.
Of course he is not going to spend time talking about the vices of rich American families who also spend money on booze and prostitutes, as many have criticized him for – why should he? He’s not endorsing the mistakes of rich America, nor is he ignoring them, but rather they quite honestly fall out of the realm of his column, which is about the developing world, not the developed.
Kristof is also going to use one story to portray a larger issue. When the larger issue exists (and it does in this case), that’s not generalization, that’s smart marketing. He will get a lot more readers interested in how people live in Africa by putting a face on it. Abstractions and statistics only get you so far. Is he saying all of Africa is just like the Obamzas? No. He’s saying they are one of many examples of a larger problem. This is not common in academic aid writing; it is common in journalism.
His column also only scratches the surface of a number of valid and complex trains of thought. He doesn’t discuss, for example, how booze can buy social capital. But that’s what happens when you write a 800-word column instead of a 8,000 word journal article – you simply can’t discuss everything. He writes a fairly comprehensive introduction given the small space available
We shouldn’t hold Kristof to the same standards as aid professionals – his standards are not lower, of course, but they are quite different. He is writing for a different publication and a different audience. As well done as I think that much of our aid/development writing is, there is a reason not everyone reads it, and that many more instead read the op-eds in The New York Times.
This serves to make Kristof a very loud voice for aid and development, which makes it essential that he represents the developing world correctly, and is thus why it makes it very worrisome when he does things like dangerously misrepresent hard data. But, his loud voice also makes his column valuable when done well, and ultimately the value of this specific article outweighs its flaws.
The topic of those with very little choosing to spend their money on substances like alcohol rather than education is difficult to talk about, but it exists nonetheless. Anyone who has spent time with communities in the developing world has seen this time and time again. As convenient as it can be to ignore discussing the issue, impoverished decision making and priorities make for a conversation integral to effective development. When trying to help people attain economic empowerment, it is necessary to understand both what decisions they make and why they make them. Kristof’s column is a necessary, though clumsy, reminder of that fact.
But more importantly, given his target audience, Kristof’s writing in general has another meaningful purpose: it humanizes the impoverished of the world to those who might not meet them.
There is a tendency among the general developed world populace to reduce the foreign impoverished to one dimension: poverty. In doing so, despite harmless intentions, this public ignores that the developing world is actually full of quite regular people who just happen to have less. Instead they end up viewing the impoverished as a different type of person with whom they have very little in common.
That’s not a good point of view for development efforts, as we’ll do a lot better when it is understood that people across the world are all pretty similar at the core. Showing that the poor, just like the rich, are real people who enjoy a drink even when it’s not the best idea is a step in that direction.
So what should readers take away from Kristof’s column, besides the importance of accuracy and fact-checking? It’s not that poverty is the fault of the poor. It’s not that Americans don’t struggle with the vices that the impoverished do. It’s that, all across the world, people are complex and multifaceted – and that there is a lot that ties us all together, both good and bad.
If Kristof succeeded in delivering that message, I can hardly condemn it.