Nicholas Kristof: Half The Sky, All The Credit

by Anne Elizabeth Moore and Melissa Gira Grant

Nick Kristof is a big fan of workplace evaluation for teachers—so we hope he won’t mind if we gather and share the following by way of conducting a performance review of our own.

The occasion? This week Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half The Sky premieres on PBS as a two-part mini series, providing an opportunity for his audience to step into his well-worn white savior shoes. From this unique vantage point, viewers will survey the lives of young women whom Kristof and WuDunn have chosen as the best ciphers for their agenda, to, as the subtitle of their book puts it, “turn oppression into opportunity.”

Yet even linguistically, something nags about that title: one does not go from being oppressed to being opportuned—or do they? Perhaps a better question to ask is: for whom does Kristof’s particular mode of humanitarianism provide opportunity? Some young women may benefit, certainly. But NGOs, private-public partnerships, and other enterprising (and entrepreneurial) young do-gooders are jumping into the fray, too. All turning oppression into opportunity—but ultimately not doing much about eradicating the oppression in the first place.

When Kristof is not proposing dubious schemes for advancing women’s rights—like arresting sex workers in order to “rescue” them from prostitution, or enthusiastically supporting the creation of “sweatshops” to accommodate sex workers and other women in the global south—he is marshalling support for such “solutions,” enlisting folks from George Clooney to President Obama, and from evangelical youth missionaries to the United Nations. Everyone seems to love that he’s created simple solutions (Video games! Donating money! Building schools!) but few note that such “solutions” fail to address the deeply embedded, long-standing, structural problems that cause poverty and gender inequity in the first place.

Let’s not forget that although Kristof may position himself like a walking, talking, reporting NGO, Kristof is not himself a charitable venture. He is a media-maker: his job is to talk and get talked about. Each young woman’s story that he tells bolsters up his own brand; each solution he offers casts himself in a prime-time starring role.

Nicholas Kristof: A Collective Evaluation

The Soft Side of Imperialism (Laura Agustín)

Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.

In interviews, he refers to the need to protect his humanitarian image, and he got one Pulitzer Prize because he “gave voice to the voiceless”. Can there be a more presumptuous claim? Educated at both Harvard and Oxford, he nevertheless appears ignorant of critiques of Empire and grassroots women’s movements alike. Instead, Kristof purports to speak for girls and women and then shows us how grateful they are.

The White Savior Industrial Complex (Teju Cole)

I want to tread carefully here: I do not accuse Kristof of racism nor do I believe he is in any way racist. I have no doubt that he has a good heart. Listening to him on the radio, I began to think we could iron the whole thing out over a couple of beers. But that, precisely, is what worries me. That is what made me compare American sentimentality to a “wounded hippo.” His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.

Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics (Elliott Prasse-Freeman)

Kristof’s ability to frame and deliver the world’s horrors to millions—in a way that keeps those millions coming back for more—seemingly should make him worthy of the hero worship that has attended his rise. Indeed, what is worse than a privileged bourgeois population that knows nothing of the way the other half (or rather the other 99 percent) lives? And yet the devil as always remains in the details—or in Kristof’s case, the lack of details. For, when exploring why Kristof has become a high priest of liberal opinion in America (arrogating the right to speak on almost any sociopolitical phenomenon, provided it involves an easily identifiable victim), we crash into what can be called Kristof’s anti-politics: the way his method and style directly dehumanize his subjects, expelling them from the realm of the analytical by refusing to connect them to systems and structures that animate their challenges.

Mr. Kristof, I Presume? (Kathryn Mathers)

All of the copies of Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky were checked out of the libraries of nearby universities last summer. My students know that there are problems with the development and aid industries and can even offer biting critiques of celebrity interventions in aid programs in Africa. But they believe that they can do it better, that their generation understands the failures and can solve them, and that their intentions are pure enough to overcome the cynics. Their confidence is made possible in part by the examples of individual young Americans just like them establishing and running educational, health, and technological programs in Africa trumpeted by a serious journalist like Kristof in a serious newspaper like the New York Times. Kristof’s writing about humanitarianism in Africa makes possible a very limited but accessible form of aid by asking his readers to focus on what they can do and the importance of one individual saving another. So, no, I do not want to write about Nicolas Kristof. But I must, because he has claimed such an authoritative voice in conversations about Americans’ relationship to Africans that he has somehow made the act of writing about them an actual intervention in the lives of poor people in the world.

You need Nicholas Kristof (Dan Moshenberg)

If you’re an African girl in trouble, there are only two things you can rely on. Your courage … and Nicholas Kristof. At least, that’s what Kristof would have us believe.

The story Kristof tells is the story he’s told before. This time he’s in Sierra Leone. A 15-year-old girl named Fulamatu is raped by her neighbor. This happens repeatedly, and Fulamatu remains in terrified and terrorized silence. She loses weight, becomes sick. Finally, when two girls report that the pastor had tried to rape them, Fulamatu’s parents put two and two together, and asked their daughter, who reports the whole series of events. They take her to the doctor, where she is found to have gonorrhea. Fulamatu lays charges against the pastor, who flees.

That’s where Kristof comes in… He argues for US Congressional passage for the International Violence Against Women Act, but his story suggests a more important line of action. The story says, if you’re Black and a girl, in `a place like Sierra Leone’, you better have the phone number of a prominent White American Male. You need Nicholas Kristof.

Obama, Please Ignore Kristof For Now (Melissa Gira Grant)

Nicholas Kristof has been issuing ad-hoc Presidential guidance on the sex trade for years now. The archive of his editorial column in the New York Times serves as a record of his proposals. In 2004, he “bought the freedom” of two women working in brothels in Poipet, Cambodia with the intention of returning them to their villages. Kristof wasn’t prosecuted under US law for the purchase of sex slaves — he wrote of this sale as an “emancipation,” and in 2005, he was back in Poipet to check up on the women. One had returned to prostitution, prompting Kristof to offer another round of recommendations to President Bush, pleading with him to commit the United States to a New Abolitionism. Now he’s back with his 2009 agenda, delivered like the others, as a kicker to his column. In it, he asks that the Obama administration pressure the Cambodian government to bust more brothels, on the premise that the risk of going to jail for selling sex will hurt brothel owners’ profits and will protect more women from abuse and violence. Yet such stings and raids are already the centerpiece of a disastrous crackdown on Cambodian prostitution.

Nick Kristof to the rescue! (Irin Carmon)

The narrative proceeded in a familiar fashion: There were villains, even some with military ties; then there is a rescue. Kristof tweeted, “Girls are rescued, but still very scared Youngest looks about 13, trafficked from Vietnam.” And then, “Social workers comforting the girls, telling them they are free, won’t be punished, rapes are over.” He was accompanied by Cambodian anti-trafficking activist and forced-prostitution survivor Somaly Mam. Post-presidential niece Lauren Bush chimed in perkily, “Awesome reporting by @NickKristof as the (sic) raided a brothel in Cambodia with @SomalyMam this morning!” The trouble is, nothing involving sex work is ever quite as cut-and-dried as a sweeping rescue.

The Rescue Industry (Paper Bird)

During the Egyptian Revolution, when the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof was wandering Midan Tahrir giving the uprising his ponderous approval, I told friends that if Mubarak wanted to get at least one pesky journalist off his back, he need only give Nick directions to Clotbey Street — the capital’s ancient red-light district — and tell him there were girls who needed saving. Such is Kristof’s passion to rescue misused and trafficked women that he would have dropped everything to head there. And given that Nick permits no struggle for human freedom to go on without him, the revolt would surely have been suspended, and Mubarak would still be in charge.

A human trafficker defends Cambodian sweatshops (Erik W Davis)

Kristof suggests that an expansion of bad sweatshop conditions (and despite relatively better conditions, Cambodian factories are largely sweatshops) is a solution to poverty. He’s full of it. His heart might be in the right place, but he’s stopped using his reason. The factories are not doing the job that development economists expected it to do from the beginning, which was to industrialize the country and expand the off-farm job base (and therefore, reduce poverty). Today, 91% of Cambodian heads of households still list agriculture as their primary employment, and at least 80% still live in the impoverished provinces. The factories won’t expand (indeed, as I point out, they are rapidly shrinking) just because Kristof thinks that the scavengers at Stung Meanchey dump could use a better form of subsistence.

FarmVille (Maggie McNeill)

If Kristof had ever demonstrated some actual regard for the complex and often contradictory desires, needs and behaviors of real women I might not read this subtext into his silly game, but he hasn’t; females of every age are simply props to him, little game-pieces whose function is the aggrandizement of Nicholas Kristof. He treats the real lives of sex workers as FarmVille players treat the existence of their virtual creatures: as things to be manipulated for profit and “points”. He uses the stories of girls to build up his own reputation, exaggerating their lurid details and reworking them into enslavement porn from which he reaps the profit while condemning others as “pimps” (talk about pot calling kettle black…) He participates in Hollywood cowboy “brothel raids”, then never stops to wonder what happened to the women he “rescued” afterward. And he no more bothers to consider what the girls he “rescues” and writes about might want than a FarmVille player considers the desires of his digital farm animals. To Kristof, individual women are as interchangeable and passive as endlessly-duplicated digital beasts, and our function is to stay wherever he puts us and earn him money and status.

Have your own “critical take”?

Let us know in the comments.

Anne Elizabeth Moore has been working in and around young women’s issues in Cambodia for five years. Her book Cambodian Grrrl has been suggested as a Half The Sky alternative, for folks made reasonably uncomfortable with white neoliberal portrayals of feminism. 

Melissa Gira Grant writes on gender, sexuality, politics, and more often than she would like, on badvocacy like Half The Sky. She is indebted to the sex worker rights’ activists around the world and in Cambodia in particular for their firsthand accounts of the damage this dude has wrought.

  • normajeana

    Years ago when I was working, I had a client who had a similar fantasy to Kristof’s- he wanted to be a ‘rescuer’ and ‘save’ me from myself. It was a very intricate fantasy that had to be enacted with precision. Make no mistake- it was a sexual fantasy, just as I believe Kristof’s is. But at least my client was honest about his desires, whereas Kristof and the other male white saviors don’t acknowledge that their desire to ‘save’ women or girls is a sexual fantasy. Beyond the savior complex, Kristof’s behavior allows him to publicly display not only his fantasy but the actual ‘rescue’ of those he perhaps longs to psychologically and physically diddle. An exhibitionist’s wet dream! Sex workers who have had clients like him will recognize the behavior pattern.

    It is almost a cliche that those who preach the loudest against certain sexual activities are the most likely to be engaging in it. Eliot Spitzer being one prime example, David Vitter another, to name but two of the very, very many. Kristof’s ‘concern’ for the young girls he longs to rescue could be construed by an analyst as a safe and public way to engage in pedophilia without having to risk imprisonment or loss of respect, his job or his ‘heroic persona.’ However, unlike an honest client who pays adult sex workers for his sexual fulfillment so there is no victim, men and women who use their clout and public forum to ‘rescue’ those who have not asked for help leave a wide swath of victims in their wake. We can only hope that someday soon, Kristof will be unmasked and he will be exposed as the hypocrite and fraud I believe him to be, just as William Hillar (‘Taken’) was revealed as a liar and fraud. That’s MY wet dream!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dr.r.morton Rachel Morton

    Would that the NYT would publish these as a supplement. My fantasy!

  • Rachel

    I, too, am frustrated by and wary of Kristof it’s-easy-to-save-the-world schtick. I share many of the concerns listed here, and I really appreciate these thoughtful analyses. What I feel like I still don’t know, however, is how people whose stories he writes about feel about any of this. Of course he would say they are happy and grateful, and I wouldn’t take that at face value… but what if it’s true sometimes? It strikes me that most of the voices I hear on *all* sides of this debate are highly-educated, well-off, probably White(?) residents of the Global North. I’m more likely to believe what the people above write about the feelings of, say, Cambodian sex workers and the organizations who work with them to address immediate needs and structural inequalities than I am to believe Kristof. But either way, it seems like most of this is still *us* speaking for *them*.

    • normajeana

      There are many online sex worker organizations from the non white, non global north where you can find the voices of those who have been victimized by the white saviors. Try searching for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Work Projects, and the many other rights groups run by non white, non ‘privileged’ sex workers. There are plenty of them.

      However, you must also realize that the ‘white’ residents of the Global north may not be well off as you imagine (for example, I have lived on the edge of desperation with my husband since I came home from prison in 1989, and have been unemployable because (1) I am a convicted felon because I wrote a book about police corruption and (2) I am an outspoken advocate for sex workers rights, and if it hadn’t been for supportive friends who gave us a place to live, I’d be writing this from my little piece of real estate under the freeway -if I even had a computer to do so. Advocacy costs those who dare to speak up: http://www.policeprostitutionandpolitics.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=96:norma-jean-and-the-hollywood-corruption-scandal-1982&catid=1:latest-news&Itemid=50 ).

    • http://melissa.tumblr.com/ melissa

      It’s a fair point, Rachel, though I can’t speak with 100% certainty as to the race, ethnicity, and economic status of each person whose piece we linked to.

      In my piece on Kristof (which we linked), I do link and quote Cambodian sex workers’ testimonies on raids and rescues. The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers have produced several videos about the impact of anti-trafficking policies in their communities, and are tweeting furiously about Half The Sky, as well, at http://twitter.com/apnsw

  • http://twitter.com/superanne Anne Elizabeth Moore

    Yes—this is all fair and interesting critique. As far as the above list of writers, the only one I know personally is Erik Davis, who is white and with whom I disagree on some issues (what constitutes a “sweatshop,” exactly, being one we don’t have time to get into here) but who speaks significantly better Khmer than I do, and has spent more time in country than I have. I will add, in terms of due diligence, that Melissa and I did disinclude another writer for general unfairness and charges of being kind of a dink.

    In my own work in Cambodia, however, speaking for folks presents a different set of problems, because I often work with young women hoping to move into leadership positions in a government notorious for violating free speech rights with undeserved punishment (up to and including murder, but limiting job opportunities certainly happens too). Early on, I was asked to change names and hide identities, which I did in the publication of Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh—leaving me to, in fact, “speak for”. But I did it because I was also regularly exhibiting and sharing the zines and books we made together—documents in which I had no hand besides presenting the initial instruction—so readers could at least have other resources to draw from when separating fact from fiction.

    The real problem is how very very tricky it is to do any work in Cambodia *without* those you are working with claiming they are happy and grateful. Cambodians are often happy and grateful entirely on their own, but being surrounded by or experiencing deep poverty for decades does tend to make folks a little more happy and a little more grateful, especially if you have economic incentive (a newspaper column job, an NGO, the IMF) to ask. The real trick in my work in Cambodia has been opening up space for critical engagement—with my work, or with anyone else’s who comes along. It’s true that I tend not to make that public—although I have, more in my essays than books—but it’s also true that the work has shifted fundamentally because of it. (Although you’d need to do a bit of Facebook stalking to investigate.)

    Then again, a lot of folks have a lot more interesting things to be doing with their lives than writing about Nick Kristof. The presumption that he’s as important in all these places he goes and “does good” as he claims rings pretty hollow, in my experience. As a thought experiment—keeping in mind the links above, where those voices can be heard—we might read the lack of marginalized voices weighing in on this issue as a value judgment of its own.

    • Rachel

      Those are great points. Thank you! I don’t have time to write more now, but this is all very thought-provoking and I really appreciate your engagement with it.

  • Marcie Boyd

    I have a totally different take on Kristof. Have you talked to him directly? Maybe trashing him on the Internet isn’t the best way to get him to rethink some of his positions. Sure he’s naive about the role of capitalism in eradicating gender inequality. But I find him extremely respectful towards women, and supportive of women-led grassroots organizations and movements. I wish MORE educated men, regardless of their cultural and ethnic background, would speak up against gender-related violence and exploitation, and take a proactive role in ending it as Kristof is doing.

    • http://melissa.tumblr.com/ melissa

      “Sure he’s naive about the role of capitalism in eradicating gender inequality.”

      You nailed it. And no, it’s not trashing someone to point that out. And yes, I’d gladly point it out in person.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=624537836 Maxine Doogan

    I was hoping for a title like: What to anti traffickers and serial killers have in common…

  • Linda Gordon

    What was wrong with “Half the Sky”? Let me count the ways:
    –presenting Kristof as the shining white knight, rescuer of helpless women;
    –featuring American starlets who were uneducated, irrelevant, even ditzy at times, couldn’t ask a single thoughtful question;
    –not featuring local women’s movements–the only forces than can make real social change;
    –sensationalizing violence without evidence–for example, regarding sex
    trafficking. The vast majority of prostitution EVERYWHERE is
    “voluntary,” if we assume that what very poor women need to do in order to
    survive is voluntary;
    –claiming that tiny, drop-in-the-bucket projects can make a difference;
    –avoiding any discussion of the impact of structural adjustment and austerity
    requirements imposed by the IMF; these are the policies that most threaten women’s and children’s health, education, and wellbeing;
    –avoiding any discussion of how US government policy worsens women’s and children’s lives;
    –avoiding any discussion of the government policies of the countries shown;
    –failing to use experts from the countries shown;
    –and failing to study and become informed before making such a film.

    Linda Gordon

    • http://twitter.com/MissCherryPi Elizabeth

      >not featuring local women’s movements–the only forces than can make real social change
      >failing to use experts from the countries shown;

      I’m going to have to take issue with these two. However flawed this book and documentary may be, they entirely focused on local activists:

      Amie Kandeh, women’s protection and empowerment coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in Sierra Leone.
      Edna Adan, operator of a maternity hospital in Somaliland.
      Urmi Basu, founder of New Light, a secular nonprofit charitable trust that operates a shelter to protect and educate young girls, children and women at high risk in a red light area of Kolkata, India.
      Ruchira Gupta, the founder and president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a grassroots organization in India working to end sex trafficking by increasing choices for at-risk girls and women.
      Rebecca Lolosoli, matriarch of the Umoja Women’s Village in Kenya and an advocate for women’s rights.
      Somaly Man, who started AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation to help trafficked girls and women in Cambodia,
      Jane Ngiori, a member of an antipoverty organization called Jamii Bora

  • CH

    I commented to/challenged this essay on another blog and have since been reading my eyes out (Elliott Prasse Freeman, Samhita at Feministing, etc). I realize that I’m a “do-gooder.” I wonder if there is a place for do-gooding, a way for it to be one prong in a multi-pronged approach that includes the deep, complex analyses offered by these writers. Anyway, thank you for the education.

    • http://melissa.tumblr.com/ melissa

      That’s a really fair, important, and huge question. And I want to answer it, and ask others to weigh in, too.

      But in (extreme) brief: I’m an advocate for self-centered activism. I am. I think it’s incredibly effective. I look at ACT-UP, led by people living with HIV, supported by allies. I look at the movements to de-stigmatize breast cancer (before they were overtaken by pink ribbon profiteering). I look at the organization I first did sex worker rights work with – a women’s welfare organization, founded and led by four low-income women.

      Activism is incredibly powerful when it comes from a place of our own experience, our own stakes, own own skin in the game.

      The thing that’s difficult is — we all have some power at stake in these issues. And it can be incredibly difficult for people to face that. I remember the feminist foundation I worked at, and I remember how much harder it was to get some people to fund feminist activism in the United States, rather than in India or South Africa. I think it’s because for an American woman to even write a check to an American organization, it implicates her in the power relations at hand. It draws attention to the fact that (in this case) young women a few towns away from her were going without sex ed, were going without health care, were experiencing violence in their schools and homes — and she was not.

      Do I want that woman not to write a check? No, please, write your check. We need it.

      But also ask — what power do you have, that those you seek to “help” do not? How can you be an actor in your activism? How can you hold yourself accountable and use that power differently?

      I think of the well-off residents of the West Village in New York, a historically gay neighborhood, organizing to kick queer and trans kids, and mostly queer and trans kids of color, out of the neighborhood, citing “quality of life” issues, not getting the T in GLBT, not getting the connections.

      I think of women’s rights activists who want to kick porn shops and sex work business out of populous areas in cities, not understanding that isolating sex workers puts them at risk.

      Not understanding the power we bring to our activism is what leads to these “unintended” consequences. And that’s at the core of what pushes me (and others) to want to hold Kristof to account.

      • http://melissa.tumblr.com/ melissa

        And I should add — the actions in the West Village? Led the formation of FIERCE (http://www.fiercenyc.org/), a community organization founded and led by queer and trans youth of color, who have been incredibly successful organizing in New York and nationally.

        And the actions to target sexually oriented businesses? In the late 70′s, that’s what galvanized the sex workers’ rights movement in the US, and fed consciousness-raising efforts in sex worker communities. (It was also a time when some second wave feminists supported sex workers’ rights. I was amazed to find really solid defenses of sex workers’ rights in the writing coming out of the Wages For Housework campaigns in the late 70′s – women who did not do sex work supporting the organizing led by sex workers, and opposing police repression of sex workers. They lent their analysis and support and their ability to call out cops as people with generally more power than sex workers had. And they didn’t try — as far as I have seen in these archives — to steer sex workers’ own agendas. Powerful stuff, and a great model.)

        • CH

          Thank you for your responses and your work.

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  • Lacrema

    I remember back in ’09 or ’10 when Kristof wrote a more or less pornographic account of several war rapes in the Congo and said something to the effect of, “I wish there were a big earthquake here so people would pay attention to these women.” Now it’s clear why he wanted that – it racks up points for Player K.

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  • KathleenSheldon

    I wrote this review of the Kristoff and WuDunn book in 2010: http://www.cihablog.com/book-review-half-the-sky-turning-oppression-into-opportunity-for-women-worldwide/ for a blog on Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa.

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  • http://twitter.com/jakeadelstein Jake Adelstein

    Melissa, I tend to agree that protecting the rights of sex workers may be a much more reasonable and helpful approach to exploitation of women. In Japan, the sex industry is quasi-legal and regulated. I’ve read the whole article a few times—and I guess my question is this: is do you feel that Kristof does more harm than good? What would you suggest are universally better ways of ending the oppression of women? Has anyone ever confronted him about his lack of follow-up on the “rescued” sex workers?

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  • jferdy5

    This is a fantastic blog. I thought I was the only one who thought this way. Thank you so much for aggregating this information!!!!

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  • Anon

    What’s wrong with saving 12 year olds from sex trafficking or is it more about how he does it?

  • Days of Broken Arrows

    I just found this post now, after reading the recent piece where he was gloating over senior citizen johns getting busted and outed. Great writing. I’d like to see someone do a sting on Kristof: get an attractive woman to meet him in a bar, make an offer, and see what he does. Why doesn’t anyone do these stings in reverse? My feeling is that anyone this obsessed with the sex trade is turned on by it. I’m getting an Elliott Spitzer vibe.