Q&A: Nicholas Kristof on D.I.Y. Foreign Aid
GOOD: When did you first begin to notice this thing that you call "Do-It-Yourself Foreign Aid"?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: When reporting for Half the Sky, we kept coming across examples of individuals who had done something truly amazing. And they preferred to do it on their own, rather than joining a large aid organization. We were a little skeptical at first about whether it world work or make a difference overall. But as a whole, while there are some lousy projects, there are also some excellent ones.
G: What qualities, in your mind, make it a revolution?
NK: One of the mistakes people make is to come up with a great idea around a conference table, bounce it across the world, and immediately implement it. It's crucial to listen to local people and find out the best way to implement it. Our role as Americans is to be sherpa to local people, not to be the grand poobahs.
G: Your story profiles a bunch of young, entrepreneurial women bent on changing the world. Did you encounter similarly ambitious young men, too? Is there a discrepancy?
NK: There are certainly men involved as well as women, with men drawn to the more technical side involving computers, finance, the environment. But especially on the social side, it is disproportionately young women that are running those projects. There’s an awful lot of young women in high school and college who are looking for some kind of fulfillment, some way of finding meaning in life beyond just a high powered job on Wall Street and they really get tremendous satisfaction from these kind of enterprises. A lot of young women initially go into some kind of service work to dress up their resume or for graduate school, but once they do it, they find it not only rewarding but also extremely satisfying. I'm a big believer in requirements for service work.
NK: One of the mistakes people make is thinking that it’s all about idealism and wanting to do the right thing and it’s not. People can have the best of motives and come up with projects that leave people worse off. It's harder to help people than we realize—everything goes wrong, nothing works as expected. Idealism is a wonderful thing to have but it also requires some real understanding of how conditions work, listening to people, experimenting, and being willing to make mistakes. That mindset is really important and it’s also one reason why it’s important for young people to go off and travel and spend time away—gap years, before college, during college, after college. I think it’s really important to have spent time in the middle of nowhere.
G: You write about well-meaning individuals not being able to fundamentally change the nature of things and sometimes doing more harm than good. Are these small, hyper-local efforts enough? Is this simple an issue of scale and reach?
NK: There's been a tremendous emphasis on scalability and it’s really important. But I tend to think of it in terms of a parallel to the restaurant industry, that there are some restaurant models, say, like McDonald's and scalability—models you can plunk down anywhere. But there are other models that utilize an individual chef and are not scaleable at all. We would eat more poorly if we only had one or the other. It's really important to have NGOs that are good at coming up with models and scaling them. But a lot of models are all about an individual. It takes all kinds, with no one model, no one solution being the answer. Instead, it's a patchwork of all of them.
G: Will making a donation ever feel as good as starting your own thing?
NK: It depends a lot on how a donation is modeled. If you’re just writing a check to a big organization and it’s not going to make a specific difference, than it's not very satisfying. More recently, aid groups have done a good job at making you feel you are helping a very specific person. Malaria has become a big success in this way, with $8 individual mosquito nets going to help out a particular family. But all of theses models are a little bit misleading in the sense that you're also paying for administration, follow-up. The trend in the future is the sense that you are doing something very specific, with a way of connecting our individual checks with specific outcomes abroad.
G: You direct us to a list of resources. What's your go-to site?
NK: A lot depends on what’s meaningful to a particular person. Some people will be more interested in maternal health, others in sexual violence, or girls' education—there’s no one answer. It completely depends on what resonates with a particular person.