15 Minutes with NYT’s Nicholas D. Kristof

“At the end of the day, the Holocaust wasn’t a Jewish issue, civil rights weren’t a black issue and when tens of millions of women going missing around the globe, that’s not a women’s issue.”

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Oct. 20, 2009

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Pulitzer Prize winning journalists (and married couple) Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have achieved something arguably more challenging than worldwide gender equity—they’ve written a reader-friendly, mainstream page-turner of a book about it.

Half the Sky is a meticulously assembled lightning read that, beneath colorful vignettes and white-knuckle narratives, explores foreign aid methodology. This doesn’t sound like anything that should keep you up reading past bedtime, but will.

The revolutionary aspect of the project is that Kristof, the New York Times columnist with a cult following and WuDunn, ex-editor of Times’ energy coverage (she was first Asian American woman to win the Pulitzer), take a look at global poverty through the lens of gender inequality. With that one seemingly simple paradigm twist—which leads to surprising correlations like the one between gender inequity and terrorism--they successfully recast so-called “women’s issues” as an economic issue of mainstream importance.

Suddenly, caring about girls’ suffering in the developing world doesn’t seem like a far-away cause only fit for bleeding hearts and unabashed feminists. It becomes obvious that investing in the education of girls and women in the developing world is sound economic and political strategy.

Hey, we’ll take it. Especially since striving toward gender equity on moral grounds is an angle that frankly never has piqued the interest of the majority of first-world policymakers and never will -- at least until more global policymakers are women.

Meanwhile, Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge and address that fact that a lot of funds funneled into foreign aid are wasted because clumsy programs don’t work in tandem with indigenous cultural practices or beliefs, spend too much money on overhead and overlapping services -- or simply look at problems the wrong way.

As a result, some people feel -- as the late Jesse Helms so eloquently put it -- that foreign aid is like “pouring money down a rat hole.” An extreme (and racist) sentiment to be sure, but one that echoes whenever issues like gender inequity and global poverty are dismissed as hopeless or worse, a natural, inevitable state of affairs.

The authors envision Half the Sky as a sort of handbook for people who want to do something to help solve these problems, but aren’t sure exactly where or how to begin. They call on “social entrepreneurs” to make changes that can’t be enacted through policy. To that end, they offer lists of vetted organizations and contacts, as well as a companion website www.halftheskymovement.org to serve as a clearinghouse for interested readers to connect with organizations and one another.

Finally, someone is calling global gender inequity—as evidenced in the lack of education, the mass military rapes of the Congo, harrowing maternal mortality, the rise in sexual trafficking and forced prostitution and so on--the cause of our time and giving it the serious, strategic consideration. It's about time.

My conversation with Kristof: 

I’ve read that you had to shop this idea to publishers for a few years, which seems pretty odd, seeing as you and your wife are Pulitzer Prize winning journalists. Why do you think that was?

[Publishers] worried about how commercial it might be, and they wanted to have a book, you know, that would sell very well. I think that it has found a great market, but I think that is partly because as time has gone on the issue has gained more traction.

It think we benefited by waiting a couple of years, because this is an issue that everyone from the Pentagon to aid organizations to the government now realizes is central to fighting poverty and extremism.

When did you first start thinking about writing Half the Sky?

We first started thinking about the issues in the beginning of the 1990s when we were in China. We weren’t thinking as much about a book, but we became aware that gender was a really useful and neglected prism with which to look at development. There were so many missing girls in China, yet conversely, one of China’s great strengths in industrializing was that it was able to use the female half of the population much more effectively than a lot of other poor countries. So that got us thinking about these issues generally and appreciating them. Then once you began to look through that prism, you saw things absolutely all over.

I’ve seen positive reviews, but have you gotten any negative feedback? I think the challenge would be to talk about how even though it’s so-called women’s issues, it doesn’t mean it’s a book against men.

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1. Jane Roberts said... on Oct 21, 2009 at 11:42AM

“Half the Sky is a wonderful book, Nick and Sheryl are wonderful people. I am thrilled to be able to say that "Jane Roberts and Her 34 Million Friends" is part of chapter 8. When the Bush Administration refused to release $34 million to the United Nations Population Fund in 2002, we started asking 34 million Americans for one dollar to save women's lives in childbirth and to offer them family planning, pre-natal care etc. 34 Million Friends is still going strong and hundreds of thousands of Americans have joined our efforts. The need is huge. www.34millionfriends.org Cheers, Jane Roberts”

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