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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I think that’s important. Once something becomes a “women’s issue” then it risks being marginalized right away. 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. I think there’s an appreciation of that. There are certainly people who don’t like this or that in the book or think that one emphasis or another is misplaced, but the reception has just been fabulous. There are some reviews that my mother couldn’t have written nicer.

An issue you’ve had to deal with that you’ve written about a bit on your blog is when you’re put in the position where you can purchase a girl from a brothel or pay for a woman’s surgery that you just met as she lie dying on a gurney. Can you tell me your thoughts on the roles of journalist versus an activist?

Traditionally, journalists are supposed to be on the sidelines and observers, but it doesn’t make any sense to sit on the sidelines and take notes while you watch these women die unnecessarily in childbirth, so at some point your human impulse overwhelms your journalistic impulse there.

Throughout the book, you champion the concept of the "social entrepreneur." Can you talk about your perspective of working “on the ground” versus, in another phrase of yours, “shouting from treetops” to effect change?

In general our sense is that Americans often exaggerate the degree to which change comes about by changing laws or holding U.N. conferences… The social sector has generally had productivity that is way behind that of the business sector, but as social entrepreneurs are applying what are classically business skills to humanitarian needs, it’s accomplished amazing things. We think an important part of the solution and one of the really positive trends in the world involvement in the last decade or two.

Specifically in circles concerned with human trafficking, there’s been hope that President Obama, as a black man, will have sympathy and empathy for an abolitionist movement. What do you think?

I have talked to Obama about trafficking, and I think he intellectually gets it. So far, we haven’t seen him embrace a particular policy. I think Hillary Clinton gets the issue too, but we haven’t so far seen any major new efforts or initiatives from the administration. But in fairness, it’s pretty early in the administration.

Your book is a call to arms for citizens, but on the policy end, is there a hope that the United States will lead that charge, or not?

We hope so! There are some special signs. Hillary Clinton did appoint a special ambassador for women’s issues, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has started a new subcommittee on global women’s issues. I think that’s all promising, but all I’ll add to it is that it’s too early to say.

What are future projects in the works to track progress on these issues that you’ve presented?

I’m not sure. We’re kind of trying to figure that out right now. We hope the website will be a clearinghouse for people who want to get more involved, who want to go maybe volunteer for a year somewhere. We hope the book will do that also, connect people with needs abroad with people who have money or time that they can supply. We’re still trying to figure out how we can best fill these needs, and also write two columns a week.

I found it interesting how the book focused on selling solutions instead of selling the problem, and that to that you addressed the importance of not exaggerating problems. If you can talk about that a little bit. For me, that’s where formal undergraduate women’s studies failed. We were sort of sold a problem, and then you think, “OK. I’m in. I see that there’s a problem now.” And then there wasn’t much offered in the way of solutions.

I think in general humanitarians tend to turn people off by exaggerating the problems and by leaving a sense of negativity, or trying to get people involved through guilt. I don’t think that works. So it’s striking to me that CEOs tend to be unbelievably positive and optimistic--even when their companies are going completely down the drain.

I think that’s because frankly optimism is a way of engaging people and I think it’d be good if the humanitarian sector picked up some of that. I think that people are getting back at finding solutions. They’re also applying more rigor to the process of figuring out what kinds of solutions are most cost-effective, but there’s some more work to be done there.

You write several times that someday people will look back and today at our practices and policies and wonder, what were they thinking? What’s your realistic-optimistic hope for when that would be?

It will happen bit by bit. Sheryl’s grandmother had her feet bound, and that was a practice that had been deeply rooted in China for hundreds and hundreds of years. Then it ended, roughly in one generation. I’m hopeful that some of these other practices can also be uprooted in about a generation. It won’t be any utopia, there will still be problems -- the United States underscores that == but boy, can’t we make progress.

And how’s writing a book together for marriage?

The stresses of writing a book are nothing like the stresses of raising kids! Putting a book together is a little like raising a child together, but the book doesn’t play you off each other, it doesn’t not go to bed on time, doesn’t talk back, it never becomes a teenager. So all in all, I’d say it was incomparably easier.

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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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