Celebrated Cambodian anti-trafficking activist Somaly Mam, according to Newsweek, is a fraud. Her own foundation accepted her resignation in the wake of the magazine's expose. But that didn't stop the New York Times' Nick Kristof from writing about her in his columns and taking her claims at face value, and before that, from featuring Greg Mortenson, whose charity claimed to be building schools in Nepal. According to subsequent muckraking by author
John Kiriakou Jon Krakauer, Mortenson too is a fraud.
So how does Kristof keep getting duped? Amanda Hess at Slate takes a deep dive into Kristof's MO. And it's hard not to admire Kristof's sheer drive to get Americans to give a shit about poor people overseas. When his neighbors in New York seemed to care more about a red-tailed hawk looking for a home on a nearby apartment ledge than thousands of people being massacred in Darfur, Kristof researched the social science literature on empathy:
In one study, researchers told American participants the story of Rokia, a (fictional) 7-year-old Malian girl who is “desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation.” Then, they told them that 3 million Malawian children are now facing hunger, along with 3 million Zambian people and 11 million Ethiopians. The researchers found that Americans were more likely to empty their pockets for one little girl than they were for millions of them. If they heard Rokia’s story in the context of the dire statistics of the region, they were less inclined to give her money. And if they were informed that they were being influenced by this dynamic, the “identifiable-victim effect,” they were less likely to shell out for Rokia, but no more likely to give to the greater cause. To Kristof, the experiment underscored the “limits of rationality” in reporting on human suffering: “One death is a tragedy,” he told the students, “and a million deaths are a statistic.”
Kristof’s most celebrated columns carry echoes of Rokia. They focus on one victim’s compelling story, letting her narrative soar over the complicated political, environmental, and cultural contexts of her suffering. The columns dangle the possibility of a solution to her strife. (Americans respond to a tale where “Rokia is hungry, and you feed her, and she lives happily ever after,” Kristof said.) And they often feature what he calls a “bridge character,” an American humanitarian hero who swoops in, armed with Rokia’s rations. “Local organizations are the ones that have the most local knowledge, and they tend to be the most cost-effective. We’d get more bang for our buck if we gave aid to local organizations,” Kristof acknowledged to the Columbia students. He’ll give those activists shoutouts, sure. But typically, “my protagonist will be some American … who’s off in the middle of nowhere. The reason is that it's an awful lot easier to get readers to read about a New Yorker who is off in Haiti than a Haitian who’s doing good work in Haiti.”
You really should read the rest—it's fascinating for anyone interested in social change. Long story short, however: this search for the Rokias ends up hurting the victims themselves, because in really poor countries, it can lead to entire economies of victims, where factions of locals desperate for Western aid dollars compete to exaggerate and spin yarns that tug the hardest on the heartstrings of donors. I've seen this first hand in Haiti. And some of the victims are inevitably liars. When they get found out, it makes people more cynical and suspicious of the next cause and undermines the credibility of the real victims, of which there are millions.
At the end of the day, Kristof—who explains, for example, he'll "cut somebody off and say, "It's terrible that you were shot in the leg'" so that he has time to "go off and find someone who was shot in both legs"—becomes a kind of court jester for affluent readers of the Times, regaling them with horrifying tales designed to make them "spill their coffee." Because he believes they get less attention, he freely admits to shying away in his columns from calls for systemic change. Instead, he's convinced that "Band-aids" to individual instances of extreme poverty and human rights abuses are more obtainable, and therefore, worth campaigning for.
Band-aids aren't evil. But the argument for them begins to look even more shortsighted when you consider Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose viral Atlantic cover story on reparations shows how someone with a platform and a gift for storytelling can actually move the body politic towards justice, rather than charity. Here's an idea for a cause: Haiti was extorted into paying the equivalent of $22 billion to France after it overthrew French slavery in 1804—the only successful mass slave revolt in modern history. But the last Haitian president with the temerity to demand that money back, in 2004, was swiftly deposed in a US and France-backed coup. Print that story, Kristof—throw your fame and your best writing at it (hell, make it into a Facebook game)—and let's see what happens.