I want to say something nice about Kristof’s new column

I really do want to say something nice. But it’s so hard. I’ll come back to it in a bit.

How about some background first?

The column is titled “D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution” (full text here). It’s composed of various aren’t-they-inspiring anecdotes about Americans running off to save poor people in developing countries from whatever afflicts them. He mostly tells stories of American women who have left successful careers or otherwise made personal sacrifices to start NGOs/social enterprises.

Sounds lovely, right? So why is it hard to say something nice?

Well first off, the analysis is generally soft-headed. Here’s one example:

It’s striking that the most innovative activists aren’t necessarily the ones with the most resources, or the best tools. If that were true, a team at the World Bank would have addressed the menstruation problem long ago, and G20 countries would be leading the effort to prevent Congolese warlords from monetizing their minerals. Rather, what often happens is that those best positioned to take action look the other way, and then the initiative is taken by the Scharpfs and Shannons of the world, who are fueled by some combustible mix of indignation and vision.

So the World Bank, NGOs and others “look the other way”? Couldn’t it be that maybe they, along with the civil society and governments of developing countries (so often missing from Kristof’s narratives), were already working on other things. He makes it sound like they’re all sitting around, twiddling their thumbs while poor women and children suffer. I’m not saying the existing system is perfect, but to suggest that it’s doing nothing at all is insulting to a lot of people I know who work pretty damn hard.

However, the main criticism I have of this column is not the false distinction between passionate, hard-working DIYers vs. lazy, slow-thinking government/nonprofit bureaucrats. That’s a silly distinction, of course. But the bigger problem is the split between amateurs vs. professionals. Kristof’s chronic problem is that his sloppy analysis makes development work seem relatively simple. It’s not. There are extremely complex issues surrounding how outsiders interact with communities, how to ensure accountability, and how to generate economies of scale in larger organizations. As I said above, I’m not arguing that the existing system is perfect, but it’s absurd to suggest that just anyone can show up and do this.

Some would call this attitude elitist. I quote J. of Tales from the Hood:

I mean, no one complains that neurosurgery is a terribly elitist field of practice. Or what about high-stakes contract law? Those fields are both dominated by a very small and, for lack of a better term, elite group of practitioners. And for very good reason, as I think most of us would agree. There are horrible consequences for even the smallest error while a patient is on the table. One misstep during the proceeding of a contract lawsuit can have far-reaching effects, beyond even the immediate issue of money.

It seems to me that the stakes are no lower in humanitarian aid work. In fact, I’d argue that the stakes are higher. What we do affects not just a single individual, but entire communities, regions, in some instances maybe even nations.

And yet, somehow we think that this is a field of practice where any random well-meaning person can be relevant to the conversation? You kidding?

I want to clarify: I have no gripe with the work done by the individuals described in the column. Frankly, I don’t know enough about their work to evaluate whether it’s worthwhile. That said, general concerns about new and small organizations apply: Is this really the most efficient use of the resources? Is there any accountability for their results? Would their time and money be better channeled through an established organization?

So do I actually have anything nice to say?

Oh, right. The development blogosphere has a tendency to pounce on Kristof, so I wrote this post with the intention of saying something nice. Here it is:

As cheesy as it sounds, I think the inspiring/encouraging aspect of this kind of column is a positive contribution. Out of 100 readers, maybe 1 goes off to start some ill-advised venture that eats up scarce resources and gets in the way of better efforts. But then maybe 2 readers pick up a few books, go to graduate school, get jobs with professional aid organizations, and spend their whole career making a real impact. In fact, the first anecdote Kristof tells is about a woman with dual-degrees from HBS and the Kennedy School. What’s odd is that he focuses more on her passion and indignation than on her technical skills.

Am I overly optimistic about the positive impacts of such a column? Maybe. But that’s all I’ve got.