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People say all kinds of nasty things about Nicholas Kristof and the white savior industrial complex, and they’re not entirely unfounded.
I don’t doubt Kristof’s good intentions or his strength as a writer. I don’t think he’s always the most thorough of reporters, because I believe his convictions drive his reporting, and not vice versa. He does annoying things like write columns like this one. His exoticism of women in the developing world in the PBS documentary Half the Sky is deeply disturbing in a way that his writing in Half the Sky, the book, was not. Bringing light-skinned, wealthy Western women and their shock and horror to the Global South in the film — “I never knew there was So Much Poverty!” — is an embarrassing and cynical tactic and it takes advantage of a Western attitude towards women in poverty that embraces Western guilt and pride and naivete, one that makes me queasy in a particularly noxious, self-reflecting way.
Because I, of course, am one of those Western women spectators thankful to Nick Kristof for opening my eyes.
Granted, I didn’t get a personal invitation or tour from Kristof to visit his favored orphanage in Zimbabwe or women’s shelter in Cambodia. I read Half the Sky shortly after it was published in late 2009, when Nick Kristof was Nick Kristof, Pulitzer Prize winner and champion of human rights issues globally, but not yet Nick Kristof, American Representative for All Women In Poverty And All of Everything Everywhere In The World. I had just left my magazine job in New York. The economy was in the tank, and everyone in the city felt like the world was falling down around their ears.
My husband and I were planning an 18-month sabbatical to travel through the developing world. We knew we wanted to spend a good chunk of time in India, and we knew we wanted to volunteer for part of the time, but we were totally lost on where, and how, and for what. After reading Half the Sky in the fall of 2009, we decided to apply at Apne Aap, a non-profit devoted to abolishing sex trafficking around the world. Kristof features its founder, Ruchira Gupta, heavily in the book. When we finally did arrive in Apne Aap’s offices in August 2011, we found her to be exactly as described: passionate, angry, driven, and a general fireball.
Doing strategic technology and communications planning for Apne Aap from its pretty, air-conditioned offices in New Delhi wasn’t really the diving-into-the-villages work that Kristof advocates and celebrates in Half the Sky. But those were the skills we had to offer. So we did. And I wouldn’t trade those months for anything. Traveling in India and then working with the women who devoted themselves to eradicating sex trafficking without a doubt changed my life.
And that was absolutely his goal:
The conundrum is that frankly there’s not a lot of interest in global poverty or Congo or South Sudan or Lesotho or whatever the issue may be. And I want to get people to read and make a difference. So I look for ways to get more oomph and attention to issues I care about. One is my annual win-a-trip contest. Another is doing videos and photos. Another is finding the most compelling anecdotes possible. But yet another is finding some American bridge character who will make the issue more relevant or accessible to my audience. I don’t do that all the time, but is it a way to get more people to care about global issues? Absolutely.
As icky as I feel about Nick Kristof sometimes, and as icky as I feel about his feminism, I will always be grateful for Half the Sky. I owe Kristof for publishing a narrative that ultimately helped reshape my world view and the course of my work. Kristof didn’t save me — he doesn’t save anybody. But his writing led me to an experience that helped me rethink how I consider women, poverty, and the very concepts of feminism and culture. As a writer, I can’t think of a bigger gift — or compliment.
Amy S. Choi is a journalist in Brooklyn, N.Y.