Nicholas Kristof, the much-celebrated columnist for The New York Times, is essentially a Victorian-style moralist.
In a typical column, he alights on some harsh scene–a slum in an Indian megopolis, a dirt-poor village in Cambodia–and delivers a heart-wrenching report. He then prescribes an extremely narrow “solution” to the problem he has uncovered–one that typically leaves its root cause unaddressed (and, often, involves a heroic role for Westerners).
His most famous campaign involves child prostitution in South Asia. In the literally dozens of columns he’s devoted to the topic over the years, I’ve never once seen him address structural poverty, and the role of neoliberal policy and hyper-capitalism in creating it.
Here is a passage from a classic Kristof piece from 2006:
She was a lonely 16-year-old working in a garment factory in Bangladesh when an older employee began mothering her. They grew close, and one day the older woman gave Hasina some cakes to eat.
Two days later, Hasina emerged from a drug-induced stupor in India, sold to a brothel in faraway Gujarat. The brothel’s owner beat Hasina and threatened to deform her face with acid if she tried to escape. She had to do whatever the customers wanted, with or without condoms.
So, does he use his perch at the Times to interrogate an economic system that has 16-year-old Bangladeshi girls earning pennies an hour to produce clothes for Westerners–making them vulnerable to human traffickers? Nope. His solutions run to stuff like “focus on virginity sales” and “inspect brothels regularly for prisoners.” (In a famous 2004 column, he ventured the ultimate narrow solution to the prostitution problem: he bought two girls to rescue them from a brothel.)
In his latest column, Kristof turns his attention to hunger in Africa. He opens with a typical tug at the heart strings.
The most heartbreaking thing about starving children is their equanimity.
They don’t cry. They don’t smile. They don’t move. They don’t show a flicker of fear, pain or interest. Tiny, wizened zombies, they shut down all nonessential operations to employ every last calorie to stay alive.
And he points to a remedy so narrow it’s literally microscopic: “One solution is to distribute supplements to vulnerable people, or to fortify foods with micronutrients.” To prove his case, he presents the U.S. food industry: “Americans typically get micronutrients from fortified foods, and the same strategy is possible in Africa.”
Of course, another way to make micronutrients more abundant in Africa is to invest in smallholder farming. (For an example of a successful initiative that does just that, see the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities Project in Malawi.) Study after study shows that produce grown in healthy, living soil is significantly richer in micronutrients than industrial fare. Yet as Raj Patel shows in Stuffed and Starved, global economic institutions like the IMF and World Bank have for decades been pushing African nations to dismantle support programs for farming and let “the market” decide what people eat.
As a result, much of Africa’s prime farmland is now used to grow “high-value” crops for Westerners–and African smallholder farmers are locked in a long-term crisis even as the ranks of hungry urban dwellers grows. And now, insult to injury, nations with large dollars reserves from selling oil and manufactured goods to the United States are snapping up farmland in Africa for their own use (see Maywa Montenegro’s fine piece on this trend in Seed ; BusinessWeek weighed in as well.)
Not a peep on any of this from Kristof. I understand his zeal to address immediate suffering, but can’t fathom his blindness to root causes. He’s like a doctor who enthusiastically prescribes aspirin to treat a brain tumor.