Interview: Nicholas Kristof

Recently, WUPR’s own Anna Applebaum and Jannina Phi sat down with New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof to discuss his career, women in the world economy and his new book. The following is the full transcript of that interview, featured partially in the last print edition of WUPR.

WUPR: In America today, there seem to be many public figures of great sway and influence with the American people using their public platforms to inspire what seems to us negative sentiments and false ideas. How do you, as someone with a similar range of influence, feel like you need to react? Do you feel like you need to respond to this?

NK: I think some Americans have been surprised that I have written several columns that criticize what I have seen as Islamophobia. Part of the reason comes from one time when I was in Yemen—I was meeting a bunch of smart Yemeni middle-class journalists and asking them why nobody was standing up to the fundamentalist mullahs who were saying all kinds of ridiculous things about the West, about Judaism, and so on…and I kind of thought that since I was pushing them to take a stand against their extremists, I should take a stand and do the same against our own. And at the end of the day what is really the fundamental question here has less to do with Islam and more to do with our own rights.

WUPR: Do you feel like you need to focus on that on a general level, and have these things always interested you?

"I feel a professional obligation that when journalists do things to promote hatred, other journalists have some obligation to stand up to that."

NK: There are always going to be really wacky things that are said in American public debate and I’m not going to try and name all of them. Sometimes you almost feel that you’re calling more attention to the really wacky points of view. In general, I try to ignore them until they get a kind of critical mass. In the 2008 campaign, Glenn Beck raised the question, broadcast on CNN, on whether Obama was the antichrist. If it was a website raising that question, I would have left it alone, but CNN raising it just seemed a bit beyond the pale. I feel a professional obligation that when journalists do things to promote hatred, other journalists have some obligation to stand up to that.

WUPR: You’re very well traveled and have been to places all over the world. Can you tell us about the experiences that have been the funniest, the worst, or made the biggest impact on you?

NK: Probably the most dramatic was in Congo during the civil war there. It started with a plane crash getting into Congo. We crashed into a jungle, where the plane was clearly destroyed. When I finally reached Kisangani in the center of Congo, I thought, instead of trying to fly out, why don’t I just drive out? One of the rebel armies had recently built a road and I tried to drive out and almost immediately ran into a warlord who was busy killing ethnic Hutus. And he did not appreciate my presence there. So for the next week, a truckload of his soldiers chased me across Eastern Congo across the jungle. And over the course of that, I got the most lethal form of malaria. That was one trip… maybe the most difficult trip I’ve taken. China is one of the places I find most fascinating because there is such uncertainty over what China’s future will be. There are tremendous variations between the capital, ethnic minority and rural areas and, of course, a very rich and complicated culture. China is one of the places I enjoy the most.

WUPR: You have this program called “Win a Trip with Kristof”. In your column you’ve also described a program called Teach for the World, which is a kind of Teach for America program extended internationally. Why do you think this was so important, especially for young people to be traveling, and do you think the Teach the World program is a feasible reality? Would college students would be a demographic for that?

NK: President Obama didn’t respond to my column by creating a Teach for the World. But there are other programs that do let people teach English, volunteer or intern abroad, and I would really encourage students to do so. A lot of students worry about the expense, but you can get buy in India or China or Vietnam on remarkably little money and can also teach English, to some degree, to cover those expenses. New Zealanders and Australians, for example, would commonly take a couple of years and just travel around the world, especially Asia. When they run out of money, they stay in one place, and work for a couple months until they have a little more money and then go a little farther. The result is that they really learn a lot about the world. I think young women especially psych themselves out and think that, well, it’s the kind of thing that guys can do but girls can get in trouble with and so on. Obviously there are risks and one has to be careful, but in fact Australian women and New Zealander women are traveling more than men do, and most aid workers in the rough response areas are women. So I think if one has some common sense and travels with a friend, one is going to be just fine. It’s really a transformative experience. I’d love to see universities encourage more gap years both before college, and since that’s probably a little late for your readers, make one after college. In particular, I’d say that any student today really should have very good Spanish – Spanish is a really important skill to have in life. And it makes no sense to study that in St. Louis. The place to study that is in Mexico, or Peru, or Guatemala, or whatever. So if a student after graduation can go to such a place and really get a good command of Spanish, that would be a really important life-long skill. It is much cheaper to study Spanish in Peru than it is in St. Louis. The back of Half the Sky lists places that people can go and have a remarkable experience, and I really encourage that.

WUPR: You have frequently advanced the argument that empowering women and girls leads to increased economic success in developing countries. Can we start off with a general overview about what the basis for this understanding is?

NK: There are a lot of reasons, but two important ones are that, first, that is where the unexploited resources are in poor countries. If you think about assets that poor countries have and are not utilizing, the most important is the female population. And the second is that you can’t really begin to make progress against global poverty or human conflict unless you reduce birth rates, [which is] just critical. If you educate a man, on average he’d have fewer children, but the effect is much stronger if you educate a girl. So bringing those educated women into the mainstream is an incredibly inventive way to reduce birth rates and empower countries to see them grow economically and become more peaceful.

WUPR: Is there one specific approach to education you’ve found is most effective?

Afghani girls head to school, changing the world little by little.

NK: Not really. There’s no silver bullet, there’s no one way that works most effectively and in fact a lot of methods don’t work. Helping people really is hard and it’s important to be flexible. In a country like Afghanistan there is an argument that the best place to educate girls is in the mosques because the mosques are already there and the Taliban tends to be less suspicious of education of girls when they’re conducted in them and it doesn’t require much investment. Even little things like de-worming kits— you just don’t think about it because St. Louis kids don’t have worms but most kids in the world do, and de-worming them helps them to attend school.

WUPR: As young educated women very fortunate to be in this university and country, what do you say to us and what is the best way for us to utilize our efforts to show how lucky we and promote women’s education worldwide?

NK: Students are not at a stage in life that they’re going to be writing big checks…I think that it is so important to travel outside of one’s comfort zone and see things. In Half the Sky, we mostly emphasize needs abroad but there are also huge needs at home, and there are some kids whose needs really resonate with them [students]. It can be anything from mentoring kids in a troubled school to tutoring them. I’ve met college kids who have done tutoring in prisons and that’s the best way to learn about the justice system – not to take a course about it but to tutor them. And human trafficking is an issue in St. Louis as well as in Cambodia. Where one does it is less important than going out and encountering problems and issues first hand, and then just getting together with some friends and figuring out what they’re going to do. There are a number of programs in St. Louis that have operations abroad, and in some sense one can build on a local connection. And I’m sure there are foreign students here who have those connections here that can figure out what to do. So you can try to figure out that web of connections.

WUPR: This might have changed a little bit in the 2008 election, but there’s been a lot of talk about how the young people of our generation are not being involved and are apathetic.

NK: I don’t see that. I hear that a lot but my sense is that both university and high school students today are actually pretty unusually committed to giving back. There is obviously lots of cynicism and lots of self-gratification and so on but I feel like those people want to, in some way, make the world a better place…that has some real value to them.

WUPR: Recently, we have noticed what seems to be an increase in women political leaders worldwide such as Angela Merkel in Germany and Gloria Arroyo in Philippines. Why do you think more women are being elected and, in your opinion, is this trend significant for women’s rights generally?

NK: I don’t think there’s much evidence that a female president or prime minister is good at the grassroots. If you look at girls’ education and maternal mortality, it doesn’t seem to improve when a woman becomes president. In the Philippines, it’s striking that two women presidents have both been bad for womens’ freedom while male presidents have been much better. But I think it does matter if you have woman involved in the political process at the grassroots level—women on the school board, women as role models at the lower level—because that does make a big difference.

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