Waylaid Dialectic

May 26, 2010

Nicholas Kristof will always be with us

Filed under: Poverty — terence @ 7:45 am
Tags: ,

In the NY Times Nicholas Kristof points out the obvious (that poor people make bad decisions like everyone else), appears to confuse cause and effect, and skirts close to the cretinous (implying that bad decisions explain global poverty). In doing so he arouses the ire of at least two blogs and elicits a thoughtful contribution from William Easterly.

I’m too hungover to think clearly at present (poker with the lads last night)* but I just want to point out that this story is as gendered as everything else in development.


Because there’s mounting evidence that mothers are more likely than fathers to spend money educating their kids, one solution is to give women more control over purse strings and more legal title to assets. Some aid groups and U.N. agencies are working on that.

*This is a lie. My health prevents me from drinking. But I certainly did plenty of it in the past without suffering poverty as a result. The reason for that? I’m well educated, live in a developed country and come from a relatively well-off family.


  1. True, friend. Cretinous.
    Cause? Effect? Kristof misses it all.

    We in the developed world often misunderstand what we see when we look at poverty. Ask a middle-class American to describe the circumstances of poverty, and they’ll likely provide a list of material things that the poor lack, from water to schools and books and health care. Ask the poor themselves, though, and the answer is likely different. In the developed world and elsewhere, the poor most often describe their lives in terms of helplessness to effect change. An African father described the shame and desperation and hopelessness of not being able to provide for his family, of having no power or influence in his world, of having no worth or significance.

    The few I’ve come to know while working in Africa these last years are amazingly just like us in their ability to make good and bad decisions. Unlike most of us, though, they are often trapped in their circumstances by poverty with out the opportunity or power to effect change. When offered a partnership with a westerner to underwrite their children’s education, fathers and mothers both joined in energetically and full of hope, investing themselves for the sake of their children.

    Just my two cents worth.

    Comment by Brian Dickerson — May 27, 2010 @ 10:42 pm

  2. Ask the poor themselves, though, and the answer is likely different. In the developed world and elsewhere, the poor most often describe their lives in terms of helplessness to effect change.

    Thanks Brian – that’s a very good point.

    Comment by terence — May 28, 2010 @ 5:56 am

  3. But the most galling for me it is the blatant misuse of the facts to make his point that NGOs, aid workers, etc
    see people living in poverty as faultless and paragons of virtue that is most grinding.
    Of course people in poverty make errors of judgement but their errors have differing consequences than ours because: 1) The precariousness of their lives increases drastically the severity of its impact; and 2) The vast array of practitioners involved in their lives, particularly in the developed world, ready to judge any wrong move they make.

    Comment by Matt Davies — May 30, 2010 @ 6:48 am

  4. Hi Matt,

    Agree with your point one but definitely not point too. Most practitioners I know (maybe a skewed sample?) aren’t particularly judgmental.



    Comment by terence — May 30, 2010 @ 9:33 am

  5. I’m no expert on aid efforts. I’ve only known a few NGO staffers. All have been thoughtfully involved in the communities they serve. On my short list of heroes, my friend Roberta dos Santos works with STeP UP Sao Tome (tiny NGO, tiny country); she’s practical, helping folks in a fashion that encourages as well as assists. Among other things, she manages an educational sponsorship effort for about a thousand kids; three of them are mine.

    She asked if I’d go with her to meet a rural family; the father had lost his arm in an accident and lost his job because of the disability. A friend and I chipped in to help them get a little movement forward; Roberta arranged help with the medical needs, plus she helped them get started on a kiosk on the road by their house to generate a little income. Practical lady; she understands the need better than I. The mom and dad are nice folks, hard working, loving parents of 5 kids, doing their very best. Roberta is the vehicle for change in their lives. She and her boss have graciously spent time helping me understand what works in the world they live in.

    Interestingly, she didn’t ask me for money. She just asked me to come with her and meet the family. It’s different when you meet them face to face.

    Comment by Brian Dickerson — June 1, 2010 @ 9:59 pm

  6. Unfortunaately my experience of working in the UK with families living in poverty taught me otherwise. Too many dreadful run-ins with social workers, housing officers, teachers, jobcentre staff… so caught up in power differentials and a general lack of awareness of just what it means to live in poverty in a “rich” country.

    Comment by Matt Davies — June 2, 2010 @ 7:47 am

  7. …just to add that I’ve enjoyed discovering your blog – cheers!

    Comment by Matt Davies — June 2, 2010 @ 7:49 am

  8. Thanks Matt,

    To be honest I think that poverty in developing countries is treated kindof differently from poverty in the developed world. And that practitioners, like society in general, generally don’t hold so heavily prejudiced views of the poor in other places.



    Comment by terence — June 2, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

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