It wouldn’t be exactly true to say that I spent a year and a half in Malawi, Africa, because of Nicholas Kristof, but it wouldn’t be entirely wrong, either.

Kristof at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2010. Photo courtesy Monika Flueckiger via Creative Commons Share-Alike.

Kristof at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2010. Photo courtesy Monika Flueckiger via Creative Commons Share-Alike.

I’ve been devouring his columns for years. I was an early adopter and fan of Half the Sky. I wanted to be a part of the solution, and, thanks (?) to Kristof, I earnestly believed that was both more possible and less complicated than I thought. Simply by hosting a Bead for Life party or sewing cloth pads or helping pay for deworming treatments or mosquito nets or school lunches or bicycles so that girls could get to and from school safely, I could help save the world.

As Amanda Hess tells it in a recent Slate article, Kristof, in transitioning from reporter to columnist, quickly discovered that while it was difficult to get readers to care about, say, a million children faced with starvation precipitated by many, many complex issue, it was far easier to get them to care about one child facing starvation — particularly when he held out, as he often does, the idea that very simple solutions to these problems existed.

Recently, the story of Somaly Mam, which was featured in Half the Sky, was revealed to have been substantially fabricated, much as Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea notoriety (and another ‘hero’ promoted by Kristof) was discredited a few years back. What accounts for these deceptions? No doubt there is greed involved, but, perhaps even more difficult to parse is the fact that people are often motivated by the desire to do good.

Last week, at the opening session of Sojourners’ Summit for World Change through Faith and Justice, scholar and activist Soong-Chan Rah urged those present to rediscover the practice of lament as an antidote to the triumphalism that can sometimes infect those who, with the best of intentions, want to “change the world.” We should not give into cynicism, he said, but a ‘hopeful skepticism’ might be just the thing. We can lament that the world is not as it should be. We can do our bit. We can hope for big things — but be content with small things.

(I know it’s been quoted a million times but, as Mother Teresa said “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”)

What is the danger of world-changing triumphalism of the kind that promises you that you can “change a child’s whole life” for $2 a day? It’s there on the Half the Sky website, in the fine print of the Half the Sky game, which Hess quotes:

“Radhika’s story is a work of fiction,” the game’s fine print reads. “Reality is much harsher, and issues are never so easy to fix.”

Before you see something in the flesh, and encounter it with your whole self and all your senses, you draw a mental schematic of what it might be like. In that schematic, the entire course of a child’s life might be changed because you committed to give $5 a month. But when your feet hit the ground and you see that, in fact, your money has lined the pockets of middle-men and women, and very little has helped the children in any meaningful and sustainable way, cynicism and even despair may follow.

I know this firsthand, because before I went to Malawi I was hosting Bead for Life parties and urging people to read Half the Sky. I had a naive belief that the solutions to the world’s problems could be remedied pretty simply, through lending circles and cottage industries and basic education and a few bucks here and there.. It was only when the reality on the ground erased my simplistic schematic that I realized how deeply arrogant my assumptions had been. If the solutions were that easy, greater minds and hearts and hands than mine would’ve bound up the wounds of this world long before I even drew breath.

(Plus, there are lots of other uncomfortable implications…such as that ‘we’ Westerners know better/best how to solve ‘their’ problems…)

When Nicholas Kristof gets us to care about one individual woman, and to throw money in her direction to save her and her family, it may be a win in the sense that he has urged us away from selfishness and opened our eyes to the reality of human suffering. But there is, I think, the danger of developing a Messiah complex: assuming that our donation to an organization half a world away is going to change the world. It may only turn out to be a symbolic act — though maybe, in the end, the symbolic act is enough.

What would it be like if we had more stories of well-intentioned aid and development organizations who, despite all their good intentions, got it all wrong, failed, went under? What if we could tell those stories without shame, but simply so we could learn from them, a sort of post-mortem?

That might be the best way to build hopeful skepticism — and the best antidote to a well-intentioned, but quite possibly wrong-headed, triumphalism.


  1. Yes! Hopeful skepticism is also an antidote to paralyzing cynicism. I also think a celebrity culture contributes to this problem of triumphalism – I wrote about our complicity in the Somaly Mam Scandal here:

  2. “Reality is much harsher” – yes. YES. It is much messier, too. I have been involved in short-term mission in Africa, and it was enough to tell me that my dream of being a Missionary was not going to happen – because I didn’t have the skills or resources that the people on the ground really needed. I had a degree in English Lit and a whole load of ideals, but not much else. It taught me a deep respect for those who were on the ground, loving well, and loving wisely, but it also made me realise it was not my calling.

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  4. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

    Greg Mortenson and Central Asia Institute still continue in Afghanistan and Pakistan today, advocating for girls and women, when many organizations have left and there is more conflict and instability than ever.

    Jennifer Jordan, a film-maker is doing an investigative journalism documentary to show that perhaps CBS 60 Minutes fabricated large parts of their expose that discredited Greg Mortenson. 60 Minutes has produced several segments in the last two years that have been discredited and rapidly losing their integrity.

    I knew Greg Mortenson’s late father, Dempsey, who worked in Tanzania in the 1960’s to establish a teaching hospital Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, that still thrives today. Greg’s father taught Sunday School but sometimes rubbed other missionaries the wrong way because he felt compelled to teach children about other faiths also, and that love was the greatest gift of all.

    Both Greg and his father were fluent in local languages and customs, both always said the most important thing to do is listen, not talk, and that the people there can teach us more than we ever can give them or help them. Greg’s life lessons were learned over decades in Africa and Afghanistan, not a short trip to Malawi. Neither was a ‘Messiah’ as portrayed in the article and media.

    Dempsey and his wife Jerene were Lutheran missionaries, initially as teachers in a girls’ school. Dempsey was a man of few words, and used actions instead of words to demonstrate his faith, and worked relentlessly to have Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus work together to establish a hospital for the good of humanity. As much as his legacy was a hospital, it was more that he helped teach people of all faiths to love and strive together for the betterment of all, not to convert them to Christianity.

    Greg Mortenson made mistakes, but it is still worth following the examples he learned from his father: spend many years or decades on the ground, become fluent in local languages and cultures, empower the people to take charge, actions speak louder than words, and listen. Time will tell, but I’m sure the God and the communities that both Dempsey and Greg Mortenson served will judge them in a different way than the US media.

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