Q&A: Nicholas Kristof on D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Q&A: Nicholas Kristof on D.I.Y. Foreign Aid

Q&A: Nicholas Kristof on D.I.Y. Foreign Aid

by Amanda M. Fairbanks

October 24, 2010
This weekend's New York Times Magazine features a story by Nicholas Kristof about a new revolution called D.I.Y. foreign aid. It's about creative people and great ideas colluding in the age of internet and social media—and how you can get involved. Kristof was kind enough to answer a few of our questions.
G: We seem to be living in a time where passion and great ideas can flourish in a way they never have been able to before. What is possible? What are the dangers?

NK: One of the mistakes people make is thinking that it’s all about idealism and wanting to do the right thing and it’s not. People can have the best of motives and come up with projects that leave people worse off. It's harder to help people than we realize—everything goes wrong, nothing works as expected. Idealism is a wonderful thing to have but it also requires some real understanding of how conditions work, listening to people, experimenting, and being willing to make mistakes. That mindset is really important and it’s also one reason why it’s important for young people to go off and travel and spend time away—gap years, before college, during college, after college. I think it’s really important to have spent time in the middle of nowhere.

G: You write about well-meaning individuals not being able to fundamentally change the nature of things and sometimes doing more harm than good. Are these small, hyper-local efforts enough? Is this simple an issue of scale and reach?

NK: There's been a tremendous emphasis on scalability and it’s really important. But I tend to think of it in terms of a parallel to the restaurant industry, that there are some restaurant models, say, like McDonald's and scalability—models you can plunk down anywhere. But there are other models that utilize an individual chef and are not scaleable at all. We would eat more poorly if we only had one or the other. It's really important to have NGOs that are good at coming up with models and scaling them. But a lot of models are all about an individual. It takes all kinds, with no one model, no one solution being the answer. Instead, it's a patchwork of all of them.

G: Will making a donation ever feel as good as starting your own thing?

NK: It depends a lot on how a donation is modeled. If you’re just writing a check to a big organization and it’s not going to make a specific difference, than it's not very satisfying. More recently, aid groups have done a good job at making you feel you are helping a very specific person. Malaria has become a big success in this way, with $8 individual mosquito nets going to help out a particular family. But all of theses models are a little bit misleading in the sense that you're also paying for administration, follow-up. The trend in the future is the sense that you are doing something very specific, with a way of connecting our individual checks with specific outcomes abroad.

G: You direct us to a list of resources. What's your go-to site?

NK: A lot depends on what’s meaningful to a particular person. Some people will be more interested in maternal health, others in sexual violence, or girls' education—there’s no one answer. It completely depends on what resonates with a particular person.

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Q&A: Nicholas Kristof on D.I.Y. Foreign Aid