Last Monday, three members of the Givology team met New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a respected journalist well-known for his insightful writings on international development and human rights. The presentation was fascinating, his stories ranging from the amusing to the tear-jerking to the cautionary. Possibly the most well-travelled man in the world, Kristof has traveled to 140 countries, all 50 states, every Chinese province and every main Japanese island. When he speaks, he draws upon an amazing wealth of experience, giving a whole new meaning to the word “cosmopolitan.” Despite the students vying for a chance to speak to him, shake his hand, ask for his opinion on the surge in Iraq, or get his autograph, he maintains a distinctive sense of humility and responsibility. As he described the terrors of sex slavery in Southeast Asia and struggled to figure out the technology system of Huntsman Hall (as a Wharton student, I will be the first to admit that it is not the most straightforward thing in the world), I really got the sense that Kristof is driven not by his audience or even his readers, but by the causes he has come to support, the suffering he has witnessed, the individuals he has come to know.
When I arrived at the reception preceding the presentation, I was just coming from my History of Foreign Aid class, in which we had watched a sobering video called “Heart of the Congo.” The documentary portrayed the experiences of European volunteers working in the Congo for Action Against Hunger, an NGO that builds clinics in isolated areas to provide nutrition, food security, water and sanitation. After watching the aid workers struggle to deal with imposter nurses, attacks from rebel gangs, and near complete isolation from the rest of the world, I left pondering the countless obstacles that can handicap a well-meaning development project. In the face of daunting histories of colonialism, oppression, corruption and violence, how can we ever know what initiatives will be “effective” in the long run? What actually lead to tangible increases in standard of living, quantitative proof of economic growth? The history of foreign aid is indeed littered with stories of failed development projects, misinformed World Bank reports, ill-spent funds and local people who continue to struggle for basic survival.
Kristof’s speech, while moving and inspiring, nevertheless demonstrated a deep understanding of all these issues that complicate the seemingly simple idea of helping the poor. His example of a headmaster who only awarded scholarship money to his prettiest students in exchange for sexual favors underlined the urgent need for accountability and transparency in nonprofit work. Indeed, a philanthropist’s worst nightmare. And yet, despite these cautionary tales, I left feeling that my inspiration had been renewed, that even with these obstacles, we still have a responsibility as fellow human beings to do what we can in the best way we know how. There must be high standards for measuring impact, high standards for due diligence, and an emphasis on innovation, creativity and resourcefulness. Above all, the work must be undertaken for the people – not simply as an adventure in a developing country or a way to make ourselves feel good.
One last point Kristof emphasized was the importance of understanding the poor as individuals with stories, families, personalities and beliefs – not “stick-figure, two-dimensional victims.” This is what Givology and other person-to-person microphilanthropy and microfinance organizations are attempting to accomplish – the idea is to apply the Facebook model to social problems, connecting regular people who want to take $5 they may have otherwise spent on a latte and help individuals continue their educations, start businesses and contribute to their local communities. The following day, Kristof wrote a short post on his visit to Penn, providing a link to Givology as an example of what he calls “do-it-yourself foreign aid” (see http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/do-it-yourself-foreign-aid/).
As the author Lu Xun once wrote: “Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many people pass one way, a road is made.”