Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I love Nick Kristof

I have a crush on Nick Kristof, the New York Times columnist, because he consistently highlights the importance of women and girls in bettering societies, domestically and abroad. In particular, he always makes a strong case linking the importance of women to the most pressing, most challenging issues of the day. And I’m publicly declaring my love for him today because he and his wife Sheryl WuDunn wrote the cover piece for this past weekend’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, a special edition on women, that perfectly explains his view of the relationship between women’s empowerment and development.

From The Women's Crusade:

In many poor countries, the greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren’t educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy. With education and with help starting businesses, impoverished women can earn money and support their countries as well as their families. They represent perhaps the best hope for fighting global poverty.

“The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution,” writes Kristof and WuDunn. Aid to women is not a pity cause, a pet cause, or a charity case. But I think sometimes these problems are perceived as such. The developed world, as individuals and as nations, give money to social causes as “charity”. “They” are poor and “we” are going out of our way to do a good deed. In contrast, money for, say, investment in developing markets is business and both sides are business partners. There is occasional hubbub — charity concerts and the like — over social programs, but they are generally given lip service. The bulk of global development efforts are devoted to political and economic issues. But Kristof and WuDunn very eloquently show that aid to women benefits everyone. Women will lead their families, their communities, and their countries to prosperity.

Like Kristof, I have always believed that treating women right is a vital part of any country that wants to security, stability, and become a player in the global community. But I don’t think many of those in power in this country and elsewhere share this belief because the more I have learned about world politics, the more I have come to see the gulf separating “hard” issues like security, arms control, trade and “soft” issues like education, nutrition, child and maternal health, and social issues. At times it makes me mildly embarrassed even, to say that I care about women’s issues because I think it pigeon holes me as idealistic and naive. Like I want to “help people” but have no understanding of national governments and global institutions. So I’m all the more glad to see Nick Kristof using his position as a widely-read journalist to explain that women’s rights is a vital part of the solution to global problems.

There is “hard” evidence now that helping women does help the whole society. It often happens that men who control the family finances don’t spend it well. And when you have very little to spend, you must spend wisely.

One reason involves the dirty little secret of global poverty: some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes but also by unwise spending by the poor — especially by men.

When women have control of money, they spend less on entertainment — alcohol, tobacco — and more on the family — food, medical care. So giving women greater financial power also helps families prioritize their spending.

The economist Esther Duflo of M.I.T. found that when the men’s crops flourish, the household spends more money on alcohol and tobacco. When the women have a good crop, the households spend more money on food. “When women command greater power, child health and nutrition improves,” Duflo says.

Terrorism is one today’s most pressing issue today and women’s empowerment is a key part of it. Kristof concedes that the precise mechanism of this is unclear, but societies in which women participate are less likely to breed terrorism.

Yet another reason to educate and empower women is that greater female involvement in society and the economy appears to undermine extremism and terrorism. It has long been known that a risk factor for turbulence and violence is the share of a country’s population made up of young people. Now it is emerging that male domination of society is also a risk factor; the reasons aren’t fully understood, but it may be that when women are marginalized the nation takes on the testosterone-laden culture of a military camp or a high-school boys’ locker room.

The piece opens with a Chinese saying that women hold up half the sky. It is a saying that I like very much and am familiar with. For now it seems that women should not peek through the cracks of a world that men have built and run. But a few good people, Nick Kristof included, know that they should be leading the world.

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