May 26, 2010
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Nicholas Kristof is a bit too judgmental

Nicholas Kristof has been taking a rather well-deserved beating for criticizing poor people in Africa for spending money on alcohol instead of educating their children. Rather than portraying these people as selfish jerks who don’t care about their children, Kristof might want to reflect on the degradation of poverty. Yes, it would be better if these people spent their money on educating their children rather on beer, but the people he is talking about have really tough lives. Can you blame them for wanting to spend a few nights a week at the bar? I understand that in the long-term it harms their children and that is a shame. Still, no one is perfect and I think Kristof is being a bit harsh in his condemnations. How does he know he would act differently if he were in their shoes?



  • Sure, he’s being judgmental…but is he wrong? Mr. Obamza drinks every month, but doesn’t pay his rent, doesn’t pay his kid’s school fees and doesn’t buy mosquito nets. If he even drank HALF as much, he’d have $6 a month – enough to pay for his kid to go to school and pay the rent and save up for a mosquito net in a couple months.

    It’s tragic that such a huge trade-off is involved in his wanting to have a life/socialize/relax. But it is the reality that he and billions of people face. And my understanding is that that is the reason we are in development – to alleviate that problem.

    The most troubling thing about the argument you make, (and that Easterly makes), is that you’re basically saying the problem isn’t his choices he Obamza is making, it’s his lack of money. In that case, the best development program we could run is to hand out an extra $10 to each person in the village. But you and I both know that such a program wouldn’t work and most likely that $10 would go to fund other activities – not his kids education, not mosquito nets and not his rent.

    I think that is Kristof’s point – it’s not about not drinking at all, but about making a choice to drinking less so your kid can go to school and you can pay the rent. Saying that he’s poor and thus should be allowed to drink to forget his misery (even at the expensive of his home, his children, etc) is an odd argument coming from someone who is pushing for democracy/governance in development.

  • I realize its an odd way for someone in my line work to look at the issue and I am not really trying to defend his actions, so much as trying to point out that Kristof has no idea how he would behave if he were Obamza’s position. I don’t think that judging and shaming people is an effective way to fight poverty.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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