Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book: Half the Sky, Nick Kristof

A few weeks ago, my mother, ever the feminist, gifted me the Pulitzer prize winner Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof (whose NY Times columns can be found here). A book about the plight of women around the world, and some of the steps being taken to improve their situation.

Kristof uses a style of reporting which seems very effective for infusing the casual reader with an urgent desire do something about the plight of women and the empowerment to feel like we actually could do something useful

Each chapter in the book is dedicated to a different life-threatening issue or group of oppressed women, ranging from forced prostitution and slavery to maternal health. And each chapter follows the same formula of focusing first on an individual, telling a heart-wrenching story of one women's struggle for life or dignity, then expanding to describe the scope of the problem and the statistics surrounding the issue, before ending with an example of the work being done to fix the problem. Tales of courage and persistance in the face of adversity, and examples of the massive potential ("women hold up half the sky") currently being wasted.

Kristof justifies his individual-focused approach to mobilising donors in this article, which makes several interesting points about donors. Including pointing to Paul Slovic's work, which shows that people are more likely to support a water project to save the lives of 4,500 people in a refugee came of 11,000, then they are to support a project saving 4,500 lives in a camp of 250,000 - it is about the proportion of people you can help, and the perceived impact of your donation. Kristof says:
Storytelling needs to focus on an individual, not a group. A classic experiment involved asking people to donate to help hungry children in West Africa. One group was asked to help a seven-year-old girl named Rokia, in the country of Mali. A second was asked to donate to help millions of hungry children. A third was asked to help Rokia but was provided with statistical information that gave them a larger context for her hunger. Not surprisingly, people donated more than twice as much to help Rokia as to help millions of children. But it turned out that even providing background information on African hunger diminished empathy, so people were much less willing to help Rokia when she represented a broader problem. Donors didn’t want to help ease a crisis personified by a child; they just wanted to help one person—and to hell with the crisis.
Still, it was some of the facts in Half the Sky that shook me most, for example that more women in slavery now (forced prostitution) than at the height of the slave trade, and the chapter on the prevalence of Fistula, a horrible and yet entirely preventable childbirth condition, was incredibly moving.

Critics have pointed out that Kristof focuses on individuals helping others, and fails to draw attention to the failure of Developed nation's governments to provide more effect aid. They also praise Saudi Arabia for anti-slavery laws and yet don't acknowledge Saudi Arabia's horrific treatment of female domestic workers.

Saying that however, upon finishing this book, I very nearly packed in my current life to go work in a Fistula hospital in Somaliland. Conclusion: while not quite rigorous enough for experts in the field, but a really great book for raising awareness about the plight of women around the world. Read it.

Find out more about the causes Kristof mentions at the book's website.
For a critic of the content, check out this Aidwatchers post on the Girl Effect.
A NY Times review of the book is here.

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