Nicholas Kristof: Giving Is Good for Givers as Well as Receivers

Speaking at an IPI Distinguished Author Series event on February 12th, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof made an impassioned case for the importance of giving and helping others, saying that altruism benefits both those who give and those who receive.

Mr. Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was discussing the newly released A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, the book he co-authored with his wife Sheryl WuDunn. In the book, the couple describes in detail what the art of giving is all about, telling the stories of people and organizations around the world who have made a significant difference in the lives of the less fortunate.

“Helping others is good for you, it makes you feel better, and it makes you live longer,” Mr. Kristof said, and he provided scientific evidence for the claim.

Volunteering, being part of a religious group, or spending time helping those in need are all activities which have been shown to decrease mortality rates, Mr. Kristof said. And citing new studies on people’s brain reactions to giving and receiving, he said: “For about half of Americans, the pleasure centers would light up more when you give than when you get.”

Despite this, he said, the reality is that in the world today—and in the US in particular—there seems to be a large empathy gap.

Citing recent research, he pointed out that the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans donate less to charities as a fraction of income than the poorest 20 percent. “It’s not that the affluent are intrinsically less benevolent than anybody else,” he continued. “It seems that if you are affluent in America today, you are to some degree insulated from need.”

Part of the blame goes to the media, Mr. Kristof said. News organizations are cutting back on the stories that highlight the lives of people in need, he added, focusing instead on those that entertain and drive up ratings. Important issues such as civil wars, famines, and natural disasters, are simply ignored, he said.

“It’s hard for me to see how they get addressed unless we in the media help project them on the agenda,” he said. When Syria’s refugee problem disappears from the screen, he said, it won’t get addressed. “The Central African Republic? Vanished. South Sudan? Totally done. I’m afraid that as we in the media drop the ball on these issues, the will to address them falls away,” he explained.

Mr. Kristof said humanitarians should not shun public relations. He said he has often come across very successful marketing campaigns in the corporate world, whose success rested on their effective and persuasive use of communication tools. This is something missing from the humanitarian world, he said, a trend that can be reversed.

“There is a sense among humanitarians that these causes are too important to be marketed—we flinch at the idea of marketing,” Mr. Kristof said. “[But] I think there’s a lot the humanitarian world can learn from the business world in that vein.”

In telling the stories of people who spend their lives helping others, A Path Appears is also a book about what works, what doesn’t work, and how funds can be used efficiently for good causes.

During his talk, Mr. Kristof told the story of eight-year-old Rachel Beckwith from Seattle and her wish to help Ethiopian children who lack access to clean water. Shortly after she began her fundraising, the girl tragically died in a car accident, Mr. Kristof said. But her death spurred a flood of donations.

“People ended up donating 1.2 million dollars, enough for water for 37,000 people in Ethiopia,” he said. And although the story had a tinge of sadness in it, it was meant to show that good deeds are hiding behind every corner.

In answer to a question about the long-range effectiveness of foreign aid, Mr. Kristof said that although it hasn’t led to faster economic growth, it has done a lot on other fronts. “[It] has clearly been effective in saving lives, improving health, and getting more kids in school.”

That’s not the case for military intervention, Mr. Kristof continued. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, countries have invested a lot in security and defense, he said, which to a certain extent is understandable.

“There are some things the military does that nothing else can do,” he said. “But I think we’ve also hugely underinvested in the education toolbox and the women’s empowerment toolbox,” he added, noting that the money that funds one US soldier for one year could be used to start 20 schools and fund them for three years.

IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations Warren Hoge moderated the conversation.

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