People must embed themselves in a “very different world” to test their own idealism, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof told a crowd of about 200 people in Leverone Auditorium on Thursday.
The New York Times columnist recounted stories from China and Darfur to open the Northwestern’s fifth annual Conference on Human Rights, before an audience that he said was full of “so many right people, who know so much stuff about the world.”
“We don’t have enough people who have spent time really embedded in a foreign country,” said Kristof, who has reported from six continents and traveled to 120 countries.
While it is important to address problems with firm idealism, “it also has to be tethered to a very practical sense of how that idealism really made a difference,” he said, adding that sometimes even the best intentions can do harm when ignorant of what’s happening on a grassroots level.
But Kristof said that youth activism these days is more pragmatic than the protesters of his college years. He recalled how a Yale student gathered pairs of glasses and shipped them to India and Ghana to fight, from her dorm room, a chronic problem with poor vision among middle-aged residents.
“It’s so crucial how some minor change can be a catalyst towards an enormous change in a region and for the economic life of an area,” he added.
Kristof won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1990 together with his wife, also a Times journalist, for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement. He won a second in 2006 for his columnist dissecting the genocide in Darfur.
Kristof has been to the conflicted Western zone of Sudan dozens of times since his first visit to an oasis at the Chad-Sudan border four years ago. There he found 30,000 refugees sheltering under trees — some bearing bullet scars, others running away from the poisoned wells in their villages.
“The scale of this is what struck me,” Kristof said in a hall of pregnant silence.
People do not tackle societal problems with the same passion they have for individual’s struggles, he added. They’re more willing to pay to help a seven-year-old girl from Mali than to save 21 million West Africans from malnutrition, he said, citing studies.
“The challenge in trying to save the world or address one particular problem is to translate it from some kind of large broad problem into individuals,” he said.
“I thought the lecture was really well-done, and it appeals to all people of all interests and knowledge of human rights,” said Weinberg senior Samantha Curley, who walked away “with the concept of going abroad and experiencing the world first hand.”