Earlier this month, on his latest escapade to the African continent, the illustrious New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof paid a visit to the Kingdom of Lesotho. The occasion was his annual “Win a Trip with Nicholas Kristof” journey in which a young university graduate is granted the opportunity to travel with Kristof and witness his legendary reporting in action. He did not disappoint.
While in Lesotho, Kristof made sure to faithfully maintain his trademark journalistic formula. The Kristof method, which has been remarked on by AIAC and others in the past, involves transforming his surroundings into a backdrop for promoting a constructed moral imperative. Crucially, each article must contain a familiar entity from Western society – an aid worker, a non-profit, a US government agency – to allow the chosen cause to appear more accessible to his readers. The absence of such a bridge, we are led to believe, makes a story wholly uninteresting. In the process of fashioning a narrative, of distilling the socio-economic condition of an entire country into a newspaper article, comprehensive details become dangerous clutter and are to be discarded, for they threaten to numb the empathetic response of the article’s audience.
For Kristof, the world, far too complex on its own, must be dismantled and reassembled on a much smaller scale to fit snuggly inside an inspirational 1000 word column. In this world, Africa is (monolithically) rising, declares Kristof. The Chinese, recognizing Africa’s promise, have flooded it with foreign investment. If Americans are to promote lasting economic growth and job creation in Africa (and to maintain their global dominance), they must do so through investment as well. African resources and labor are ripening fruit on the vine, yet the fruit could be even sweeter and riper, if only incentives for investment are enhanced. At $120 per month, the minimum wage for Lesotho’s textile workers is much too high.
Back in reality, homegrown African ingenuity ought to feature prominently as a key driver of growth in African societies without being ignored in lieu of foreign investment. In Lesotho, the textile workers aren’t exactly showering Chinese factory owners with adoration. Quite the opposite. They’ve held protests for better wages and working conditions. In June, when the people of Lesotho voted in democratic elections to select a new Prime Minister, opposition leader Thomas Thabane came away with the top job. Thabane was successful at the polls, in part because he had promised as a political candidate that if elected he would put an end to “slave wages”. The manner in which Thabane reconciles the interests of foreign investors with the demands of labor unions remains to be seen, yet it should be fascinating to observe.
Yesterday marked the opening of the 5th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing. This has traditionally been a venue for Chinese and African leaders to extol the virtues of their partnerships and to announce massive new trade deals. There will be many photo-ops, handshakes and smiles among high representatives and heads of state. Imagine however, if textile workers from Chinese-run firms in Lesotho were invited to join attend the FOCAC along with copper miners from Zambia and construction workers from Liberia. Would Kristof report on how jubilant the FOCAC festivities were?
Nicholas Kristof clearly intends to change ill-informed perceptions of African countries and shed light on what he perceives to be underreported issues. Yet, as long as he allows his journalistic formula to override comprehensive reporting, it will be difficult to ascertain how much of his reductionist style is for the benefit of readers and how much can be attributed to the hazards of parachute journalism.