Authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have penned two books in recent years aiming to ignite social movements in response to the oppression of women worldwide and the challenges of poverty. Here, I take a look at how their writing fares in moving one reader (me) to action.
Among the many humanitarian solutions proposed in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, one of the most appealing is also one of the simplest: spending just $19 million dollars or so would allow for salt iodization in several poor countries. The investment would yield economic benefits of up to nine times its initial cost by combating brain damage in fetuses: a straightforward fix to a specific problem.
Remedies like this, however, are ultimately eclipsed by the complexity and sheer scope of challenges and calls to action included in these works from Pulitzer prize-winning husband and wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. They have their sights set on fomenting a worldwide movement, leveraging the creation of television series, Facebook games, and documentaries to alleviate oppression and create opportunities for women, children, and all those in need across the world. It’s a tall order.
After reading Half the Sky, I noted that even as they describe them, the authors admit that these problems are so vast, deeply ingrained, and far removed from many readers’ daily lives that it will be difficult to adopt the causes as our own. Perhaps that’s why something as concrete as salt iodization is so memorable, and why, taken together, the crises in Half the Sky and A Path Appears remain largely a world away, even if they’re happening right down the street. Rather than putting each of the causes in perspective, the authors aim to expose as many as they can for as long as they have your attention.
Released in 2009, Half the Sky is a passionate plea for the empowerment and education of women everywhere, who, after all, “hold up half the sky.” The authors’ anger over what they have seen in the field is palpable, and the urgency they feel likely colored the decision to make the book as comprehensive as it is. The text alternates between the stories of women in developing nations who have overcome (or, in some cases, succumbed to) heartbreaking circumstances, and the myriad recommendations that may change their realities.
A Path Appears, released five years later in 2014, exposes ills on American soil and abroad with an emphasis on extreme poverty rather than women’s issues alone. It’s WuDunn and Kristof’s attempt to fire up readers behind the causes explored in the earlier title, and more. They call upon their readers to behave as advocates and informed financial supporters of the solutions that could make poverty a thing of the past, presenting scientific evidence of the positive social and health benefits of generosity alongside stories similar to those offered up in Half the Sky. [I wonder, though, how well the authors know their audience and if they are effectively “preaching to the choir” with this second book. Though not impossible, it’s unlikely someone who picks up a book or tunes in to a show about global poverty is a complete novice when it comes to engaging with these issues. Still, there are some tangible steps even longtime supporters of nonprofits and social enterprises will find helpful.]
While I appreciated learning about the organizations detailed in each book, I can’t say I was moved to act after reading. One simple change might have elevated both books to the galvanizing heights it’s clear Kristof and WuDunn set out to achieve. And it’s something all of us might apply in our own writing if we are trying to win over new donors or volunteers: if you want your reader to latch on to a cause, make it easy to latch onto, no matter how complex it may actually be. Sometimes less really is more.
You could fault Half the Sky and A Path Appears for neglecting to highlight the role of Western cultures in perpetuating the oppression of women in other countries, or for glossing over the failings of domestic policies that allow the poor to slip through the cracks. When writing to spark social change, it helps to remind the readers how they or the officials for (or against) whom they voted contribute to a problem. (Of course, if this were universally true, the story of Molly Melching and her efforts to end female genital cutting as described in However Long the Night, would have felt equally opaque -- they weren’t. )
No, the overriding problem is not that the reader remains geographically and politically removed: it’s that the work at hand, as vital as it is, is laid out in such a way that it seems too intimidating to even begin to broach. For those of us who may already understand --even without fully grasping a problem-- that our donations can at least make a small difference, A Path Appears, too, still falls short: we read so many facts and cases supporting the act of giving, we forget what it is we’re supposed to be giving to.
Had Kristof and WuDunn limited their books to just a few women, a few problems, a few communities, or a few solutions, readers may have been able to develop a stronger connection to the material and a stronger impulse to act. By attempting to expose such a vast set of crises and propose several solutions for each, the authors ultimately deny the reader a chance to take ownership of any single one. Instead, Half the Sky and A Path Appears try to do too much, and end up doing less than they could.
By Kari Mirkin