Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have written an interesting book about charity and in “A Path Appears,” they lay out examples of effective charities, almost all of which centered on helping individuals rather than creating nonprofit bureaucracies. The approach they have adopted is data-driven, and contains some surprising conclusions.
By way of background, Kristof is a left-of-center columnist for the New York Times but this does not stop him from reporting data that leads to conclusions he would not normally be expected to reach, given his political beliefs.
The authors accurately report the debate over the effectiveness of Head Start (lots of studies showing any effectiveness fades over time but also some studies that suggest students in Head Start programs may be more likely to stay in school), they forthrightly acknowledge that the data support the importance of two-parent families as an important indicator of success, and in general they eschew the cheap shot.
Some of the conclusions are surprising. The authors look at the data and conclude The Smile Train (a charity dealing with cleft palate and other similar maladies), an organization that does everything “wrong” (highly paid staff, lots of expensive marketing) is nonetheless very effective and worthy of support.
An anecdotal book reporting on charity efforts would be much easier to write than this detailed data supported account. Indeed, newspapers (and television in particular) are well-known for the heart-rending accounts of hardship and difficulty with the hero as someone who takes on the establishment. Not infrequently, the story turns out to be much more complicated than the original report indicated.
Kristof and WuDunn don’t take the easy route, and they focus on proof of effectiveness. And it is astonishing how effective very modest contributions can be to the lives of people. Club foot is an easily remedied malady that, if not fixed, may well prevent an individual from ever walking. And as it turns out there is an effective charity (CURE) dealing with this specific problem.
To the surprise of some, I suspect, the willingness of the authors to criticize those who, more or less, occupy their space on the ideological spectrum will be notable. For example, they favor people-centered charities and are much less enthusiastic about some environmental causes. (Kristof has a history of independence. He was among the first to recognize the significant charitable efforts of the George W. Bush administration in Africa).
The book is not without flaws. It recognizes a few charities that have religious origins but somehow manages to miss, for example, the Salvation Army (perhaps the second largest charity in the world and one thoroughly and completely dedicated to the lost and the least and with a century plus record of effectiveness) or Minnesota’s own Feed the Children, which has revolutionized food distribution.
I don’t mind the enthusiasm of the authors for bed nets as a way to control malaria, but many have argued that controlled use of DDT would save millions of lives. Despite the evidence of effectiveness and safety, the mere mention of DDT creates hysteria among some and the authors simply avoid the entire argument.
More concerning for those who know his background is the positive mention of controversial Princeton professor Peter Singer. Fortunately, those references are brief and in passing.
But, in the end, “A Path Appears” is a wonderful reminder of the difference individuals can make in the lives of total strangers (as well as our neighbors and friends) and a call for all of us to do more, not less, to support life-changing charities.
—Barry Anderson writes occasional book reviews for the Hutchinson Leader. Comment on this review, or suggestions for other book reviews, should be directed to email@example.com. He also can be reached via his twitter account at @justiceanderson.