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Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times on Africa

Friday, January 18, 2013
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HH: This very first hour, I’m devoting to Africa. And I’m devoting it to Africa, because no one talks much about Africa. And as far as I can see and tell, the crux of that continent’s troubles is going to be our crux pretty soon. The person I reached out to today to talk to about this is Nicholas Kristoff, New York Times columnist/reporter extraordinaire. You can read often him talking about many other subjects besides Africa. But at least annually, he is over there. Nicholas Kristoff, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show and thanks for joining me.

NK: Sure, I’m delighted to be with you, Hugh.

HH: Tell us a little bit, I’ll be joined at the bottom of the hour by a young college graduate in Southern California, who having gone off on a trip with his college, is now throwing in and doing, spending his life trying to help the kids in the slums of Nairobi. You go back and forth, and I know you take young people with you. What is it about this continent that A) captures the imagination of so many young Americans, and B) is so screwed up right now.

NK: Well, you know, I guess there are a couple of things. I mean, one is that in some ways, Africa is really, and we don’t think of it this way, but is really the boom continent of the moment, that its growth rate is actually faster than most of the rest of the world, and I think six of the ten fastest growing countries in the world right now are actually in Africa. And especially at a time with Europe is suffering, and North America is, there are some places in Africa that really have this kind of excitement of development. Now the other part of the picture is the exact opposite, that the places where the suffering is the greatest in the world, where one can make the most difference because there are kids who aren’t even going to elementary school, let alone to college, that’s also Africa. The places where the stakes are the greatest, you know, south Sudan, where a girl is more likely to end up dying in childbirth than to become literate. And so I think that people are drawn both by the extraordinary needs and by this, you know, what is a much more recent phenomenon, this sense of buzz and excitement in some parts of the continent.

HH: Now there’s also the backdrop that prompted this, which is a civil war in Mali…

NK: Right.

HH: …where you have Islamists of the most radical variety wreaking havoc, Libya falling apart, and now the Algerian hostage crisis. And Americans are looking up and saying, they saw a map in the New York Times yesterday if they looked, of the area of al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and they say what is going on here. So from your perspective of going back and forth often, what is going on there?

NK: Well, that whole swathe of North Africa, not the very top, but the Sahel countries right, kind of right in the middle there, are in a mess, all the way across the continent, from Mauritania through Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sudan. And the local al Qaeda affiliates, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, kind of walked into it. I mean, I must say that they got some outside help. I think that there were several factors going on there. One was we, the U.S. in, I think we undertook a counterterrorism approach that in some cases ended up supporting some kind of unpleasant thugs in the area like the dictator in Mauritania that led people to turn against him and us, and to support al Qaeda. And then they were kidnapping Europeans, and got huge ransoms from Europe. And that helped finance their operations.

HH: So how deeply embedded, and is this going to be sort of Afghanistan franchised, and we’re looking at decades, if not centuries, of sort of new conflict that will be the replication of Afghanistan?

NK: I don’t think it’s going to be another Afghanistan, if only because nobody has the stomach to go send a lot of outside troops there. But are some of these countries going to be pretty messy for quite a while? I think so. It doesn’t, I don’t think that the number of al Qaeda fighters there isn’t so great, and that al Qaeda affiliate, they don’t really have a huge hatred of America. I mean, these days, they have a growing hatred for France because of the French military intervention.

HH: Of course.

NK: But in general, they’re not, they’re really more about ruling in a really brutal and thuggish and backward way in their own area more than about going after outsiders. I must say, you know, one of the things that really strikes me is that you, as outsiders, there’s not an awful lot we can do, but education, I think, is the single best solvent for those kind of attitudes. And one of the things that frustrates me when I travel in this area is you see Saudi Arabian-financed Wahhabi madrasas in this area that are getting more students because they’re free, because they’re subsidized, and it’s been an investment by radical Islamists that has worked. It’s a way of creating that kind of radical Islam there, and we don’t really counter that with, much with education of a more conventional kind. And I just think education is the best investment in the medium and long term that we can do in that region.

HH: It’s interesting, at the bottom of the hour, this young man is coming in from Fikisha, and that’s what they do for between $1,000 and $1,200 bucks a year, you can put a Kenyan street kid into year-round boarding school. It’s almost insanely cheap to get someone. But the slum in which he works, the Kawangware slum is where Islam and Christianity are kind of shoulder and cheek against each other. And I kind of look at that line that’s going across Africa now, Nicholas Kristoff, that begins over in Nigeria, and ends up over in Nairobi. And to the north, Islam is expanding, and to the south, Christianity has its traditional role. Is that going to be the sort of dividing line for the next hundred years for the conflict of civilizations that Huntington would refer to?

NK: You know, I’m, I have trouble predicting the next ten years.

HH: Ha. How about ten weeks?

NK: So I’m not sure I want to…but there’s no, I mean, you’re right that there is a real conflict all across that band, and it’s partly religious. In general, those more in the south tend to be Christian, those more in the north are more likely to be Muslim. And it also tends to be, have a racial and ethnic element that those further south tend to be darker skinned, and those further north tend to be lighter skinned. And there tend to be ethnic divisions as well. And those are very real, and they run all the way through from Mauritania all the way east through, you know, say, to Somalia and Kenya.

HH: Now many times have you been there?

NK: Oh, I couldn’t count. I mean, I went for the first time as a university student, hitchhiked across West Africa, and I’ve been back so many times.

HH: What year did you graduate college?

NK: 1981.

HH: Okay, so you’re three years younger than I am, and so you went there and did the Oxford thing, and then you went to Africa and roamed around, and you’ve been back all these different times. Did you ever imagine falling in love with Africa when you were an undergrad, or as a high school kid?

NK: No, I really didn’t. And in fact, I mean, I was kind of awed by it, but I was also really kind of shaken by the poverty. And you know, I think one advantage of this perspective, the long time that I’ve been going, also enables me to see the progress, which I think is something that a lot of Americans don’t see. You know, when I first went there, the thing that really shook me the most was seeing the blind beggars in every city that you would go to. These would be people in their, say, in their 40s who had river blindness, or a trachoma. And they would walk around being led by a child or a grandchild, because they couldn’t do anything else. And these days, trachoma is, it still exists, but it’s much, much, less common.

HH: You’ve written about that, yeah, how it’s been amazingly eradicated.

NK: And river blindness, the same. And so there’s still huge problems, and Mali is an example of that. But has there been progress? Huge progress.

HH: Now what do you think of the, like, our friend, Rick Warren. I know he’s your friend and my friend.

NK: Yeah.

HH: They take a lot of people, and he and his wife spend a lot of time there. And my college friend…and my church just sent six people down to Soweto, and they came back on fire to help Africa. Is this good for Africa, that America, it’s called missionary tourism in some places, and in other places like Bretzmann, they go and they go and they go and they go, and like you, you go and you go and you go. Is it a good thing?

NK: Yeah, I’m a huge believer in it, and there are critics who say this is poverty tourism or missionary tourism. And I likewise have had people who say look, does it really make sense for me to spend a couple thousand dollars flying there back and forth, rather than just writing a check for that amount? But I think when one goes, if you do it in not sort of an arrogant way, but you really learn and listen, then you become a lifelong advocate for the people in these places. You have a deeper understanding of what’s going on, and I think that that is going to result in wiser policies on our part, and really a lifelong commitment.

– – – –

HH: Nicholas Kristoff, when we went to break, I was asking you about development strategies. I don’t know if you know Thomas P.M. Barnett. He spent a lot of time on the program.

NK: Sure.

HH: And he believes in development in a box. You know, build roads, put in electricity, and let the economy develop. A lot of Americans, like my next guest, Bretzmann, go over and they work, and they put a few thousand dollars in, or help a few people. What’s your opinion of what the priority ought to be for American dollars, both governmental and private, if people are moved to try and help a continent that I think is going to be the pivot of the conflict between not just Islam and Christianity, but resource conflicts?

NK: You know, there’s no silver bullet, and I think we’ve learned that at various points, there’s been a fashion of oh, we need to do this, or we need to do that. I think that at the end of the day, you need to generate economic growth. And that is the most important way to chip away at poverty, rather than the outside help is always going to be useful, but it’s not going to really transform poverty that way indigenous, local economic growth will. And so you need sound economic policies. I mean, maybe the U.S. policy toward Africa that has made the most difference in people’s lives is something we don’t even think of as a foreign aid program, and it’s not exactly, and nobody knows about it, it’s called AGOA, it’s African Growth Opportunity Act, which is a program to give trade benefits to African exports to America.

HH: Huh, I’ve never heard of that ever.

NK: Nobody knows about it, and yet it’s created a large amount of jobs in Africa, and jobs are crucial for fighting poverty. But you know, having said that, it’s hard to develop a modern economy if people aren’t educated. And that lack of education created instability. It created this kind of mess we see in Mali now. And when you educate a girl, that has just a powerful effect. It lets her participate in the economy. An educated girl is going to have fewer children. And one of the real problems they have had is overpopulation. And so education, you know, I mean, it’s something that my wife and I have been supporting, because we just see the far reaching impact of education.

HH: Now if you could take ten minutes with the President, or with John Boehner or with any leader, and say look, we can’t do everything, here’s where our focus ought to be in Africa, this country, this effort. I know you’re going to say education, but where? Do you start at the bottom of the continent where the infrastructure is perhaps most developed? Or do you go and try to save Kenya, at which apparently Kenya is on a tipping point right now, elections are coming up. What would you do?

NK: I’d say that you start at the bottom of where the needs are greatest, and with primary school, and that you don’t work on elite education, but you work on kind of mass education. There’s some evidence that America’s rise as an economy a hundred years ago was really attributable to the fact that we were in contrast to Europe, which had great elite education, you know, they had a small portion of people who got a superb education. In the U.S., we had almost everybody getting kind of a so-so education. We were the first country then in the 20th Century to really popularize high schools, and to create broader colleges. And I think that is the strategy that really matters, to get universal literacy or something close to that, to get girls going to school as well as boys.

HH: But which is the strategic country into which one would pour their efforts and their resources in that regard?

NK: Well, I mean, I think that some of these countries that are kind of wobbling, like those in the Sahal countries, including Mali. I would certainly put resources into those places. It is incredibly cheap to send a child to school for one more year. It’s a matter of typically buying a school uniform…

HH: Right.

NK: The building, you know, isn’t going to have electricity, and you don’t even need to have a building. In some cases, you can just send it, you can have classes in the mosque. But you need to have a teacher of some kind, and that it is so cheap, and the benefits are so considerable, that the President, Obama, in his 2008 campaign, he talked about how he was going to have a global education fund, a $2 billion dollar global education fund working with other countries. And I think that that is a terrific idea. But there hasn’t been really any mention of it since.

HH: Let’s close with the last couple of minutes, Nicholas Kristoff, talking about Mali, because all of a sudden, it came up in the debate, and Mitt Romney brought it up and said there’s a problem here, and it kind of got washed away. Now, we have French jets and special forces, and Algerian crises, and Americans being butchered. What is the deal in Mali? What should Americans know as sort of a base bit of information to take away from it?

NK: Well, you have a really lousy government in Mali that created this vacuum. There had been kind of a weak democratic government, and the military staged a coup and overthrew it. And that created the basis for, I mean, Northern Mali was already kind of going its own way. But then that created the basis for radicals to seize towns in the north. And in Mali and in other places, you’ve also had narcotics trafficking. At one point, there was just an amazing situation where a huge Boeing jet that had been used to traffic drugs landed on a northern Mali airstrip and then got stuck in the sand. And the traffickers just had to leave the plane behind. And that, I mean, it’s not just, Mali’s getting the attention right now, but there’s really no difference between northern Mali and eastern Mauritania, other countries nearby, Niger, Burkina Faso are really troubled as well.

HH: Should the President do whatever it takes to help France in keeping these Islamists away from dominating?

NK: I think we should help France. I mean, I certainly don’t think we should send ground troops, but France, I think France was right to intervene to try to bomb the al Qaeda affiliates there, to support an African military. And I think that we should be supporting them, helping them with intelligence, this kind of thing, that we have a lot at stake as well. And we kind of left them holding the bag.

HH: And last question, a minute left, you’ve done this tremendous thing of taking a college kid with you. How many years have you been doing this?

NK: 2006 was the first time.

HH: Well, it’s really a remarkable thing. Are you doing it again? And have you picked your intern to go with you yet?

NK: I am going to do it again, and the contest entry just closed, and now we have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of applications. And we’ll have to figure out, I’ll pick somebody, and then I’ll have to figure out where exactly in Africa to take the person. And I’m kind of thinking maybe Mali.

HH: You don’t know where you’re going when they applied?

NK: No. No, we don’t. We kind of look for where is newsy. And boy, Mali is looking pretty newsy.

HH: Well, Nicholas Kristoff, are you writing a book about Africa ever?

NK: I’m not going to write a book about Africa as such, but in our last book, Half The Sky, which was focused on…

HH: Women

NK: …the need to empower women, right, there’s an awful lot of Africa in there.

HH: Nicholas Kristoff, Happy New Year, thank you for joining me, look forward to talking to you often in 2013.

End of interview.

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