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A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity

An interview with Nicholas D. Kristof about an important new book co-written with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, and how to make a difference abroad.

A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof



Since 2001, Nicholas has been an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, and has created his own unique form of opinion journalism in which he is seldom far from the field. He has reported extensively on human rights issues around the world, earning two Pulitzer prizes in so doing, one with his wife based upon their reporting on the pro-democracy movement in China and the related Tiananmen Square protests.

Kristof has a massive social media presence and his many columns in the New York Times have a large and dedicated following, as do his Twitter and Facebook accounts, in addition to his frequent appearances on TV and Youtube, as well as his newsletter.

Nicholas has also previously created a contest to allow students to win a trip with him where skills are developed on the ground, combining educational travel and journalism while fostering a direct form of responsible cultural exchange.

He has previously co-written three best-selling books with his wife on subjects ranging from in-depth reporting on their wide-ranging experiences in China in 1994; explorations of the many faces of Asia in 1999; and the very important "Half the Sky," which exposes the dire situations resulting from gender inequality.

"A Path Appears" is Kristof's most recent collaboration with his wife, and delves into one of the most, if not the most, pressing issue of our time: how to deal with worldwide inequality, and give effectively to those in need while enabling individuals to help themselves as only they know best. Kristof and his wife offer examples of individuals who have managed to come up with creative solutions to help improve early childhood education, to combat inner city violence, to apply the most effective health practices, and much more. The examples provided in "A Path Appears" demonstrate that it is possible to make a huge difference in the lives of those less fortunate through well thought out charity, skilled volunteering, and creative initiatives of all kinds.

"A Path Appears" is a painfully realistic depiction of difficult social issues, yet offers inspiring examples on how to confront and overcome inequality — which is the moral imperative of our time.

Since 1977, Transitions Abroad has provided information, and attempted to inspire people of all ages to deal with such issues in the pages of its magazine and on its website. In "A Path Appears," Kristof goes several steps beyond by providing a plethora of solutions to intractable problems while clarifying how every human being can potentially make a difference.

Nicholas Krystof on the ground
The co-author of A Path Appears on the ground.

* * *

John Dwyer, host of Over 50 and Overseas for Contributing Editor on Senior Volunteer Service for Transitions Abroad: You have had a long-lasting and passionate interest in helping the poor and disadvantaged peoples of the world. Can you describe events in your life that led you to this passion?

Nicholas D. Kristof: My parents tried to nurture empathy and a commitment to social justice, and that may be part of it. But maybe the most important factor is that my reporting takes me to the field and I see the people whose lives are at stake. If you’ve seen a kid dying of malaria, or a girl imprisoned in a brothel, these are no longer abstract concepts. You try to fight back with whatever tool you have. Mine is a keyboard.

JD: What inspired you and your wife to write "A Path Appears," and how did you set about to research it?

NK: After our previous book, “Half the Sky,” unexpectedly became a No. 1 bestseller, people kept asking us: “So what can I do?” We wanted to answer that question, and also share with readers the remarkable research that shows how we can give back more effectively. Our sense is that although two-thirds of Americans donate or volunteer, a lot of us know we don’t donate money as intelligently as we make it. We can do better! And aside from donating, there are great ways to have impact through volunteering or advocacy.

listening to a local about in Kenya
Nicholas Kristof speaks with Kennedy Odede, founder of Shining Hope, in Kenya.

JD: You tell many wonderful stories in the book about individuals who have made a difference. As one reviewer has written, “the book makes an important statement, supported by research and facts, that small contributions can have a big impact on improving people's lives.” Can you describe what led you to realize the importance of small contributions? How did you discover some of the difference-making individuals portrayed in the book?

NK: I think a lot of people are intimidated because the world’s problems seem vast, too large for any one person to have any impact. Yet that’s mistaken. We can’t “solve” problems in their entirety, but we can have a transformative impact on particular individuals. So we can absolutely make a difference. In A Path Appears, we talk about a girl named Rashida who was born with clubfoot. Because of a donation from a woman in California, Rashida’s clubfoot was corrected easily, and otherwise she would be a beggar today. Boy, that’s impact! And that’s a reminder that global poverty needn’t be perceived as depressing — what we can do should be seen as inspiring!

Nicholas Krystof intervewing in Haiti
Nicholas Kristof taking notes in a conversation while on the ground in Haiti.

JD: You have spent a lot of time on the ground in developing countries. As is obvious in both your book and New York Times column, you have a profound interest and concern regarding delivering meaningful and effective aid programs that leave a positive legacy when the volunteers return home. What types of international volunteer programs have you found to be particularly effective in developing countries?

NK: Volunteering is least effective when Americans provide unskilled labor. The one thing most poor countries have in abundance is labor. But teaching English is an important skill in great demand, and most Americans can provide that. Many Americans also have particular professional skills — accounting, public relations, lawyering, whatever — that aid groups need. And American visitors can also model behavior: When American women act independently and assertively, local women notice that and think maybe they can as well. When American teenage girl volunteers play soccer abroad, local girls think: Hey, maybe girls can play soccer, too! In the book, we talk about sites like and that let volunteers find good opportunities abroad.

JD: On the contrary, are there any types of international volunteer programs that you found were not particularly effective?

NK: Those simply providing unskilled labor, and those without buy-in from local communities. In addition, we write about the problem of orphanages that take in volunteers for brief visits and then hit them up for donations to help the emaciated kids. The volunteers help out and leave, the money goes to the orphanage owner, and the kids remain starved — the better to get money out of the next volunteers. It’s a business model that exploits visitors and children alike.

JD: In A Path Appears, you mention the importance local buy-in plays in successful development programs. The visitors to this website span all age groups, but are united in the motivation to give back and primarily interested in international volunteering. What are some guidelines that you think would be helpful, when choosing a volunteer program, to assure that it has a positive impact on the people and communities served?

NK: I’d suggest that it’s important to understand why the organization wants volunteers. If there is a particular skill set that volunteers provide, the reason may be obvious. It’s obvious why surgeons are needed. But if there’s a charge to volunteer, maybe the organization is using volunteers as a way to fund raise.

In addition, volunteers often don’t add much value unless they stay for a few months. Otherwise, too much time is spent training them and getting them used to the situation. So understand that for brief visits, your noble intentions notwithstanding, you may be a burden. Yet we strongly recommend volunteering even where its impact is modest, simply because it can have a far-reaching effect on the volunteer. Our efforts to help others have a somewhat mixed record of success; they have this almost perfect record of helping ourselves. And if volunteers come back with a more sophisticated understanding of global poverty, as a constituency for better policies abroad, then that’s good for everyone.

I’d also encourage volunteers to see this as a social experience. Do this as a family, or with friends. It’ll be more fun for everyone.

Nicholas Kristof in Myanmar
Nicholas Kristof in Myanmar.

JD: An important part of international volunteering is the management of expectations of both the volunteer and the recipients of the volunteer’s efforts. Based on your experience, do you have some thoughts on how to effectively handle expectations on both sides?

NK: I think the recipients often have reasonable expectations, because they’re dealing with visitors regularly. But volunteers often see themselves as benefactors and don’t appreciate that it’s expensive, at least in time and energy, to welcome visitors and show them what’s going on. And there are always a few horror stories of visitors who are enormously demanding and disrupt the local operation more than they help it. If the volunteers appreciate all this, and listen to local people and take cues from them, everything goes smoother.

JD: Thank you very much for taking the time to share your thoughts for this interview. Your insights and ideas are very helpful for both experienced and prospective international volunteers. I highly recommend "A Path Appears" to the visitors of this website.

NK: Thanks so much! We’re hoping A Path Appears will be a useful guide for people who want to volunteer, or who are considering encore careers. I’m so glad you’re encouraging this spirit in people.

Best, Nicholas Kristof

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