Thoughts on “Half the Sky”

26 Feb

One of the books circulating around Peace Corps volunteers here is seminal New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which he co-wrote with his wife Sheryl WuDunn. The book chronicles a broad spectrum of women’s stories, both tragic and triumphant, in the developing world. Personal stories that encompass everything from fistula surgery in Ethiopia to sex trafficking in Nepal to the virtues of iodizing salt are discussed in the broader terms of international aid, gender and development, and the state of world’s women [spoiler alert: being a women born in the developing world is tough.]


While I generally tend to cringe at sweeping statements on development theory, with so many volunteers and now my mom’s book club picking up the book, I figured I should give it another read, especially now that I have a bit more firsthand experience working in the health sector here in Ethiopia. Drawing from my coursework and research from an MA in International Development, experience in Peace Corps and other jobs abroad including at the health policy level in Geneva, I came at the book with a different eye than the first time in undergrad.

Taken as a whole, the book does a great job of achieving its goal of raising awareness and providing practical action steps for its targeted American reader. One of my biggest pet peeves is when works like this create outrage, but nothing ever comes of it. I really did like the concluding chapters that implore action and then provide some pretty concrete and realistic steps to back it up. But some of the underlying assumptions and larger trends I have to take issue with. Don’t get me wrong, Kristoff does an almost annoying job of going off on tangents that cover my arguments, but I just figured I should put these thoughts out there for people (my mom) to keep on the back burner while reading.

Firstly, the focus on grassroots is great. Clearly I love me some grassroots. As US foreign aid/development agencies go, Peace Corps is the grass rootiest of all. I didn’t do 3 months of language training for nothing (though “if I buy 2 will I get a discount?” in Amharic doesn’t do much for the local economy.) But having lived and worked in a few countries where if the government doesn’t want to do something, it just won’t get done, there’s only so much civil society can do sometimes (email me if you want to know more). Again, wahoo grassroots! But bigger international political pressure I believe is still incredibly important. Like the book points out, a focus on human trafficking as large as one on intellectual property theft will only happen if it’s perceived that the capital “A” American government gives a hoot (don’t pollute). So feel free to donate to that grassroots org AND write your senator, don’t pick one.

Speaking of donating to that grassroots organization, one of my biggest issues with the trend in charitable giving is the focus on administrative costs. While transparency and efficiency are incredibly important in deciding where to donate, the “low administrative cost” threshold is misleading. If an NGO is like a business (and no they’re not because they don’t focus on profits, but yes they are because much of them are run on business models anyway) you would never invest in a company that only devoted 5% of its resources to administrative costs. So please don’t only use that marker for donating to charity either. I would rather the logistics arm of Save the Children spend more on getting disaster relief supplies to the people who need it most than doubling the number of water filters to communities who are flush with aid. That decision/research is made by an administrative team. And if it’s not labeled as such in the annual report that gets sent to it’s because these NGOs feel pressure to misrepresent numbers to fit this artificial “low admin cost” value.

Moving right along on economic value, one of the interesting studies cited in the book was about paying families to keep children (mostly girls) in school in Mexico. Cool. Economic incentive and girls’ education, I’m on board! Oh, wait. Economic incentive in Ethiopia has lead to a culture of per diem where literally every workshop, training, and even your own organization’s meeting on things that your own organization is doing and is PART OF YOUR JOB people expect to be paid extra for. I’m sure some very well meaning organization started this trend here to get people to show up to that training that one time and now it’s an epidemic and no will come to a workshop that is actually beneficial and maybe even work related if something is not offered. And now local NGOs with small budgets cannot compete with large foreign aid agencies. Unintended consequences I’m sure, but an incredibly difficult environment for a volunteer whose job is to transfer skills and has no budget to do so to work in. I’ll give a training on project design… and half of my budget will go to shay/bunna. I blow people minds when I say that people in American actually pay to attend conferences.

I think what is more important in that mini rant is the fact that silver bullets, as the book accurately points out, should not be taken for granted across the world. What works well in Mexico may not work so well in Ethiopia. What works great here, might be a disaster in Ghana. The larger message is that good development policy on the larger scale should still take in to consideration individual contexts on the ground (and back to grassroots- see above).

The point is, read the book. And then think about the book. And then do something about the book. But have a conversation, talk to that random neighbor’s daughter who did Peace Corps or that cousin’s cousin who works at USAID and see what they think about some of these issues. We are all on the same page, with the same goals. And as awesome as those personal stories are, it’s cool to make them personal to you.

Speaking of which, if you read the book and thought that was sad but now I’m pumped up but oh my goodness he just listed like 100 organizations that I haven’t heard of, do not fret. I’m going to pull out a few that I personally have come across in my work here in Ethiopia that maybe you can feel more inclined to visit their websites because of that personal connection:

Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association

Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital

Population Services International

Peace Corps

World Vision

And some others that he didn’t mention, but specifically do grassroots work in my town (mostly with kids) and I like to think are pretty cool and might work with myself:

Kindu Trust

Yenege Tesfa

Gondar Aids Resource Center


Mahibere Hiwot Ethiopia

Happy Reading!

One Response to “Thoughts on “Half the Sky””

  1. Maureen Crozier February 26, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    We read the book in our neighborhood book club last month and heard lots of interesting comments from everyone… including people who donate to charities and discussed their roles and their effectiveness. One person commented on Engineers without Borders and said that they swoop in and build wells, but lack the skills to do local training and get the locals to maintain the well. Good intentions from Westerners that get waylaid by local considerations! Everyone should give the book a read and there is also a more upbeat DVD out there with the same name highlighting some of the stories in the book.

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