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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Reconciling “Intrusive Paternalism” and “Soft Power”

Andy Dayton, associate web producer

"This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story."

Last Friday, Krista sent around David Brooks’ recent editorial on the disaster in Haiti. As the quote above suggests, he discusses the connection between the scale of damage in Haiti and the nation’s “poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”

One of the many questions the situation in Haiti raises is how those in wealthier nations can help prevent this sort of catastrophe in the future. Brooks provides his own diagnosis on effective foreign aid, based on a few domestic examples:

In [the U.S.], we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but hear Binyavanga Wainaina’s voice in the back of my mind, whom Krista spoke to in our program "The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective." Wainaina is a Kenyan writer who has often been a vocal critic of foreign aid:

A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.

I find Brooks’ call for “intrusive paternalism” hard to reconcile with Wainaina’s warnings about the “soft power” of foreign aid. But, the question still remains — what can we do to help prevent another Haiti?

One possible answer to that question comes from next week’s guest, Jacqueline Novogratz, who speaks of an approach to foreign aid that uses “a hard head and a soft heart.” She’s the CEO and founder of the Acumen Fund, which aims to combine the economic accountability of venture capital with the human-centric concerns of traditional philanthropy — an approach that is innovative, but also comes with its own questions.


Brooks and Dionne Video, Live with Krista
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

For those of you who only follow the blog, I finally was able to get the video of the Georgetown event encoded to the proper aspect ratio even though the crunch times are still taking way too long. Many thanks to listener Michael Wong for the advice.


UPDATE: I’ll be posting footage to this entry over the weekend as soon as I get the session audio.

UPDATE: I apologize for these technical problems. The bandwidth at the venue came to a screeching halt and has precluded us from streaming live. I’ll post our tape as soon as I can. Thank you, and let me have it. Trent

Live Video: Krista with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

At 6:30 pm Eastern today, we will be streaming Krista’s live public interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne — all live from the campus of Georgetown University. For those of you in Washington D.C., there’s still time to attend the event in person. For those of you who can’t, the best place to watch the conversation is right here at SOF Observed.

The topic of conversation is the legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr and the future of his idea of Christian realism. I’m excited — and prepared to be surprised — to hear where Krista directs this topic as the U.S. shifts gear during a new presidential administration.

I got a preview of Niebuhr’s relevance during our morning briefing (actually, a confab with coffee and pastries). Krista has been reading one of Niebuhr’s later works, The Irony of American History. Part of his book addresses the very real threat of communism of the day. But, Niebuhr warns, that the virtuous founding principles of the United States — simplicity, rugged individualism, frugality, modesty, faith — has lead to the country’s success and great wealth. This prosperity comes at a cost of abandoning some of what made the U.S. great; the threat is to wield such power and might with humility.

I’m also opening up the chat dialog that accompanies this live feed so that you can share ideas with others who may be watching with you. Please let me know what you think of this endeavor. We really do this for the many of you who can’t attend these events in person. It’s a great honor for me and I love to get feedback, even criticism so we can serve you better.