Why do we build walls? This one graph explains…

Everyone seems to be building walls these days. The trend is epitomised in the demagoguery of American politics, but it would be a mistake to think that rising nationalism is an exclusively American trend. Europe is refusing migrants, Japan is rebuilding its military, Britain wants to leave the EU. People want walls, not bridges.


It all seems so foolish. Why do we vote for Trump? Why do we hate refugees? Why do we build militaries and fight integration?

There are a lot of ways to answer these questions. You can gain insights from sociology, history, psychology, anthropology, or biology. One tool to help make sense of the choices people make is political economy, a lens which attempts to understand the world by looking at how people make choices based on our desire for power and money.

What can political economy tell us about why people want to build walls?

Let’s start with context. The world has gotten incredibly richer over the last 35 years. Most of this have to do with all the advances in transportation and communication technology that we now call globalisation. In 1990, the average person made just over $4,000 per year. Today that has risen to over $10,000!

With all this prosperity, why do people worry about Muslim immigrants and Chinese goods?

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.42.46 AMThe answer lies in the fact that all the benefits of economic growth haven’t been evenly spread. But this isn’t the usual “rich get richer poor get poorer” story. Branko Milanovic’s research helps explain. You can imagine that he lined up everybody in the world from poorest to richest, then asked them all how much more they were making compared to 1988.

The data don’t show any simple trend. Over the last three decades, there have been winners and losers from the globalisation-fueled economic growth. As is expected, the very richest have gotten richer, while the very poorest have stayed poor. Mark Zuckerberg got richer and Malawians stayed poor.

In the middle, however, things are different. The big hill shows where people in China, India, Nigeria, and Indonesia got up to a 75% raise. At the same time, people in the Americans, Canadians, and Europeans (75-85th percentile) got stuck, the best of them landing a 10% increase in income. Tyler Cowen calls this “The Great Stagnation” arguing that the US failed to grow because it hasn’t delivered any growth-creating inventions while developing countries got rich by playing copycat.

With this context, it is suddenly easy to understand why these people are angry, why they want to build walls. The forces of globalisation that doubled the size of the world economy left them behind. They look at either the 1% or the developing world and say: “That’s not fair!”Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.42.46 AM

To the world, these are privileged polluters, but they see themselves as the losers and victims. Before you label them stupid or crazy, remember that their response to the world around them is in many ways rational. That doesn’t make their choices morally justifiable, but it whispers, “If in their position, you might start to think the same way”. It builds empathy.

It is easy to label Trump-supporters and European refugee-haters barbaric. It is much harder to embrace their fellow broken humanity and work toward a better solution.

I see two ways to do this:

The first is to broaden people’s views. Just like this post helped your understand another person’s perspective, we can help people see how globalisation has lifted billions out of poverty. Political economy assumes rational self-interest, but I’m yet to be convinced. With perspective, people may be willing to let others win a bit.

The second is to start making things grow again. Building walls like patents, borders, and tariffs through policy have an important place. However, investing in research, innovation, and human capital can also spur the growth that has sputtered off. We can build better things than walls.


Links I liked

  1. Naturalizing “Shalom”: Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist
    The holistic affirmation of the goodness of creation and the importance of “this worldly” justice is not a substitute for heaven, as if the holistic gospel was a sanctified way to learn to be a naturalist….Shalom is not biblical language for progressivist social amelioration. Shalom is a Christ-haunted call to long for kingdom come.

    Don’t let the title turn you away. This was probably the most thought-provoking piece I’ve read this year. I wanted to write a longer reflection on this, but the short version is: I feel like I’m on the same journey as this guy. It also gets points for being made in Canada.

  2. Where 25,000 Syrians have settled in Canada
    Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 11.37.48 AM.jpg
    Canada has unique legislation that allows groups to privately sponsor refugees, and Canadians have paid for almost half of the 25,000 that have entered Canada in the last year. It is pretty amazing that people are willing to spend $20,000 to bring someone into their community. Note that churches have been at the center of this movement, and compare to attitudes among US churches. Sorry America, I’m apparently feeling quite patriotic today.

  3. Plan for Sailboats, Not Trains
    “Most development programs are like throwing a rock in a pond—they make a big splash, but little change. Altering the rules that shape a system is like moving rocks along the water’s edge—move enough of them and the stream will follow a different course”
    More on this next week.

  4. The Most Prolific editor on Wikipedia
    We all owe a lot to Justin Anthony Knapp.

Malawi Expactations vs. reality

I’m starting to anticipate the question “So, how was Malawi?”, so I decided to plot things out for clarity.

Malawi Expectations.jpg

Note that no quantitative rigor was applied to the production of this chart.

  • On the whole, things were better than I expected. There aren’t a lot of things in the “surprisingly bad” area, and most the things that I expected to be bad weren’t as bad as I thought.
  • Goat liver was the worst expected item, but turned out not to be too bad. Mosquitoes, specifically the ones that make their way inside my bednet and buzz around my ears at 3 a.m., are just awful.
  • I still haven’t decided about work, which made it onto all four quadrants.
  • I would stay in Malawi forever for the tomatoes.
  • There’s a lot that didn’t make it onto the list. Grass huts, machine guns, and disease didn’t make the list because they haven’t been part of my experience. Poverty, power, and loneliness aren’t on the chart because they demand a much more nuanced analysis, and I’m still figuring out what I’ve learned. I doubt I’ll ever get to a resolution that can be plotted in two dimensions.

Finally, stay tuned for when I make another one of these in six months: “Marriage, Expectations vs. Reality


Who would I vote for in the 2016 Presidential election?

No, not Trump, Cruz, Clinton, or Sanders. It’s a tough choice, but I think I would vote for Kizza Besigye. After all, this is his fourth attempt at running for office.

Of course I’m talking about the Ugandan presidential elections, happening tomorrow. I have to apologize for bringing you here on false pretenses, but before you stop reading, I want to remind you that you actually know more than you think about Ugandan politics (I promise).

1101770307_400First off, there’s Idi Amin. You might recognize his name from the movie, or perhaps his full  title: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conquerer of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in particular” (and apparent heir to the throne of Scotland).
Amin became president after the end of British colonialism and set the standard for human rights abuse and corruption among African leaders. He was deposed in 1979 and died in exile in 2003. 

portada-revista-time-konyThe other Ugandan you know is Joseph Kony, whose name you probably recognize from another movie. Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla movement made infamous for its use of child soldiers by Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 movement. Unlike Amin, Kony is still alive and continues to wage war against the Ugandan Government. 

There is a third character that connects these two, but he has so far managed to stay out of the spotlight (no movie). Yoweri Musevini is Uganda’s current president, who goes by the title “The Old Man with a Hat“.

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 1.54.37 PM
Not to be confused with “The man in the yellow hat”

After Amin, Uganda went through a decade of turmoil in which a number of different leaders took control. In 1986 Museveni’s National Resistance Movement launched a coup, and Museveni became Uganda’s (unelected) president. In 1996, Museveni opened Uganda to democracy, immediately winning a landslide victory. While the last three decades has seen significant progress in Uganda’s economy and health care system, Museveni has held on to his power through a combination rigging elections, bribing supporters, and silencing political opponents. He won elections in 2001, 2006, and 2011, adjusting the constitution 2006 to remove term limits. 

Tomorrow, Museveni will run for a fifth term, entering his 31st year in power. Forecasters give him as much as a  98% chance of victory. Of the seven candidates running against him, there are two that pose a slight challenge:

One is Amama Mbabazi, who was Uganda’s Prime Minister from 2011-2014. Mbabazi severed ties with Museveni and is now vying for the country’s top office as an independent, on a “Go forward” campaign. Mbabazi has the influence of a political insider, but has made a significant enemy out of the powers that be.

Musevini’s main challenger is Kizza Besigye, who has ran (and lost) against Museveni in the last three elections. Besigye used to be Museveni’s personal physician but left to pursue politics. Over the course of his campaigns, he has been arrested more than six times (when I wrote this yesterday it was five), been beaten, tear-gassed, and had his rallies broken up by police. Now he’s running for the fourth time. This guy is determined.

Besigye: Does not wear a hat.

Uganda has never had a peaceful transfer of power. To me, it seems like a great idea to vote for Besigye, the noble underdog. But then again, my hypothetical vote doesn’t put my family or job in danger, nor will I get a much-needed bag of food if I vote with the majority. Electing Museveni is also a better option than Amin, Kony, or a civil war. There is nothing easy about the choice that Ugandans will make tomorrow.

The takeaway here is twofold:
First, for most of you reading this in liberal democracies, take a minute to be thankful for things like term limits, legitimate contest between candidates, and (fairly) peaceful elections.
Second, shining a light on corruption weakens it. By reading and taking time to understand Ugandan politics, you are exposing the corruption that suppresses truth.

Also, a shout out to Comoros, Niger, Benin, Congo, Chad, Djibouti, Sao Tome and Principe, Zambia, Cape Verde, and Ghana, all African democracies who will be choosing a president before the US does!

Finally, if you want to get a more nuanced picture of Uganda’s political situation, I would suggest Sverker Finnstrom’s Living with Bad Surroundings.

Two Men


We all stood, reverent when he entered. Special staff carried in placards with his face on them, lifting them to solicit applause. Women had come just to dance for him, singing as he entered the room.

Again we stood, reverent when he left. The staff carried a dented, rusted stretcher, their latex gloves and cotton masks bringing sterile silence. Women had come just to mourn for him, weeping as his face was uncovered.

His Excellency, Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika, President of the Republic of Malawi, had arrived at the inaugural National Youth Conference. He chaired a panel interview with six leading youth entrepreneurs and activists before officially launched the Youth Status Report, co-produced by the UNFPA, National Youth Council of Malawi, and the Ministry of Youth, Labour, and Manpower Development.

The night guard didn’t have a name. It wasn’t till the newspaper obituary came out the we learned it was Samuel, and that it was a stroke that had left him lying on the office porch. Our accountant found the body on his way into work at 5:00 am. The law stipulated that the body couldn’t be moved until the police had completed an examination. They didn’t arrive for three hours.

Over a thousand people were in the auditorium. A Malawian pop artist had the whole crowd waving their arms to the theme song “Hold My Hand”. Speeches from UN officials and government ministers. A military band played the anthem. After two hours, the President was ushered on to his next engagement, his departure accompanied by as much pomp as his entrance.

Tradition demanded the entire staff bear witness to his body’s removal, and so we gathered in the yard, watching from a distance, gasping at the stiffness in the body as the medical staff  lifted it onto the stretcher. They hoisted the stretcher into the back of the pickup and quickly drove away.

We stood for a while, but it was Monday morning and we had to start our work. A trite “What a shame” was the best that we could offer as we walked back inside.

But the shame was our own. The death was as much a tragedy as an interruption. After all, we didn’t even know his name.

As a part of making sense of all this, a colleague composed the following:

The Old Man left us without a Name

I came in today to find the vehicles lined up outside.
Got inside the office being greeted with the sad tidings
There was no name attached to the story.
Only the description of the man.
The old man went without a name.

I went in through the corridor and came to the office on the right
Greeted the man inside as I leaned on the door and
He had the same message too, of the bad news
The man who served here night and night is gone
The old man went without a name.

I proceeded to greet the other group in the other room
The fellow native in and is explaining to the mzungu
What was his name, the mzungu asks
We did not know, says the native. We just called him madala
The old man went without a name.

I do remember. I remember asking him his name
Happily he told me, but I’d soon forget it
I called him malume and he so did: respect was the mask
I could have asked him again, you know, but I didn’t
The old man went without a name.

The old man left us without a name.
But we never cared to have it, did we?

Solomon Madalitso Mlinda

“Hey, I’ll give you my t-shirt if you give me some of your radioactive chemicals…”

I will write a reflective post about my life soon. Really, I promise. Until then it’s just a glimpse into some of the tools that help me make sense of the world.

  1. The OEC: Whenever I start learning about a country, I stop by the MIT Media Lab’s Observatory of Economic Complexity. It’s a fantastic tool, and the recent redesign makes it more useful than ever- especially the country profile pages. Yesterday I found out that Malawi does most of its trade with Canada. (click for interactive):Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 9.01.29 AM
    Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 9.02.54 AM

    I can just imagine the conversation: “Hey, I’ll give you my t-shirt if you give me some of your radioactive chemicals…”

    Looking at trade gives a fascinating window into a country’s economy. Having a complex economy (lots of colours) is good because it promotes stability and growth. You don’t have all your eggs in one basket. This happens in three dimensions:

    First, you want to export complex goods, like cars and computers (Japan), not tobacco and tea (Malawi). In resource rich countries, that means exporting tables and plastics instead of timber and petroleum.
    Second, you want a complex mix of goods (China), instead of relying on a single product (Saudi).
    Finally, you want to export to complex mix of countries (Not like Mexico), so that if one stops buying, you aren’t left without a market.
    The OEC makes learning all this easy. If you want to get an idea of where a country fits in the global order. I couldn’t recommend a better tool.

  2. The True Size: Malawi is a small country, Africa is a big continent. But how big? The True Size lets you overlay countries on top of a world map. It’s fantastic just for playing around, and also for finding out that Greenland is disappointingly small.Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 9.10.07 AM



  1. Gapminder: Hans Rosling is the godfather of making statistics interesting. Wondering about the relationship between cellphones and economic growth? Education and employment? Gapminder World gives you access to an incredible amount of information that is fairly easy to play around with.Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.36.35 AM.png
  2. US States GDP if they were Countries. Not actually a tool, just an interesting endnote. Canada’s economy is the same as Texas’, Arkansas and Angola are also comparable.
    Conclusion: the US economy is overwhelmingly large.

So you want to Blog about Development? (Part 1)

Every week I try to post a set of “Links I liked” based on what I’ve read over the last few days. This is mostly an excuse to share articles that I find interesting, but also a good way to keep up regular posting. Over the year, I’ve started coming back to the same sources, people and sites that have the most interesting and engaging content, and keep me current with development news. If you’re starting out, my first piece of advice would be to learn from the best. So here’s my list of recommendations:


1. Chris Blattman: Chris Blattman’s blog was among the first I found, and remains the gold standard for development blogging. Blattman (a Columbia political economist) runs experiments on poverty and violence. Notably, his post on what to pack for development fieldwork is brilliant (as is his entire advice column). Beyond being an innovative researcher and talented communicator, he is also Canadian and a Waterloo grad.
Why I read: Honest reflections, Humour, Life advice for development practitioners and researchers. Basically, I get a secret sense of accomplishment when I find a story or image before it features on Blattman’s blog.


2. From Poverty to Power: One of the happy accidents of coming to Malawi has been being on Twitter at the same time as UK-based Duncan Green, a “Strategic Advisor” at Oxfam. Like Chris Blattman, Green’s blog curates fantastic content but his writing on ‘how social change happens’ is equally interesting. If Blattman’s economics are too much, Green’s practical advice on advocacy and change might be for you.
Why I read: Current events, interesting links, frequent guest contributors


3. Across Two Worlds: Bruce Wydick isn’t as prolific as the above two, but his posts are both academically brilliant and personally reflective. Wydick is a USF Econ prof who runs experiments to find out what interventions work best to end poverty. Personally, I am really impressed by the way he weaves his faith into his work, partnering with organisations like Compassion to make sure their interventions succeed, and promoting a wider idea of what it means to be “developed”.
Why I read: Rigorous and Holistic, enjoyable reading, he might yet convince me to like TOMS.

4. Our World in Data: I’m a huge geek for maps and charts, and Oxford Economist Max Roser’s work is unparalleled. Probably half the maps I share here are from him. His website is good if you need something specific, but I would highly recommend following his Facebook or Twitter.


Why I read: Fascinating Data, He’s convinced that the world is getting better.

Honourable mention:

The Monkey Cage: “Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage” -Mencken. Political Scientists take their research and summarize it for a popular audience. Right now there’s a lot about the US election, but if you want a non-hysterical perspective on any current event, this is the place to go.

Tyler Cowen– heavy on economics, but only the most interesting. I feel like he publishes a new blog post every ten minutes, but his monthly “Conversations with Tyler” are brilliant- there’s one coming up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!

Guardian Global Development Professionals Network– Four months into my placement in Malawi, the advice and reflections here have become painfully relevant. I’ve featured a couple of the “Secret Aid Worker” columns here, and now it has garnered its own parody!

Aidspeak– “J” writes about the humanitarian system and runs fascinating public opinion polls on aid workers answers to questions like “Would you donate to the NGO you work for?”. Here’s my favourite piece from Aidspeak. See the rest of his writing here.

Priceonomics– Everyone has that one store where they want to buy everything on the shelf. From the definitive answer to “Should You Use a Pie Chart?“, to the economics/statistics of selfies and hair, I love almost every article on this site.

Branko Milanovic– The world’s expert on inequality. Very ugly blog. This paper changed the way I think about the world.

Of course there’s more- on twitter, Ben Parker, Tom Murphy, Charles Kenny (and anyone related to the CGD) and probably more. You can see everyone I follow here.