What do you do when someone on the street asks you for money?

My fingers clench and my mind races as I approach. Sometimes the story is a drawn out tragedy, other times it is told fully in the flash of pleading eyes. It is always the same: “Can you help me?”


In Malawi, someone on the street asks for money about every other day. I still leave each of these interactions feeling guilty and bewildered. I feel guilty when I refuse people, and I feel guilty when I give, knowing I haven’t given anything that can change their future. I walk away with a deep sense of confusion and frustration. I’ve written about it before.

Out of this confusion I wrote to five wise friends to ask them a hard question: “What do you do when people ask you for money on the street?”. I limited their answers to 150 words, which is far too few for such a question, but from each reply I got a fresh perspective into what it means to truly be generous.

My friend Anneke is a schoolteacher working in Memphis, Tennessee. I loved her response because her questions echo my own:

This past weekend I went to New Orleans, and passed people asking for money with signs/requests such as:

“Give me money or I will vote for Trump.”
“I need money to buy crack!”
“Need money for weed and feed.”

These brought up the worst thoughts we all have when we see people begging for money: Are they actually homeless? Are they trying to help themselves? Will they just spend it on alcohol and drugs? I can’t give you a catch-all answer. But here’s what I do:

  • My husband and I invest in change we know will last: sponsoring a Compassion Child, and supporting organizations that help with homelessness and addiction in America.
  • I make sandwiches at church once a month for a downtown homeless outreach.
  • I bought Christmas presents for a family who comes to my church’s food pantry.
  • Sometime in July an older women and young girl came up to me outside of an ice cream shop. The woman asked for money for bus fare, so they could get home. I gave her the money.
  • When I was in Chicago over Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, I felt tremendously guilty about walking past all the homeless people. I told my mom this, and she told me to pick one person to help. So I gave one guy $20. And I have no idea what he spent it on.

That said, I just drive past the people on street corners. You drive everywhere in Memphis, so I drive past people asking for money instead of walking past them, and that makes it easier in a terrible way. I want to recognize their humanity without giving them money by instead donating to an organization that is designed to help people in situations like theirs.

If you know Anneke and her husband David, you know that these words are weighted with the sacrifices they’ve made for the community they’ve adopted. Anneke’s stories highlight the complexities of engaging with people living at the margins. Very often, giving to people on the street becomes about alleviating guilt instead of poverty, and Anneke reminds us that there are more sustainable and effective uses for my money. Simply put, there are better ways to help.

My friend Kaitlin, a fellow development student, addresses Anneke’s concerns head on with a more philosophical approach. What struck me about Kaitlin’s response is that she started by putting herself into the shoes of someone on the street:

I can’t really answer this question straight without feeling guilty. Instead, I’ll ask: “What makes us refuse to give money?” I often hear mumblings about drug addictions in response. Two questions: First, can we assume this without first understanding the context of this person’s life? If we don’t have enough time to get to know the person, whether drugs are involved, or whether the money goes to food or a baby, then not giving does greater harm.
Second, if drugs are involved, how can we judge them for it? How many of ‘us’, people with ‘normal’ jobs, do drugs? Nobody questions where we get the money for it, so why do we do that for panhandlers? Of course it is better to invest in a system that will help people get on their feet, but assuming any ‘system’ will produce utopian results is not wise – there will always be people at the edge of the crowd, and even before money, those people need others to simply acknowledge their existence.

You can read Kaitlin’s full response here. Her core message is that systems will always leave people at the margins, while people have the ability to acknowledge and give dignity to each other. My friend Nathan concluded similarly. Another development student who grew up next door to Drake in Toronto, Nathan argues that the best thing we can offer is trust:

“I think what I do when I see people asking for money is, if possible, I give it to them. Simple as that. I give them what I can, usually coinage. In my experience (more personal than anything) is that when someone is in need, what they need is practical help, monetary or otherwise, and all they need is for someone to trust them enough to give that to them. And it’s as simple to me as that, forgetting all other issues like dependency and whatnot. Because I know what it’s like to not have enough.”

Where Anneke struggled to recognize common humanity, Nathan grounds his giving in empathy. He concludes that given the complexity of people’s reality, it is better to err on the side of generosity.
I was expecting to have this principle reinforced by my friend Ryan, who is so committed to empathizing with the poor that he moved to Manilla to live and work in a slum. But his response was the opposite of what I expected:

To be boring and honest, I usually just ignore people who ask me for money on the street.   However, I admit that this belief often becomes an excuse. I say to myself, “That beggar won’t be helped by my money, so I’ll keep it for myself.” Instead of saying, “I won’t be helped by the $5 in my pocket, I might as well give it to this beggar.”
This question gets a hundred times harder to answer when that person asking for money is my friend and neighbour. Now my sense of responsibility to be generous is increased, but so is the danger of hurting the relationship. I don’t want to create a dependence relationship, so I still usually say “No” to people who ask, even though it’s hard…but it doesn’t stop there. I want to be a friend who listens, spends time and cares. So I try to give (money, food, hospitality) in such a way that says: “This is a gift because I love you. You don’t owe me anything because I am honouring the relationship we already have.”

Ryan foregrounds the thread that has been running through each of these answers. One way or another, we need a response which shows shared humanity and gives dignity. We can give money, and we can give more than that. We can also give elsewhere. The key is that we are motivated by love for someone who is just like us, not fear or guilt of someone who is other. This tension is so well-captured in my friend Hikari’s words, which have become the prayer that I want to carry with me:

I don’t want to walk away or forget. When a person begs for money, they’re sharing their vulnerability with me and I, a human just like them, should also be vulnerable. If a person asks for money, I would want to share a meal, spend time, give them the money I have or just do all three. I can’t discern perfectly of what this person will do or what the outcome of my actions will be, but the fact that we cross paths has a meaning. The best thing I can do is pray that God will give me wisdom and trust in all of this. Jesus is the epitome of selflessness, and while I struggle to be like him, I believe that once I start thinking of myself less, I will be able to face people full on instead of shying away and letting them become a forgotten memory.


What do you do in this situation? I would love to continue the conversation, so please comment! Also, if you’re looking for a ‘Yes, but how?’ Ryan also pointed me to 
this wonderfully practical article.
A special thanks to this amazing group of people who took time and effort to share a piece of themselves with me.



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.