Getting Both Shoes On

Our results show heavy usage of the donated TOMS shoes; indeed, the modal response was that children in the treatment group wore the shoes every day of the week. However, our study finds that the donated shoes did not significantly reduce shoelessness and had insignificant impacts in most of our key categories [health, school attendance] that would indicate transformative impacts.

argentina_shoes_blake-copyThis is from Bruce Wydick et al’s study of TOMS in El Salvador, released last month. The economists’ advanced statistical analysis confirms the long-held suspicions of most practitioners: TOMS have no “transformative impact” on children’s health or education.

Despite this, TOMS is by many measures the most successful social enterprise of all time. TOMS has given away more than 50 million shoes and spawned a host of copycat operations. My friend Justin put it:

“TOMS may have missed the point in doing effective social good, but they absolutely nailed effective branding. They understood the need to parse a complex issue into a simple message…that’s why their motto, “one for one,” is genius. In just three words you know exactly what they do and you have a cause to believe in”

This puzzles and frustrates me. Bringing communities out of poverty requires nuanced understanding and complicated intervention. However, raising money to bring communities out of poverty requires simple messages and relatable solutions. We need land reform and electoral accountability, we give goats and shoes.

Wydick and his team get this. They recognize that in-kind donations of food and clothes play a huge role in helping people in rich countries connect with the people they are donating to. They understand that despite the best theoretical knowledge, organizations have no choice but to follow the practices that allow them to keep operating.

So instead of lambasting TOMS for naive programming, the researchers offer a set of strategies for organizations to do better.

Like most scholars, they address the importance of foregrounding local needs and reducing dependency. For example, in El Salvador, the government already provides all schoolchildren with shoes. Moreover, the worm that causes the most foot infections has been eradicated in El Salvador.

Also, when physical goods are given out, Wydick and his team suggest that they should be given as rewards for positive activities like attending health checks. This builds a sense of accomplishment instead of dependency.

Finally, the authors introduced the idea of a “median impact narrative” as a contrast to the sort of ‘silver bullet’ stories so prevalent to the field. They suggest that instead of telling the story of an outlier, we tell the story of the average. So instead of a microloan spawning a multinational corporation, talk about the average impact that an intervention will have on each and every beneficiary. The authors of the paper created a statistically average ‘José Mantaro’ to describe TOMS’ impact:

“José Mantaro lives in San Francisco de Javier, El Salvador,…José’s family does not own a refrigerator, television, or radio, but both he and his brother have a bike…José walks 30 minutes to school, where he is in the third grade, but he has not yet learned to read or write.”

“José received a pair of TOMS shoes immediately after the baseline study in June 2012…He spent a little bit more time collecting water for his family and a little less time per day watching TV. An honest appraisal would suggest that receiving the shoes did not bring about transformative changes in Jose’s life…Yet the frequency with which he wore the new shoes indicates that the shoes donated by TOMS were nevertheless a welcome and appreciated gift.”

Of course, this reads a bit corny. It’s hard to imagine getting it by anyone in a marketing department. But the idea intrigues me- can we effectively pair statistics and stories? Perhaps for a more useful intervention, this kind of authenticity would be good marketing. I want to take part in development that effectively responds to real needs and inspires people to join the process. No answers yet, but I’m learning!

If you skip over the wild bootstrapping part, the paper is very readable, as is Wydick’s blog post on median impact narratives. I would recommend them both!

How do you use power well? | Final presentation

Last week was the Waterloo International Development program’s ‘Capstone’ program. We spent the week debriefing our experiences, culminating with a final presentation before our peers and professors. I talked about my experience of power in Malawi, and how I struggled to use it well:

After the presentation, one of the panelists, Hari Stirbet, who had taught me two courses, asked me a question. As best as I can remember, here is how it went:

Hari: “I’m going to be a little bit politically incorrect here and ask a question. Jacob, I know that spirituality has shaped you significantly- that you are a Christian. How has that impacted your understanding and what you said?”

Me: “Well, the last thing that I said in the presentation — thank you, for this question— that power is to be given for others.

For me, that has been shaped by Jesus. If you look at the life on Jesus, just before he was executed, he was eating dinner with his friends or disciples, and in the Gospel of John it records that “Jesus knew that all power and authority had been given to him”, and then he gets up and gets a towel and washes his disciples feet.

And whether you believe in Jesus as the Son of God, or even as a great teacher, you see that he had all this power and he used it to serve and give for others. And so for me, this understanding of power has come from knowing Jesus”

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.


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.