“The poor will always be with you” – Jesus’ call to a deeper life

“While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper,  a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked.  “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.

The poor will always be with you…”

These words are so profound I can’t do them justice, but here goes!


The disciples’ perspective “Why this waste?”

It should both empower and chill us to the bone that much of the money we spend on ourselves would be better spent by someone less well off. This makes intuitive sense. One extra dollar won’t even buy us a coffee and we barely notice if one extra dollar enters our bank account. But imagine if you only earn one dollar a day. That extra dollar buys the pen and book which allows your child to go back to school. So much value, relief and joy from just one dollar! This utilitarian thinking is behind that effective but oh-so-cringe fundraising technique…

For the cost of just one coffee a day, you could feed/clothe/educate/save/empower….”

Experience, the disciples and science tell us that once we achieve a middle class income, every extra dollar we spend only increases our happiness by a tiny amount. As a 10 year old I was overwhelmed with joy when I bought an ice cream with my pocket money. I remember the euphoria of buying a watch with my first paycheck from a summer job. This dwarfs the negligible serotonin hit I get these days every time I buy a new Ferrari…

Credit: The Happy Philosopher

So if we have this remarkable power to love others with our money more effectively than we can love ourselves, perhaps the best thing to do is to give away every dollar we earn over a certain amount. The extra money will hardly help our happiness, but imagine what it could do for someone else? If we earn 70,000 dollars a year, how can we justify keeping more than say $50,000 when that extra 20,000 dollars could transform the life of someone less fortunate? Whenever we spend excess money on relatively frivolous things, the disciples’ cry of “why this waste?” rings in our ears.

Mary shocks the disciples when she pours out a half litre of high-end nard perfume on his feet. Imagine the cost of a half litre of Chanel no. 5. How would you react when it was poured out in front of you It’s hard to argue with the disciples’ logic “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

But Jesus immediately replies “

“Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

Jesus sees her loving heart heart. What was a flagrant (fragrant?) waste of money was also an instinctive, selfless act to honour someone who had turned her life around. If someone had pulled you out of poverty and an abusive life controlled by men would you not have done the same?

Jesus knows that we are compassionate human beings, and there are moments where will lavish our resources on things that don’t make utilitarian sense. Maybe this isn’t the most logical or strictly ‘best’ thing to do, but it’s deeply human and hey, we aren’t perfect. But straight after affirming Mary’s lavish love, Jesus challenge goes deeper than we could ever expect.

Thou Anointest My Head With Oil (Slavujac, 2011)

The poor will always be with you”

This is where the rubber hits the road. At first reading Jesus might seem flippant, dismissing the plight of the poor, but only because (unlike the disciples) we don’t know what he’s quoting. This is a direct quote from an 3000 year old Deuteronomy passage, which calls for the kind of radical economic justice that would shock even a modern day left wing politician.

“The poor will always be with you. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

In Deuteronomy 13, God commands that his people should cancel ALL debts every seven years (what???), and they should lend people “whatever they need” even in the year before the debts are forgiven. After 6 years of service, richer Israelites should not only release any servants working for them, but send them off with animals, crops and wine to kick-start their new life. This economic agenda is so radical and so far ahead of its time it’s no wonder the israelites did a pretty bad job of actually implementing it.

Through invoking this passage Jesus goes deeper and takes us beyond simple argument about whether a lavish act of perfume  pouring makes logical sense. What matters is not whether this particular pot of perfume was wasted on a lavish act of love. What matters is that we devote our entire lives to economic justice. His point is that the poor will always be with us so poorer people will always be needing our love and help.

Serving others is a long game.  Become a person of generosity and love is not primarily about criticising others who might be wasteful, or virtue signalling on social media or voting for what we see as ‘progressive’ political parties, but about living whole lives of integrity and love. Lives bent towards those who are struggling and marginalised. Not just today, but tomorrow, and tomorrow next.

Jesus challenge “the poor will always be with you” is an invitation to follow him into a deeper journey, beyond from the hustle and bustle of trying to “make it”, the distraction of social media, and the polarisation of modern politics. A journey which will cost us much, but give us so much more. Are we willing?

And its’ no surprise that this whole thing happened while Jesus was visiting Simon, a man with leprosy, a crippling disease full of social and religious stigma.   

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Let them eat Cassava! – Inflation is wrecking the poor

300 years ago (as the tall tale goes) a young and spoilt European royal didn’t understand why the peasants complained so much during a famine. They cried out that they had no bread to eat, so she replied with a tablespoon of disdain, a cup of ignorance and not even a pinch of compassion.

“Let them eat cake”

President Museveni has now written himself into the annals of history with a similar comment, but in the opposite direction. When faced with complaints that Ugandans couldn’t afford bread amidst skyrocketing food prices, Museveni replied…

If there is no bread eat Cassava!”

Cassava is a root vegetable, common fare here in Uganda. Calling it the food of the poor isn’t entirely accurate, as many including myself enjoy cassava, and in some parts of the country its a staple. Cassava in general however the cheapest carbohydrate, so Museveni’s quip was seen by many as a flippant insult to a population struggling to stay afloat in a sea of rapidly rising prices.

Ugandan Ongim Along tweeted “…Last time someone told us to use papaya leaves as soap for washing and bathing. Now another one tells us to eat cassava instead of bread. Next use chilly leaves as toilet paper.”

One thing is for sure, inflation problems in low income countries can’t be solved just by eating Cassava. While the middle class in high income countries feel the pinch of rising prices, a quiet calamity engulfs the poor in low income countries. While high income governments subsidise fuel and food, low income governments do nothing to soften the blow. In high income countries, businesses can reduce their high margins to mask increasing prices, but here margins were already so tiny there was no room to move and prices skyrocket. People already living hand to mouth have to choose between soap and cooking oil.

The Ugandan Beureau of statistics and Bank of Uganda has fabricated “calculated” a laughably inaccurate annual headline inflation of 6.3% at the end of May (You won’t find even one commodity that has increased that little in the last year). This is presumably to reassure the population that everything is fine. Perhaps they are mistaking monthly inflation for annual, who knows? I would conservatively estimate annual inflation as over 20%, as reflected in the above chart.

And  to make things worse salaries aren’t rising like in high income countries, enough at least to soften the inflation blow. Salaries here haven’t moved because the economy can’t handle it. We would love to pay our nurses more, but the money coming in from our patients hasn’t increased – in fact it our revenue dropped as everyone is squeezed for cash and patients de-prioritise healthcare.

During the last 6 months, our OneDay Health centers haves seen less patients coming through the doors. We’ve asked our communities what has changed, why they have stopped coming in when their family is sick. The answers have often been simple, a  two word phrase “cene pe” – “there’s no money

There’s no money”

Thee little money people have is used for other priorities. Even subsistence farmers still need to buy soap (at twice the price) and send their kids to school. Healthcare that was previously seen as essential gets shuffled one rung down the priority list, sometimes with fatal consequences. Many patients are now coming in to our health centers too late, arriving to our health centers in critical condition.

Inflation is wrecking the poor, but we’re not hearing about it

This calamity is not a Global headline. There is plenty of reporting, but it rarely reaches the front pages. Back in Februrary the BBC did a good job of flagging inflation in Kenya. There has also coverage on emerging hyperinflation in the failing state of Sri Lanka. Others blame Putin for “preparing to starve much of the developing world”. But these reports flounder close to the bottom of news pages

And the worst is yet to come with no end in sight to higher prices. As people’s meagre cash reserves disappear there will come a reckoning. There have already been major protests in Peru, Guinea and Kenya and in the coming months we will see the rising discontent expressed in all kinds of ways. We can only hope that interest rate hikes and a rapid resolution to the Ukraine war bring some relief /

Riot police block protests against rising food prices in Lima, Peru – Credit Reuters photographer Daniel Becerril

So what can we do?

Start with your neighbours – We struggle together

Before thinking of those in other places, always start with your own community. Support those around you who are struggling financially and psychologically. Spend 5 minutes considering which of your friends might be doing it toughest at the moment, then give them a call, ask how you can help. A small food gift, a discussion about finances or just a listening ear might make the difference between a good week and a bad one. We struggle together.

Keep a global perspective – We struggle together

Even as you are squeezed by the rising price of food and fuel, consider those in Uganda and around the world who suffer more than you. Read some articles and talk to people you are connected with in low income countries. This may also have the nice effect of cultivating more gratefulness for your own daily bread. Find some solidarity that we are all struggling with inflation together while praying for the global situation to improve, and peace in Ukraine. We struggle together.

Continue to support the poor – We struggle together

Keep donating to things you are already connected to. As your own financial situation worsens, often giving to others might be the first cut you make. It may seem counterintuitive, but hard global times might be the time to increase your giving – of course within the realms of possibility. If you’re not sure what to give to, read my article about how to give money well. Initiatives like Give Directly provide money efficiently for the poor, and our very own OneDay Health provides the only quality healthcare option for many remote rural communities here in Uganda

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue and I appreciate any criticisms and corrections. The great thing about a blog is that I can (and often do) change it when I realise I’ve made mistakes.

So much love to all of you struggling with the current inflation issue. We struggle together.

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Four Truths coronavirus has revealed about Humanity

Four truths coronavirus has revealed about humanity. The corona story is far from over. But this unprecedented (I won’t say it again) pandemic has revealed much about the state of humanity. About who we are as people. About what we really value. These truths were already there, simmering under the surface but corona has brought them into the light. What floated in the ether has crystallised. Here are four truths I have observed about us, humanity, homo sapiens, that have become clear during the pandemic.


Truth 1. Humans can solve problems really fast.

In just over a year we did the improbable and invented not one, but around 10 vaccines, almost 10 times faster than we had ever done before. Putin’s daughter was jabbed with the aptly named “Sputnik V” just 9 months after the first corona case, and Astrazenica produced 100 million doses by the end of the first corona year.

Our ability to focus our energies to invent complex lifesaving technology is astonishing.

And not only the vaccine. Wastewater covid tests detect tiny traces of virus, helping countries like New Zealand detect new outbreaks before anyone tests positive. One dollar corona tests allow us to test anywhere, any time. The English used a staggering 2 billion rapid tests in 2021, an average of 30 tests per person. Tracing apps help Countries like Taiwan track virus spread in real time. Our ability to innovate, invent and solve problems goes from strength to strength.

Source: Shutterstock

Allow me a brief diversion – this makes me doubly concerned about our climate crisis. While scientists saved millions of lives from coronavirus with a smorgasbord of technology, over the last 20 years we have invested hundreds of billions to find technical fixes for climate change but to little avail.

No magic energy source. No magic carbon capture machine. Unlike with corona, no technological fix.

On this rare occasion I disagree with Bill Gates – our innovative abilities have thus far failed us and seem unlikely to solve our climate crisis. Maybe us rich people will actually have to change our lifestyles and flee from fossil fuels (“fly, you fools!”). But I digress…

Truth 2. The Rich get Richer, the Poor get Poorer and we don’t care.

Inequality is the worst it has been in 50 years. Not only has corona exposed the gap between between the haves and the have nots, the divide has become a canyon. The richest 0.1% of the population have shown that a plague is still a great time to amass wealth while the poor either stayed poor or go evet poorer. In America 10 silicon valley billionares swindled 300 billion dollars (what does that number even mean?) of wealth from the poorer half of the population as the internet became even more important while we sat at home. In New Zealand house prices skyrocketed a mind boggling 50% in two years. It’s now impossible for the young middle class to buy a house. In Uganda coronavirus aid money poured into the pockets of megarich, megacorrupt politicians. Their kids stayed well educated on zoom while 99.99% of Ugandan children sat at home with schools closed for over 2 years. School only opened a few months ago, and now Uganda’s poor have a generational education catastrophe on their hands.

And to top off, trillions of dollars of coronavirus relief money was printed by governments and poured mostly into the hands of the rich. Even little old New Zealand printed 50 billion dollars, much of which lined the bank accounts of wealthy companies. Governments worldwide showed they were perfectly willing to ignore their poorest people to keep the economy rolling and keep the middle class happy. What to do when businesses can’t operate? Pour cash into their bank accounts.

And what happens when you print that much money? Inflation! There was some excitement that wages had risen during the pandemic, but it turns out the cost of living has increased even more. And in case you think it’s just richer countries suffering from inflation, have a look at the insane hike in food prices in Sri Lanka, Kenya and Uganda. And what are governments doing to help the poor with these high prices? Not much, because they don’t care. At least the economy is rolling now (suffering yes, but rolling), damn the poor.


Inequality is bad for all of us – rich, poor and the sea in between. High inequality causes lower life expectancy, increased mental illness and increased crime across all sectors of the population, not just the poor. We should care.


Truth 3: A “Gobal Village” is a myth. Humans are selfish.

Within a year, laboratories in China, the UK, Russia and the USA all invented different vaccines which stopped people from dying from corona. Hundreds of millions of doses were produced within months. This should have been a decisive victory for us clever, innovative, compassionate humans (see Truth 1). Surely within a year we would vaccinate the whole world and life could go back to normal. Our question as a global village of good humans should have been

How can we save the most human lives with this vaccine?”

But instead, what we did with this miraculous vaccine revealed our selfish natures. We protected our own at any cost. If we were truly a global society, our goal should have been clear – vaccines for the worst hit countries first, then for everyone else. But despite WHO protestations it turns out you that can just vaccinate your own country, take the pressure off your own hospitals and leave millions to die in other countries. Winston Churchill’s star fell after we discovered he unnecessarily allowed millions to die of famine in India during the second world war. Can we look at our own “progressive” society and say we are any better?

What will future generations think of the great vaccine moral failure of 2021?

If truth 2 was that we don’t care about growing inequality within our own countries, then truth 3 extends across borders. We should have started by vaccinating Peru, Mexico and Bulgaria which had the highest death rates in the world. We should have rushed to India in the midst of an enormous outbreak. Instead every country fought tooth and nail for their own own vaccines. England and Canada ordered 5 times as many doses as they had people. Others stored millions of extra doses in fridges while body bags lined up in other countries. We are not a global village. We are selfish.

Truth 4. Our Bodies Matter

Over the last 100 years our life expectancy has improved by over 30 years, from a miserable 50 in 1900 to around 80 now. This improvement is thanks to many factors including reduced poverty, better hygeine and improved medical care. During the last 50 years this increase in life expectancy is even more impressive, as our life expectancy has continued to increase, while we have become progressively less healthy. While rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes have skyrocketed due to our unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles, medical innovation has kept us alive for longer and longer (see truth 1).

Coronavirus however reminds us that our bodies matter. Those less healthy died of corona in exponentially higher numbers. Heart disease and diabetes enabled coronavirus to kill far more than it would have had we had looked after our bodies better. Our unhealthy lifestyles contributed to our demise. The countries that suffered worst from coronavirus, mostly in South America and Eastern Europe, had the deadly combination of both unhealthy populations and substandard health systems. The USA is renowned for Obesity and unhealthy lifestlyes, and we all saw the result. This is not to blame any individual for their death, but to help us realise that both as individuals and a society that we need to take the health of our bodies more seriously. Conronavirus showed us that we can no longer treat our bodies like they don’t matter, relying on medicine to keep us rolling into our twilight years.

Where I live in Uganda, surprisingly few died of coronavirus. Much of this was due to a young population, but also due to the population being healthier. Most people are subsistance farmers with an active lifestyle and healthy diets low in fat and processed food. Heart disease and diabetes are increasing, but remain rare especially among the rural population. Sub-saharan Africa was the only region in the world where most countries were not overwhelmed by coronavirus, even while their health systems are among the worst in the world.

Our bodies matter. When a disease like coronavirus hits our healthy body, the odds are in our favour. If not, the odds turn.


What other truths have emerged?

These are just four truths I have observed. Four of many. They may not be the most insightful, nor the most important. What has coronavirus taught you about humanity during this strange time?

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Death, Life and the Space in between

Just two days ago my wonderful Uncle Andrew died. Although I was not close with him myself, my parents and also my sister were, and he contributed much to their lives especially in recent years. Our prayers, sorrow and gratitude are with his family, especially his wife Janice and children Katie, Emma and Hamish.

Uncle Andrew (right), his sister and his brother (dad)

Here in Uganda, death is far more common than in New Zealand and it confronts us continually. Our neighbour Lucy is tightly connected to our surrounding community, and hardly a month goes by where she doesn’t attend a funeral – or a wedding. There are more deadly illnesses here that affect younger people, and Uganda’s weak health system with low numbers of health workers and poor medicine availability fails to prevent too many unnecessary deaths.

So I encounter death all too often through my work. I’ll never forget last year when I got a call from a nurse in one of our remote OneDay Health centers with the bad news that a young man had been bitten by a snake. His family refused to take him to hospital due to lack of money, and after a few hours he died at the health center. I’m proud of our 33 nurses ina their remote OneDay health centers, that while they often brush with death they are in the everyday business of saving lives. Through offering women life through family planning and antenatal care, curing malaria and pneumonia, and life saving emergency medication. It seems a strange juxtaposition that just today we sent out our annual report celebrating 100,000 patients treated in the most remote areas of Uganda, while at the same time I mourn my uncle and consider easter.

Nurse Jacky examines a kid in Wii Lacor OneDay Health Center

Each time I encounter death I am struck by an obvious yet easily ignored truth. Life is temporary. I can’t help but be reminded both of the precious time we have and of our own mortality. A good friend of my uncle just shared with me.

“We are all reminded that our time on earth is temporary so we must use it well.

Or in the words of Gandalf “All we have to do is decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Death and life can feel so close. The space between is thin, even at our first breath. The most dangerous moment in all of our lives (and our mothers’) is the very moment of our birth. At that borderline both overflowing joy and deep sorrow are near realities, hanging in the balance.

And of course we don’t know how long that time is. Many of the greatest people have had their lives cut too short, some due to their greatness. Kurt Cobain died before 30. Martin Luther King was murdered before he reached 40. Ugandan Bishop Janani Luwum was martyred before 60 for standing up to Idi Amin’s corrupt government. Uncle Andrew was only 69.

As a Jesus follower this paradox comes home to me even more this weekend. He died far too young in his mid thirties, with only 3 years to carry out his mission and do all the stuff we’ve heard about. Call his disciples, bring new life and healing to physical, spiritual and emotional wounds, start a world changing movement and then be betrayed by one of his closest friends. In this strange story Jesus went willingly to his own death, to provide a new kind of life for everyone. To redeem not through power or violence, but through weakness and sacrifice. To offer us a life full of unlikely yet beautiful paradoxes. A life where we should somehow put others above ourselves (still haven’t figured that out). A life which is eternal but starts now. A life where death remains abhorrent but has somehow been overcome and need no longer be feared. A life which fills and covers that space in between our earthly life and death.

So as I mourn Andrew, remember Easter and keep our sacrificial remote nurses in my heart, I am filled with sorrow. But not despair, because of a belief I hold close to my soul. I live in hope that life is eternal, not ending after physical death. And when I encounter that space between life and death, I try and hold my faith within the profound mystery of what is, and what is to come.

“So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.”   Paul – from a prison cell

Uncle Andrew, my parents and the rest of us celebrate sister Emily and Joey’s wedding. A taste of what is to come.
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High fuel prices – a glimpse of a better future?

I was inspired to pen this piece after gawking at this Stuff.co.nz article. The writers’ intent was to demonstrate that high fuel prices were a disaster. But as I read I became confused, even incredulous. Was the article a spoof?  Some complaints seemed more positive then negative, a step in the right direction. Where people expressed inconvenience and frustration, I saw a glimpse of a better future. A healthier, more grounded and more sustainable world.   

I won’t deny there are downsides to the fuel price hike. Poor people suffer as with any price rise. Scumbag oil companies and governments find new pseudo-economically viable places to drill, which never should be touched. Russia funds their war machine through the sky high oil prices Germany and France continue to pay.

But fuel prices have to rise, a lot higher than even now if we are to have any chance to halt this climate crisis. Yes this current price hike is abrupt. Yes we aren’t ready. Yes our electric car infrastructure is non-existent. Yes Public transport isn’t fit for purpose. But what we see from these regular folks’ responses are small ways that high fuel prices can push us simple humans in the right direction. And our groaning creation takes a tiny breath.

So here’s why high fuel prices are fantastic


We Go Local

“I’ll have to rethink where my daughter goes to school in the future if it keeps increasing, because we school out of area,” King said.

Although its nice to choose where we send our kids to school, a great way to burn less oil is to share most of our lives with our proximate community. Local school, local shops, local doctor, local church, local friends. In New Zealand cities at least, most people live within a 20 minute walk (or 10 minute bike) of all important amenities and we don’t need to drive to reach them.

High fuel prices force us to do what’s painful, but better for us and the planet – spend most of our lives closer to our home. Attend local schools. Go to the local Thai restaurant rather than Macdonalds at the mall. Buy clothes from our local thrift shop. Make friends with our neighbours. A richer, more simple life. If high fuel prices force us to think twice or thrice before driving across town, the benefits might be deeper than ‘just’ mitigating the climate crisis.


We Go Electric

Last week I talked to a friend (who yes, has a pretentious Nissan Leaf) who was excited about unexpected conversations the fuel price hike had triggered. “Two of my friends are probably going to buy electric cars. And for the first time ever my parents are even talking about EVs!” We don’t have New Zealand data yet but other countries like England have seen a surge in EV sales as people balk at the fuel hikes. In just one week in early march sales surged by almost 40%.

If governments like New Zealand’s fail to incentivise electric cars through providing good infrastructure and significant subsidies, sky high fuel prices might be the catalyst we need to supercharge the transition.  


We Go Public

Presbyterian Support Northern manager Alistair Houston:
“One client has stopped using her car and only uses it for urgent matters. The car is now seen as a luxury she cannot afford to just ‘pop out in,’” Houston said.

Houston, we don’t have a problem – your complaint is rather a profound solution, the only way forward through our climate crisis.  “The car is now seen as a luxury”

Forgive me father, for I have sinned. While in New Zealand I loved fishing in the mountains. To reach the most beautiful places on earth, I drove hundreds of kilometers often alone in the car and released hundreds of kilos of carbon. Perhaps what I did is no longer defensible, but I am sure that it was a luxury. I made a luxurious, selfish trade-off between damaging our fragile earth and my personal pleasure and fulfilment.

An indefensible luxury?

In our current climate situation, whenever we use a personal petrol vehicle at the very least we should give thanks and be grateful for that luxury. For a convenient gift whose days are numbered.

Yes, moving away from the personal petrol paradigm is rough on poorer people who can’t easily access poor public transport systems, and we should already have non-petrol car solutions, but needs must. As cynical and populist as our governments’ sad move was to slash our fuel tax, they made a great move in halving the cost of public transport. A huge step towards normalising the only way forward.

Buses, trains and car pooling have to enter our common consciousness and become a norm. As petrol prices get higher not only are we forced to make hard decisions about our own transport, but governments like we’ve already seen in New Zealand will be forced to both improve and fund public transport to soothe the wrath of their penny-pinched populous.

So if the recent fuel price hikes push us even an inch towards go local, go electric and go public, then I’ll celebrate every cent of the hike.

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Why do we still Tolerate War?


“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”

We had our opportunity to be those blessed peacemakers – this war never needed to happen. As troops gathered on the border of Ukraine, we had the power to stop this war from ever happening. All trade with Russia should have stopped until the tanks pulled back. All Russian money in foreign banks seized until the troops immobilised. The oil pipelines which supply a third of Europe’s oil cut off until Putin promised never to attack. Even in little old New Zealand we should have seized the assets of Russian billionaires – just last year one Oligarch invested 100 million dollars in Kiwibuild! In just one day the west could have crippled Russia’s economy, brought the country to its knees and they could well have abandoned the idea of war. With close to zero foreign trade and foreign money Russia couldn’t function and they would have been forced to withdraw. We could have not tolerated this war.

We don’t tolerate sexism, we don’t tolerate racism, we don’t tolerate homophobia.

But yes, we still tolerate war.

Still more shocking is that  is that even after the war began, we didn’t cut Russia off fullstop. It’s bizarre that with all the useless rhetoric “condemning” Putin and Russia, oil still freely flows down a 1200km pipe from Russia to Europe. Money still flows between American and Russian banks. Russian ambassadors still sit happilyin plush offices around the world. It’s a sick joke that Commercial airlines avoid Ukraine, while they still fly in and out of Moscow.

From Flightradar24.com, today.

Even the stock markets were surprised by how pathetic we were. Only a day after the start of a war, most global stock exchanges ROSE yesterday because they were surprised how light global sanctions were. Even cynical inverstors thought that perhaps the developed world would do better than business as usual – they were wrong.

Why is this? Why do we do nothing when we have so much power?  

We are far, far more selfish than we think we are.

We pretend to care that tens of thousands of people will die in Ukraine but we don’t really. We aren’t willing to sacrifice anything in order to live in a world where one country invading another without even a humanitarian pretense isn’t an option. Our Democracies therefore are working perfectly, responding to our selfishness. Our pragmatic governments know their citizens are selfish, so they leave Ukraine to rot. They know we would rise against them if oil prices went up 30% after we turned off the Russian tap. Biden bizarrely reassured us that “Our sanctions package is specifically designed to allow energy payments to continue”. They know we would vote them out next election if the world went into recession as it recovered from zero Russian trade. Our leaders know that our primary drive is to maximise our own pleasure and minimise our pain. They know the terrible truth that we tolerate war more than we tolerate inflicting even a little suffering on ourselves.

In Canada tens of thousands of people are protesting the government’s response to covid. In New Zealand the biggest protest in my lifetime is on the doors of parliament, and it’s mostly a selfish one. We used to protest about big stuff on behalf of other people. Against the Vietnam war, against apartheid in South Africa. Now all we can muster a decent protest about is the loss of minor freedoms.Where are the thousands of New Zealanders and Canadians banging down the parliament doors on behalf of innocent Ukrainians getting slaughtered? Where is the viral hashtag “NoWar” covering our social media feeds? Where are the journalists condemning our governments for their fatal inaction?

Many of us have foooled our selves that at the we really are caring, peaceloving people who would sacrifice something when the need arose. Climate change inaction should have already exposed this lie. Our response to the Ukraine invasion has proved it beyond doubt.

The myth of a progressive democratic utopian world is dead. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

At least we can take this opportunity to look in the mirror. Why do we still tolerate war? How can we do better? I’ll share three ideas. Yes they are flawed and naïve but perhaps someone will find them useful

1. Realise our own complicity. There are important societal awakenings of our complicity as individuals in issues like racial injustice and the climate crisis. The Ukraine war is no exception – we are part of what has allowed this to happen. Once we realise the ways our selfishness and greed play into the problem, we can find ways to be part of the solution. Am I willing to pay a price? Could I suffer higher petrol prices and inflation to make war less tolerable?

2. Bring the discussion home. It’s easy but perhaps not useful to obsess over the state of the war in Russia and muse about what might happen next. More useful would be to discuss what our own country could to do make the war end more quickly. Are there any Russian investments in our own country which could be targeted? Do our banks have interests in Russian oil? If we move the social and mainstream media discussion away from things we can’t change, and towards things we can then perhaps our politicians and government will feel more obliged to do more.

3. Revive the art of unselfish protest. Our current generation has become complacent in the art of peaceful, unselfish protest. We know from past efforts such as the global anti-Vietnam war protest and civil rights movements that when a significant minority rise up against complacent government, change can happen. If groups around the world protested against their government’s tolerance of war, then our democracy might be swayed away from complacency and towards action. Maybe oil pipelines could be cut. Maybe bank transfers could be stopped. Maybe we could move a step closer towards a world where war was finally intolerable.  

 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”

N.B: Here’s a couple more great suggestions from Dr. Peter Hill’s comment below

– For the prayers amongst us, we can ask for forgiveness where we are complicit, and pray that those in power would do the right thing, including or own leaders and the young president of Ukraine.

– Write to your local Member of parliament. If they know that we care, they might be more inclined to act.

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a,b,c,d,e FU Poor People?

“But nothing’s getting through, so let me spell it out. A-B-C-D-E, FU!”. Now I thought that was a clever lyric, but my wife didn’t agree. What do you reckon? Anyway…

Although enormous predjudice, problems and disparities remain, us humans have made progress on some fundamental moral issues like ending racism and gender equality. This progress will only be further accelerated by recent movements such as “Black Lives Matter”, and “Me Too”. On my recent trip to New Zealand, I was encouraged by cross generational adoption of Maori language, and a wider public understanding of the mahi (work) that needs to be done to rectify wrongs and disparities both past and present inflicted on the first people of New Zealand.

This progress is reflected in pop culture, with mainstream outfits Disney and Hollwood making an effort to at least appear inclusive. New cartoons and blockbusters sport multicultural casts, highlight minority issues and give female characters more agency. One measure of this progress is the Bechdal test, which asks whether female characters have conversations with each other which aren’t just about men. Only twenty years ago 70% of big money blockbuster movies failed this test, now 70% of them pass. Forgive me for the flawed graph but it gets the point across.

Credit U/Octopus1027, Reddit thread “20 Year Trends of the Bechdel Test in Top 10 Grossing Movies”

This change has been rapid and stark. Go back and watch your favourite episodes of Friends or Seinfeld from just 20 years ago and you’ll find yourself regularly cringing or worse at the casual racism, sexism and homophobia througout the shows.

But there are many blind spots in our cultural ‘progress.’ And there’s one particular group who both society and pop-culture still seem free to abuse in both subtle and less-than-subtle ways.

Poor people.

Classism should be the next ism to to be binned in pop culture.

Many of you will have heard the aforementioned mega-catchy saccharine diss track “a,b,c,d,e FU” where a girl lays her ex out to dry. Be warned, listen at your own risk. It’s both truly cringe and truly stuck in my head, with the situation only getting worse while I’m writing this. Nah-nah-nah naaaaaaah, nah-nah-naah, nah naaah…

Although public abuse is a bona-fide terrible way to deal with post-relationship issues, I know this is a diss track and she may have some fair points about her ex. He did allegedly text her friends behind her back, and had a brief go at revenge dating. Also she does try to give credit where credit was due, to his dog…

But her subtle digs at poverty should not be acceptable. She says “FU” to his “broke-ass car” and his “craigslist couch” (trademe-ish for New Zealanders). This may seem harmless at first glance, but why is she using these vehicles of abuse? The implication can only be that its somehow bad to have second hand stuff. That her ex is a worse person, and perhaps has less value because he isn’t rich enough to buy new things.

We can debate the cause of major societal problems, but I shouldn’t have to convince anyone that it ain’t poor people. It’s not poor people driving up house prices. Money printed during the pandemic that was disproportionately given to rich people has contributed to the inflation and the increased cost of living which is shaking the world.  If pop culture is going to diss anyone, let it be rich people.

Imagine you’re a teenager who hears Gayle’s tune. You’re sitting on a nice old couch which your single mum bought on craigslist, making ends meet on her minimum wage job. You’ve already been struggling with self esteem and then you turn on the radio and hear the diss about the ‘craigslist’ couch. Maybe you feel your mum isn’t doing so well after all. Maybe you won’t go to school tomorrow because what’s the point anyway?

Imagine you’re a 20 year old guy who just got your first full time job on a building site. You’re pretty proud of yourself because you managed to buy your first car for a thousand bucks. It’s beat up but it does the job. Well you were proud until you’re friends started giving you heaps about it “Hey Nick, you aren’t gonna have much luck with the girls in that old dinger are you!”. Then you turn on the car radio and hear Gayle diss the guy with the “broke-ass” car…

Imagine you’re 80% of the population in Uganda, who can’t afford any kind of couch or car. What does this song say about your worth as a person? The messages we send through pop culture may seem trivial at first, but they help shape the false, toxic, normative narratives of society. That rich = good and poor = bad.

As well as eradicating poor bashing like that in Gayles song, we need more pop-culture role models from poorer backgrounds too. The same way we make every effort to be body-positive, we should take every chance to build up those on the tough end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Not just rags to riches or self actualisation stories, but where a poor person is the hero. This isn’t about glorifying poverty, but about increasing self esteem and hope across the socioeconomic spectrum. Perhaps the next iron man is a genius on the unemployment benefit who invented cold fusion in his bathroom lab. The next Batwoman could be a volunteer at a food bank who uses her personal connections to transform the underworld of Gotham for good. Contrived yes, but not much more than the current superhero narratives.

“Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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Are we dragons? Can we shed our scales?

It’s 4:00am

“Doctor, please come now”

I sleep not very well on a bamboo mat in our most remote health center Pwunu Dyang. The rain starts pounding on the roof, and soon also on my conscience.

Midwife Scovia has fear in her eyes and since I know how tough she is, her fear soon becomes mine too. To cut a long story short, Lucy* is in labour. She had 4 previous cesarian section operations to remove babies from her womb, so there’s no way Scovia can safely deliver her baby in the health center. If Lucy doesn’t get an operation in the next few hours, her womb might rip open and kill her and the baby.

Except that the hospital which performs the operation is 4 hours away

And the road is close to impassable, even on a motorcycle

And the rain pours

And its 4:00am

But we can overcome these challenges. Scovia’s husband had hired a motorbike for a couple of days, and is willing to brave the rain and the road to take Lucy to a halfway point, where she can catch a NGO ambulance the final two hours to the hospital. You might scream “how can a woman in labour with scars on her uterus travel two hours on the back of a motorbike on terrible road?” To which I can offer only an insufficient answer.

Because she must

But one challenge remains – Lucy has no money. And the motorbike transport needs money, as does the ambulance driver. She needs about 20 US dollars in total, not a huge amount even here but still money Lucy doesn’t have. But this time everything might just be OK, because the rich white man is here. The rich white man who can pull 20 bucks out of his pocket and not even notice it has gone. The rich white man who 10 years ago used to earn that 20 dollars in a mere half an hour. The rich white man who used to earn the same amount in a week as our incredible midwife Scovia who’s skills might save Lucy’s life earns in a full year of hard work.

This dragon who hoarded his wealth, is about to flick one of his thousand gold coins towards a suffering mother who might then survive the day. Should this dragon feel good about that? Am I somehow a good person because I “helped” someone with 20 dollars?

Midwife Scovia and Nurse Alfred staff the amazing Pwunu Dyang health Center

$#!%loads of money in this world

There’s Ugandan book that you can buy on the bus and in the market entitled “Why have you chosen to be poor when there is so much money in this world?” That could be a good question, if it wasn’t for the “chosen” part and the poverty shaming (we’ll get to that). There is in fact $#!%loads of money in this world, more than enough to go around. The per capita GDP on this humble earth is US$11,000 a year for every woman, man and child. With some change in our global systems we could all happily live on that much money. There’s more than enough money in this world to transport this woman to hospital. More than enough even to transform the healthcare infrastructure so that her transport and healthcare could be free.

But unfortunately that won’t happen tonight. The $#!%loads of money does not reach midwife Scovia, let alone labouring woman Lucy. And why is that?


Because we are dragons

A lot of us are dragons of various sizes, hoarding our wealth as we build our personal or family empire. Us dragons pour our money into bigger and bigger dragons dens (houses), bank accounts with many zeros and the kind of lifestyle the other half of the world can only dream of.

And the dragon problem is getting worse. Inequality during the pandemic has skyrocketed across the globe. In America during the pandemic, the top 1% of Americans looted an incomprehensible 50 Trillion dollars from the bottom 90% of the population. Those dragons must need a massive cave just to store that much gold. An estimated 300 new HUGE dragons (billionaires) were also spawned during the pandemic, on average one a day.

Many of us smaller dragons in Western countries like to take aim at much bigger dragons like Bezos and Musk, who to be fair are twisted enough to fly into space for fun while a global pandemic rages. Instead of cavorting into space, those two could have paid to vaccinate the whole of Africa for coronavirus by now*.

But I digress, because we are indeed dragons too, not just Jeff and Elon. Most of you reading this are rich, perhaps richer than you realise. If you own assets worth more than just $90,000, you hoard more gold than 90% of humans. If you have just $4000 of assets to your name, you are richer than half the people on the earth. I’m not saying this to evoke guilt, only to bring us to the realisation that yes, you and I might just both be dragons.

How did I become a dragon?

Well most of it was probably chance. There may have been sound decisions and hard work along the way, but your path to a healthy hoard was largely decided even before you were born. You won the lottery, congratulations! Or perhaps more accurately a series of lotteries. Two lotteries define the lions share of how rich we will become. Your birth country, and your parents’ wealth

Lottery 1: Your birth country. For me I spun New Zealand, and straight up won the lottery. Your birth country usually has the biggest effect on how much money you will be able to earn and save. A minimum wage earner in New Zealand might not feel lucky because they will understandably compare themselves to their richer neighbours. But by age 40 or 50, many minimum wage earners in New Zealand will find themselves in the top 10% of the world’s richest people. Even an unemployed New Zealander has a higher living standard than our amazing midwife Scovia, who is tertiary educated and gainfully employed but earns just $120 a month. While unemployed in New Zealand though, you will probably live in a house with more than one room (Scovia has a hut), have running water, electricity, free high quality education for your kids, free healthcare and perhaps even a car! I’m yet to meet a Ugandan nurse who owns a car.

Lottery 2: Your parent’s wealth. Even here in Uganda, if you are born to the tiny percentage who are rich, you will have a decent chance to amass a healthy hoard. While Uganda isn’t rich enough to provide your children with the ingredients for financial success, the good education and healthcare your children need can be bought. Even in richer countries, it has been demonstrated that you are better off being born rich than having ability or talent. In the lead author’s words

People with talent often don’t succeed. What we found in this study is that people with talent that come from disadvantaged households don’t do as well as people with very little talent from advantaged households.”

Lottery 3, 4, 5 etc.. Your race, gender, orientation, neural make up and countless other dice were also rolled before you were born that might affect your potential to stash cash in this harsh world.

The lotteries of life are real. So perhaps we should not feel too guilty about our dragon status, because it mostly happened due to factors outside of our control. For the same reason we shouldn’t be proud of whatever hoard we have amassed. Much of the reason we are rich was probably because of our favourable background, more than our back breaking hard work. For the most part we don’t “choose” to be rich or poor, the lottery decides.

But can we shed our scales?

So what can we do about it? Can we shed our scales? I’m not going to espouse my personal opinions on potential systematic changes like tax or universal basic income, but instead focus on three steps all of us dragons can take to change ourselves and shed our scales.

1. Realise you are a dragon. This may be the hardest step of all. It’s tempting and easy to tell ourselves and others that we are in fact one of the financial strugglers, usually by comparing ourselves to an even richer dragon. I’m afraid there’s always someone richer, unless you are Jeff. Once we realise though that we actually do have a $#!%load of money at least by global standards, we are set free to do something about it and take steps 2 and 3.

2. Disperse your hoard. Whether through personal connections or high impact charities, it might be time to start dispersing your hoard. If you’re interested in the best ways to give money to make the biggest difference, check out this thing I prepared earlier. You won’t be alone, giving away large amounts of money is no longer longer a fringe or religious activity. Through the movement “Give What You Can”, over 7000 people (many very young) have pledged to give at least 10% of their income to effective charities for the rest of their lives – a beautiful commitment.

I also want to personally thank a growing group of insanely generous partners and friends who have given away huge portions of their stash, often thousands of dollars at a time towards launching health centers in remote places like Pwunu Dyang through OneDay Health


3. Shift our future focus
from stashing gold, to making a better world. We are so blinded by all our dragon friends with their huge hoards, we feel the need to keep up with the Jones’s by making our hoard bigger and bigger and BIGGER. When we realise we have more than enough to thrive, we can choose to change our life’s trajectory. Whether it’s through choosing a job which makes the world better, volunteering for charity or our struggling neighours, or even earning lot’s of money for the express purpose of giving it away, there are plenty of ways we can shed our scales or at least become better dragons. Be inspired by Gandalf, who knows a thing or two about dragons.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

And while the committed, talented, skilled and grossly underpaid Scovia rushed around to orchestrate the saving of Lucy’s life, I put my head in my useless hands and cried. I cried at my own iniquity, I raged at the unequal, unfair and unnecessary state of this precious earth we call home, but in the end I allowed myself more than a sliver of hope.

“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off … And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been… and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…”

Dragon Eustice has his scales shed – C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 


* Lucy is not her real name
* Conservative estimates of over 7 billion dollars spent by Bezos and Musk on their space race would have been enough to buy enough to vaccinate the 1.4 billion Africans twice.

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Nick on a podcast! Global Health, OneDay Health and Coronavirus in Uganda

A few years ago, Sofia offered to help OneDay Health with the non-glorious, time consuming task of counting huts to help estimate population of healthcare black holes. She’s now running a blog and podcast on the Harvard Public health review, and we had a great wide ranging conversation about local health, global health, OneDay Health and a bunch of other stuff

Here’s an overview on different parts of the conversation – feel free to dip in to a few minutes that you’re interested in!

1-7 mins: What Tessa and I are are up to in Uganda
8-9 mins: Early response to coronavirus in Gulu, Uganda
10-18 mins: Community health and Global health
18-35 mins: The OneDay Health story and reflections
35-40 mins: Coronavirus lockdown and uganda
40-46 mins: Inequality in corona vaccine rollout
47-48 mins: Nationalism and money wastage challenges global health efforts
49-50 mins: What can anyone do to help in global health?
50-54 mins: “Preferential option for the poor” – what drives our work

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Four Angels: Lessons about Lockdown

I woke up on Saturday morning not expecting a lesson. I had hoped for a quiet, restful morning and was annoyed that my time and space kept getting interrupted. I had no clue that I was about to get schooled on the reality of coronavirus lockdown, even less by four angels who by midday reduced me to tears.

Angel of the children
Anena’s* smile was so big, I struggled to get grumpy when she knocked on the door. She came to read a book with us, the only semblance of formal education in her life right now. She struggled to read the five word sentences, but was delighted to finish the book and take a new one home.

But reading the odd book with a couple of try-hard non-teachers isn’t going to help Anena learn what she needs to get ahead. Under lockdown, young children haven’t been at school for 16 months, which will hold back the futures of some, and decimate the futures of many. We pray Anena will only be held back.

3 Cool Cats, none of whom have been at school for 16 months and counting…

Angel of the young women
16-year-old Priska has piles of responsibility. She cooks, looks after her younger siblings while earning some money on the side. That’s why we met on this fateful Saturday morning – she washed clothes for us for some extra money. But when school is off, and every teenage girl and boy in the community is at home, you can imagine what too often happens. Although data is scarce, one report from Comboni Samaritans estimated that almost 18,000 girls between 12 and 17 became pregnant during lockdown.

And like many kids here, even before coronavirus Priska had already missed a lot of school. She’ll be around 20 when she’s finished primary school and chances of secondary school are slimmer than ever. Coronavirus lockdown could well be the last nail in the coffin, ending her chances of further education.

Angel of the sick
Id never met Angela before, as she walked up to the door with one leg, and one old crutch. Her 9-year-old daughter was next to her, not looking too well. It turns out they were both sick. Malaria had been multiplying in her daughter’s blood for 3 days, while Angela wondered how she would scrape together the two dollars required to get tested and treated. Fortunately, I had some malaria tests and medication and was able to help her out this time.

Sick people with little money struggle even more under lockdown. Many street sellers, transporters and market vendors have lost their source of income, and therefore have lost the ability to pay for healthcare. In the village it’s even harder, as transport has been restricted and motorcycle taxis risk beatings by the police as they carry the sick.

And if you have a serious illness like heart disease or cancer, I have no idea how you’ll manage to get to Kampala, the capital, for treatment. Your chances of survival are slim.

Angel of the working poor
At 25, Omiya’s life already could be the opening scene of a movie. Through grit and determination, he supported his brother through school and built homes for his family – despite being an orphan who didn’t complete primary school himself. Despite being unable to read or write, he overcame the odds to complete a carpentry qualification and has just now built a simple workshop out of wood offcuts and used iron sheets. Within weeks he had filled a few orders and things were looking good.

And then lockdown hit

“Cene dong pe ba.” – “There’s no more money”. Today was only the second time in seven years that Omiya had run out of money. Carpentry orders had dried up, there are no odd jobs around and he’s out of luck providing for his wife and young child. Make no mistake: if Omiya was born in New Zealand, he would have achieved more than we ever could. He just happened to lose the geographic and socio-economic lottery and so here we are, on an extraordinary Saturday morning with a hard-working and enterprising person asking us, his lucky, rich, Western friends, for help.

The lockdown will devastate the working poor

After Omiya left, my self-indulgent grumpiness finally melted. The reality of the four angels sunk in and tears started flowing. My expectations of a quiet and relaxing morning had led me to miss the gravity and reality of lockdown all around me, and I had failed respond with the kind of love required.

Perhaps too late, the voice of God finally broke through a stubborn heart.

“Forget not to show love unto strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”



*Names used are not people’ actual names to preserve privacy.

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