Why don’t people care more?

Upon the completion of a two-year stint in Malawi as a math teacher a very long time ago, I attended a debriefing for Canadians returning from overseas postings. The facilitator asked how many of us had gone through their first posting; most raised our hands. He continued, “I’m sure you’re filled with wonderful stories of having met tremendous hard-working, resilient, beautiful people who have led unimaginably difficult lives but have nonetheless held their heads up high despite the horrible conditions they live in. You’ll want to tell all your friends and families about all of these people and how they’ve affected you and ultimately made you a better person and more appreciative of what you’ve got. You have so much to tell people!” As he was speaking I thought Yes, this guy totally understands me.

“No one cares,” he said.
He was a downer, but for the most part he was right. My mother cared (in part because it was her default response to do so) and some of my best friends cared. No one else really gave a shit. My experiences in Malawi, and more precisely the people who changed my life, were of little importance to the people back home. They wanted to hear more about my stories of roadside mice snacks than the struggles of the poor living there.
It was a harsh but important lesson that repeated itself when I returned to Africa two years later and lived in Ghana. Life was so utterly different, poverty was so utterly everywhere, it was impossible to remain unaffected. And still, upon my return to Canada, it was a challenge to convey to others the importance of helping people elsewhere whose pathetic standard of living prevented them from living in dignity.
It begs a fundamental question: why is it so hard to care about strangers who live less fortunate lives? Here, I use “care” in a very broad sense. There are many ways to show you care. Of course you can give money. You can also become a slacktivist for your favourite cause, you can volunteer, you can Tweet your solidarity to those in need, you can learn about their lives and their struggles, you can raise awareness in your community, you can change your own habits, the list goes on. However one defines “care for others”, I believe there’s a tremendous shortage of it. No wait, that does sound pessimistic. Then let me say this: there should a whole lot more caring.
To focus on giving, and in particular giving money: giving is easy, especially now when you can go online and click away your cash in seconds. Giving leaves the giver with a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment, however it does little to strengthen their understanding of where their money is going and the change it is meant to make. While lots of people do give, again I say: there can be a whole lot more.
Maybe we’re just too selfish. Maybe our own problems, however trivial they may seem to others, effectively block out anyone else’s and don’t leave us room to care. Maybe our lives are too hectic to care. Maybe it’s too easy to change channels from the latest massacre in Syria to the next round of American Idol. Maybe the sheer enormity of the help required is too overwhelming for any one person to think they can make a difference. Nearly ten million children under the age of five die every year from preventable diseases, over a billion people live in slums, more than a billion live on less than 1,25$ a day. Millions of people are forcibly displaced every year from their homes due to conflict or environmental disasters, hundreds of thousands of women and girls die every year before, during, or just after childbirth. Around seventy million children worldwide are without access to basic education. It’s enough for the average person eager to help wonder, “Whatever I do won’t make a difference.”
This is not so: giving can make a difference in people’s lives. The language around giving has changed considerably since my stay in Malawi nearly twenty years ago. As such, the actions taken to make sure that giving is effective have changed as well. It’s much less about meeting needs as it is about realizing human rights; it’s less about giving and receiving and more about sharing and enabling (for everyone). It’s less about pity and gratitude and more about respect and dignity.
Twenty-odd years ago, the realities of the poor were not always well understood and often not accurately conveyed to those more fortunate. If you lived in a rich country, you saw images of poor Africans with distended bellies looking sorrowfully at the camera with a pseudo-celebrity (why do I keep thinking Sally Struthers?) asking for your help. Nowadays, messages like this and others are at times labeled as poverty porn, a term that gets its point across but with a regrettably vulgar choice of words. Effective nonprofit organizations have moved well beyond this oversimplified and misrepresentative vision of aid. Those organizations need to raise their profiles and share their good practices of using funds wisely and transparently while enabling people to claim and enjoy their rights. I think – I hope – people will give to something they know will make a difference.
Ultimately, someone wanting to help will have the empathy, the desire, the kind-heartedness and the will to find a way to give. Asking Why don’t people care more? I realize that the question could be phrased differently. I recently came across another way of asking this question from an unlikely source: my children’s comic books. DC Comics unveiled a new campaign where members of the Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the other usual superheroes) are “spokespersons” asking to help dying families in the Horn of Africa. It’s a fundraising campaign called We Can Be Heroes, in which DC Comics matches your donation to one of three partner organizations. OK, the use of the term “heroes” to designate people giving money to help others is patronizing to the extreme, but I’ll let it slide because these are comic book characters. At any rate, an awareness-raising video from the website asks the question, What do you do when someone needs help?It’s direct, it gets to the point, and it leaves room for only one answer as far as I can tell: “I help.” Doesn’t matter who needs help, where they live, or what they do: just help.

Face the Poor (Part 1)

In a couple of weeks I will be giving a short presentation on poverty and human rights for End Poverty Now’s STOP Conference. As I try to figure out what I’ll be talking about, one thing I do want to address is my own perspective in relation to poverty and the poor.

Christopher Hitchens argued that Mother Teresa “was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”
The criticisms Hitchens lays out against Mother Teresa are further supported by Michael Parenti in his book God and His Demons which I just read, and they’ve left me rethinking my own perspectives on poverty and the poor. The distinction between poverty and poor is necessary. Poverty is a reality, one that is often removed from the lives of people like myself. The distance I had from poverty in my youth made it easy to be indifferent towards it and to feel sympathy for those living in poverty but distant enough to remain unaffected. For the most part, I remained uncompelled to make a change. So I didn’t, and during my university years, when I commuted downtown and walked by poor people begging for money, I did what most people did: I ignored them. I gave money only a handful of times.
The poor – actual people – well, they’re harder to ignore than poverty. My strategy to ignore poor people begging for money hit a major snafu when I went to live in Malawi. Everything was poverty, everywhere was poverty, and almost everyone was poor. I lived in the small town of Zomba and walked to the grocery stores at least once a week. The eyes of the crippled beggars sitting by the stores bore into me every time I passed them. They were not angry, not demanding…they were almost nothing. They whispered zikomo – thank you – and I walked on by. I ignored them most of the time, I infrequently gave small amounts of money, and I felt horrible.
Face him.
Writing nearly twenty years later, it’s difficult to relate how uncomfortable my own behaviour made me feel, how I loathed my inaction, and how miserably I failed to show the slighted recognition that these people – the poor – were deserving of a human dignity I uncaringly trampled over. My shame was private and did not fade even after I left Malawi two years later. If anything, the faces of the beggars began to crystalize in my dreams, and there was no averting their eyes. I retreated in my art, hopeful that a more tangible expression of my anguish would push their faces out of my head. It worked – for a while, at least. Poverty still remained a thing, a reality, a painful and debilitating fate affecting the other, but the poor had a face  no, each person had a face, and ignoring those faces was no longer possible. 

A Letter to My Sons: On Love and Hate

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,


This is my first Valentine’s Day away from you. The second away from Mommy – the first time was way back in 1998. I was living in Ghana at the time, and your mother sent me a Valentine’s Day package from home. The package wasn’t delivered to my apartment, so I had to pick it up at the central post office. People receiving packages had to open them for inspection in front of a postal worker. There was a lineup of people behind me, peeking over my shoulder to see what I got. I opened the box and showed the postal worker a CD, a letter, and a pair of red boxer shorts with little red and white hearts on it.


However embarrassing that situation was at the time (but everyone smiled), I knew I was a lucky man, and I am even luckier today. Prior to meeting your Mommy, Valentine’s Day, to put it simply, sucked. I never had a girlfriend on that day (reassuringly, most of my guy friends didn’t either), and any potential for having a girlfriend on or around that day was always promptly extinguished. I can freely provide you details in about 5 years.
All you need.
I am lucky because I have love from the two of you and Mommy that defines me, that strengthens me, supports me, gets me out of bed and brings me comfort even though I’m 9511 km away from you (more or less). It makes Valentine’s Day just another day as I sit here alone in my hotel room, happy.


There’s a saying that goes, “So much of what we know of love we learn at home.” I learned a lot from your grandmother and, in a very different way, from your Uncle John, and continue to learn from the two of you and Mommy. As I left you on Saturday, your emotions were bare, your silence painful, and your tears seared right through my heart. My trips away from you are much shorter than they were ten years ago, but somehow the goodbyes are sadder. I can only attribute that to a growing love.


Sitting here in my hotel room in Amman, it’s hard for me not to think of this day without remembering the struggles that so many people here in the Middle East and North Africa have faced over the past year. You know of the sweeping changes that took pace in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya. But one year ago today, February 14, protests began in the streets of Bahrain, where my friend Abdulhadi was jailed and sentenced to life in prison. He recently wrote a letter from jail talking about his situation. He is a strong man, someone who fights hard for the rights of others and has paid a high price for this. But he is loved, and that love manifests itself in the support that thousands of people from around the world have shown in pushing for his release, and the release of other prisoners.


Bahrain is not the only place where innocent people are being hurt because they are standing up for their rights. The situation in Syria is getting worse every day, with the president unwilling to give up power as his forces kill dozens of civilians every day. Tonight I spoke to my friend Amouri who lives in Syria and he says that all six of the UN schools that operate in the city of Homs have been closed now for three weeks because of the violence in the streets. It’s one thing for you to have a snow day and not go to school. Can you imagine not attending school because people are being killed in the streets?


If you think this makes no sense, you are right. I want you to always keep in mind that this is not right. Hatred will never be right. You might be confused right now about this kind of stupid behaviour, and as you get older, I’m sorry to say you might find out even stupider and more hurtful things that people do. If you’re like me, this will anger you. What I’ve learned over time is that anger is often unavoidable, but needs to be transformed. Without changing that anger, you won’t change anything. Your anger at other people’s stupidity needs to be channeled into passion and love that is tempered by reason, into a fierce enthusiasm to stop those who do wrong to others. Be a Superman, be a Batman – even SpongeBob stands up for what’s right. I want you to be yourself and to share, as much as you possibly can, what you know of love and learned from home. The world needs it.


Je t’aime Sam, je t’aime Alexandre.
Daddy