Saturday, December 20, 2008

Club Cuba

We had talked for months about the prospect of traveling to Cuba but we were faced with seemingly endless and unanswerable questions of flights, safety, currency, lodging and political situations. There is simply little to no reliable information on the internet or among North Americans about the massive island just off the coast of Florida.

With the exception of Mexico and the United States, many flights to Havana are offered from multitude of airlines in many Latin American countries including Canada. With current U.S trade restrictions with Cuba, U.S. citizens are not prohibited from traveling to Cuba as much as purchasing goods or services originating from the island nation. All tourists traveling to Cuba by air are required to buy a $20 tourist visa upon check-in to the flight bound for Cuba. At border control in the Havana international airport, passengers present their passport along with the tourist card for inspection. The border agent the stamps the right side of the tourist visa, presenting the duplicate right side for you to keep as your "passport" while in Cuba. The right side is presented to hotels and hostels that you stay at in Cuba as well as when you leave the country. After a brief passport, tourist visa and snap shot taken at the border you are welcome with heartfelt "bienvenidos!"

Safely into Cuba it immediately becomes clear that there are two worlds: Cuba and Tourist Cuba. While this is true in most of the developing world, it is most pronounced in Cuba where the government has established two local currencies as well as rules and regulations regarding who can work with tourists when, where and why. Let me explain: If you exchange Euros or US Dollars in Cuba you will receive Pesos Convertibles at about $1 US per convertible. This is the tourist currency used at fancy restaurants, clubs, hotels, vending machines and a host of supermarkets and stores. 1 convertible can be exchange for 25 Cuban pesos at any currency exchange or at times on the street. Pesos are the Cuban's currency used to buy basic food stuffs, transportation and some entertainment. For example an ice cream purchased at a the "tourist" convertible window of the Coppelia ice cream parlor costs the equivalent of $3 US while the locals can wait in lines of 100 people to buy the flavor of the day for the equivalent of 5 cents.Here it is important to emphasize locals have to wait in LINES fpr the flavor of the DAY. Almost everywhere you look at bus stations, grocery stores or baseball games or banks dozens and dozens of Cubans seem to be waiting in endless lines often without knowing if the products or services for which they are waiting will be available once they reach the front of the lines. Back to tourism, though, the most dominant economic force on the island (yes more than cigars and rum!). The taxi driver that drove us from the airport when we arrived was educated as a marine engineer, designed and built ships in Germany and then when he moved back to Havana decided he could make more money driving a cab for foreigners than building OIL TANKERS. One night a taxi driver even explained to us how he works by day as a computer programmer earning $20 US a month and in one night driving taxis and pulling in tips from tourists he makes more than in an entire year as a programmer. Herein lies a fundamental frustration for Cubans, your neighbor can get rich working with foreigners while you still slave away at the same job that pays you in pesos and you earn less than a dollar a day.

Take a tourist taxi in Cuba and you ride in a Volkswagen or a toyota, ride in a shared taxi with Cubans and you'll squeez into a 1950's classic car without floors and with 6-7 other passengers. Traveling around Havana and hitch hiking around the countryside was one of our most memorable experiences. Learning the taxi driver hand signs for "full", "driving far" or reading the color of the license plates for "private" "government" or "tourist" cars was fun and took a lot of trial and error. We stayed in comfortable and CHEAP "casas particulares" or private homes that are licensed by the government as guest homes. These families in our experience were extremely nice and eager to learn as much about us as we were to learn about them! One evening our host mother (whose husband was depicted shaking hands with Fidel Castro in a framed picture in her living room) even cooked us a scrumptious Cuban dinner. Besides all the logistical details previously mentioned including the implied advice about trying to balance exposure to tourist and "real" Cuban locals Cuba is really most fantastic for it's music, dance and alcohol and cigars (probably in that order). Every day and night on the street, in restaurants in clubs you can enjoy FANTASTIC live music and dance. A all Cubans seem to professional dancers for some reason. A bottle of Havana Club Rum costs $2.90. Yes sir.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cents of Community in Colombia

About month since our last post to the blog, it is finally time to report that we are alive! After a two week stay in Europe visiting loved ones, friends and family we are back in adventure mode touring around Colombia, South America. During our first week we stayed in the capital, Bogota, with the wonderful family of a fellow Santa Clara student. We hadn’t expected it but our schedule soon became filled with meetings and visits in barrios all over the city of seven million people. While an initial impression of Bogota central may surprise you with its mild “Northwestern U.S.” climate and chic “Portland Oregon-ish” coffee shops and bookstores you need only to look to the hills that surround the city for scars from Colombia’s decade-long civil war: the hills that enclose Bogota from the realities of rural Colombian life are littered with millions of extremely modest, single story, double room, brick homes of desplazados (millions of farmers displaced from violent conflict in the far reaches of the country.) One result of the ongoing violence and consequent migration to safe, urban centers is that Colombia has at least economically become one of the most inequitable countries in all of Latin America. Though the issue of economic equity lies at the root of efforts to provide micro financing services to the “bottom billion” there are also other strategies emerging to encourage entrepreneurship at the family level.
First, I’ll mention concept that was introduced to us by Jacquie, an Ashoka Fellow who runs Laudes Infantis, a Bogota based organization that assists urban desplazados in building the community of their dreams. One barrio we visited, Bella Flora, which overlooks a valley of skyscrapers and stadiums has been developing in their own unique way: a community cafeteria, home-made playground, a community center complete with library and a radio station as well as local preschool. Each building constructed by the community with the help of Laudes is splattered with bright colors and a custom, colorful windows of all shapes and sizes. Bella Flor even features public trash bins constructed of recycled tires and (of course) painted in vibrant colors (public trash receptacles of any sight are a rarity in these parts!). Finally, the centerpiece of the community and indeed the organization on a whole is the concept of Banco de Trueque or a Bartering Bank. Here’s a scenario that was used to explain to me how a bank with no money works: A family goes to eat at the community cafeteria and if, despite being offered a subsidized, yummy, 13 cent lunch they cannot afford it the family simply agrees to a visit to the Banco de Trueque and then are served lunch. Later, during their visit to the bank the family explains that theory have no work and therefore cannot afford to eat for at least two weeks. In return for the food service the family is offered various outlets of community service to pay for the food they will eat over the following weeks. For example the father and mother are assigned shifts to empty the trash bins around the community and the children promise to visit the library to work on their homework and study for at least three hours every week. Upon completion of the assigned tasks, the father, mother and children are given special bartering bank currency (the wooden coins pictured left) that they take to the bank in order for their community “debts” to be cleared from the books.
The fourth type of bank we visited apart from commercial banks, micro financing banks, and bartering banks was a clothing bank run by the Arquidiocesana Foundation in Cali, Colombia about an hour’s flight south west of Bogota. Originally started by a psychologist Sofia Sarasti, Arquidiocesana Foundation’s banco de alimentos is surprisingly one of the first food banks opened in Colombia only eight years ago. Outside of distributing food donations to local families-in-need, the foundation has focused on targeting the causes of hunger, thereby lessening the need for donations in the first place. One of their programs designed especially for woman is called a “clothing bank” and it looks something like this: the foundation collects clothing donations (of completely new products) from local businesses and displays them in the clothing bank store in their headquarters complete with labels and price tags. Then, a group of about 100 women representing neighborhoods all over Cali are invited to take a one year class meeting once every two weeks on basic business skills such as accounting, product presentation as well as self-esteem and personal presentation. Once enrolled in the class, women are allowed to choose a daily quota of 50,000 pesos (~25 USD) in clothing from the clothing bank to take with them back to their local communities where they sell the clothing from their homes. Any resulting sales are split 50/50 between the bank and the entrepreneurs. Finally after one year of classes, when the women are cut-off from the free supply of clothing from the bank, the hope is that they will have the necessary personal and professional skills to buy products and start their own, sustainable businesses.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Attack of the Fruit Bat

Greetings from Burkina Faso. Sam and I just returned from a visit to the “bush” and we have a short story for yawl.
When we arrived at the guest house that our Professor had built we noticed that the first thing our driver Adama and the new library coordinator did was close the windows to their bed room. Not much thought was given to that until…. I tried to capture our dialogue best I could so follow along.
Austin: “Sam!……..Sam! Wake up…….Sam!” I throw my flip flop across the room to wake him up.
Sam stirs “Hmm What’s Up?”
Austin: “There is a bat in our room”
Sam: “Are you sure it is a bat?”
I was starring the bat eye to eye as it clung to my mosquito net. “Yes…I am very sure that it is a bat”
Sam: “Is it a vampire bat or a fruit bat?”
Austin: “What the hell difference does that make?……………..I hope it is a fruit bat ”
The bat flies around the room and lands on Sam’s mosquito net
Sam: “Maybe this is why the other guys closed their windows before they went to bed”
Austin: “Most likely”
The bat flew around the room again and disappeared under my bed, I was awake all night with a fear that Dracula was going to emerge from under my bed. I felt like a 6 year old with nightmares about monsters under my bed again. Fortunately in the morning I was still alive without having been bitten by a vampire and having to share in Dracula’s lament.

Hope all is well back home, Sam and I are off on safari for the next few days. Hopefully we get some good photos of elephants for you!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Can you spell Ouagadougou?

Nearly two weeks since last touching a personal computer and after a week without electricity for our cell phone, we find ourselves sitting in the large capital city “Ouaga” in the to-be-known country, Burkina Faso. Over two weeks ago we left Accra, Ghana and headed north to visit Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL) a not-for-profit organization founded by Santa Clara University professors Michael Kevane and Leslie Gray. After more than a week spent in the village of Sumbrungu cataloging books, frying hash browns for friends, playing team-building games, waiting for something to happen, walking around the village and chatting it up with the local elders over a fresh crop of groundnuts (peanuts), we taxied north yet again to cross the border into Burkina Faso. After the initial shock of crossing into Burkina and figuratively hitting a wall in Francophone Africa, we slowly recovered enough to speak basic French phrases such as “toilette?” and to begin to absorb the vast differences between former English and French Africa colonies. With time it became clear that not only our tea and sweet breads from Ghana would be replaced by homemade alcohol and crispy French bread but that, in important matters, the English tradition of passive governance in Ghana is rivaled by Burkina’s inheritance of the French “Functionaire.” (An example of the importance of titles in which a government employee views their job as simply fulfilling a function, no more and no less). However these subtle differences are easily lost in the larger and perhaps more striking realization that Burkina Faso is undeniably, statistically and in our personal experience among the five poorest countries of the world. In upcoming posts and conversations we will try to be more specific about our observations of Burkina, but for now I want to introduce two dilemmas for you to help us discuss:

Dilemma 1: Can I knowingly contribute to “tourist pollution” and still go to tourist heaven?

Walking in the breathtaking landscape in the remote Nepali village of Lamatar we proudly returned warm smiles of welcome with our newly learned greeting “Namaste.” Upon which, and without fail, the local children would gladly respond to our traditional gesture, with not-so-traditional demand in English “Chocolate, Please!”
Fast forward thousands of miles to Paga Northern Ghana and as we stand frozen with cash in hand to pay a taxi driver for a trip to the Burkina border he looks at us longingly, wondering why we would cheat him out of the “bag fee” you know his explains: “pay for luggage.”
I do not know about “luggage fee” and I DO know about “Chocolate, please” (and I would really like some but it Africa chocolate bars cost more than a baby goat, I’m serious) I also realize that at some point, an well-intentioned traveler handed out a box of Hershey’s bars at the base of the Himalayas. That same tourist, on their next vacation on elephant safari in Ghana, decided to tip the taxi driver for handling their luggage. Not because it is custom, but because why not pay extra when it is not too much money for us? What is the difference between paying $4 for a $2 taxi ride especially when it is benefiting someone who really needs it? ($2 is about the daily wage for an agriculture worker in Northern Ghana).
In other words: as a representative of the financially wealthy West do I have the right to set the expectation that future tourists will also tip and come bearing gifts (tourist pollution)? Also from the perspective of local entrepreneurs, are they justified in expecting Westerners to pay a premium for the same, sweaty taxi ride?

Dilemma 2: When do I need to hold my Western, educated, socially liberal , ethnically European, modern American male tongue?

During a stay in a country village in El Salvador Austin complemented his host family on the size of their only prized chicken. “Me gusta!.” Several hours later he sat and starred wide-eyed at the freshly prepared lunch plate of pollo. “Te gusta?” his host mother asked intently. Adding to the stickiness of eating the only meat a family can afford all month, what if Austin, hypothetically, had been strictly vegetarian for moral reasons? Do you say something? Or just grin it and bear it as my Dad would say. Lets take this a step further by bringing in only real examples from our current travels: What if the host whose food you are about to enjoy has been obviously and consistently verbally abusing the underage (by our standards), female cook? What if that same female has not been given an education in local village school because her role as a woman is seen in that specific tradition and culture as solely a caregiver to her family. Can you, do you say anything? What if the host who is serving you chicken she cannot afford is wearing a Catholic rosary and she has prepared the meal with the help of the younger underage women who happens to be her husband‘s second wife. She has carried two of his children and lives in a mud house directly next to the younger wife who has given birth to one of his children. Do you feel comfortable asking her how, as a Christian, she views polygamy and marriage? What if, upon clearing your empty chicken plate to the water bucket to help the women wash, you are teased by the men in the family for doing women’s work. Do you stop washing to avoid disrespect for their tradition, or do you insist on helping and push the issue upon your male friends asking them why it is that only women are asked to clean? What if the women insist it is their tradition to clean?

Real life. Real stuff. What do we do?


Sunday, October 5, 2008

What is "good enough" in Africa?

Walk into Dr. Patrick Awuah's modest, 15x15ft office in Accra Ghana and enter a clean, calm and (thankfully) air-conditioned future of Africa. The clean-cut, well spoken gentleman from the UC Berkley still shows signs of his computer engineering days: rimless glasses, a shiny silver Blackberry, and a pristine IBM Thinkpad within comfortable reach, desktop icons neatly arranged and all. However, sneak a peak just slightly to your right and note his collection of books crammed (alphabetized I'm sure) into an overwhelmingly large bookshelf in his tiny office at Ashesi University. Mohammad Yunnus' Bank to the Poor, Bill Clinton's Giving, Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope, Paul Farmer MD's Mountains Beyond Mountains, and even Three Cups of Tea. Patrick Awuah, an American educated Ghanaian, returned to Ghana to work with what he believes to be the key to economic opportunity in Ghana: education. Unlike many well intentioned social entrepreneurs, however, Patrick didn't just research barriers to tertiary education, which leave less than 5% of Ghanaians with university degrees; Patrick simply decided to found his own University.

Let's just assume that you avoid asking our question "Patrick, was it difficult starting a university from scratch in Ghana?" (He laughed for a while after that one, YES!!!!!!) and jump straight to the question about the principles on which Ashesi was so humbly founded less then 5 years ago. Patrick's perspective on social progress in Ghana is something like this: Corruption in government and business and life in general is hindering much-needed growth in Ghana's economy. This corruption, he argues, is especially habitual zed in Ghanaian higher-education where cheating goes hand in hand with memorization, and uncreative thinking. His idea is to impact students in their final years before entering the workforce, leaving a lasting impression by educating both "ethical and entrepreneurial leaders." Additionally, because the proportion of students who receive college degrees is so small, he assumes that many or most of college students will be filling the shoes of CEO's, lawyers and presidents: just the kind of hot-shots needed for structural, societal change in Ghana.

So here are some of the ways Patrick hopes to save souls for Ghana: For the first two years at Ashesi University students are immersed in what is essentially a liberal arts education: economics, English, history and more. In the following two years students begin to specialize in Business Administration, Computer Engineering or Accounting Information Systems, the only three majors that Ashesi offers. Before graduating students must complete four seminars and a generous helping of community service. The seminars build on one another and you could even argue that the U.S. system of higher education could learn a thing or four: "What is a great leader?", "What is a good society?", "Economy of the good society", "Leadership Service". Throughout the course of these lectures, discussions and readings students are exposed to a range of perspectives from Adam Smith to Karl Marx and Martin Luther King to John McCain (Actually probably not McCain because the entire continent of Africa is obsessed with Barrack Obama!). In addition, students are even offered a special honor code option after they have completed several seminars. If an entire class is willing to sign their name to honesty, tests from that point on will not be proctored by any "adult" in the room.

The final part of our conversation with Patrick focused on the issue money. We bluntly questioned the ability of an expensive and elite private school to provide opportunity to a representative generation of young Ghanaians. His response and the discussion that followed was thought provoking: Ashesi University is simultaneously the most expensive as well as the most inexpensive university in Ghana depending on a student's financial aid package. Of course most universities, unless your buildings are covered with ivy, struggle to find donations to make their education as affordable as possible. Ashesi, however, is especially cursed at the moment in finding donors because the facilities, staff and faculty are already world class. I must admit, having visited a handful of colleges in the developing world, Ashesi is not a palace, but it is extremely clean, well maintained, organized and staffed with what seem to be extremely competent professionals. To further illustrate this dilemma Patrick told us a story about a nearby orphanage. Several church groups from Europe had collaborated with a local NGO on a $10k project to build the orphanage. Arriving on the "grand-opening" day, the president of the local NGO toured the orphanage with church leaders from Europe and could only comment on the dismal sight of depressing grey concrete that would greet the children each morning. The NGO president argued, that only an additional $200 would have been necessary to paint the classrooms with bright and beautiful colors, ABC's and multiplication tables. In short, Patrick is deeply concerned that "misery sells rather than results" in the world of NGO donations. Westerner's are deeply moved to generosity by sights of pot-bellied children in dismal slums, but when it comes to supporting proven, world-class programs in developing world, the floors may seem a little too polished and shirts a little too pressed.

The novel Mountains Beyond Mountains is a wonderful story about doctor who struggles with a similar dilemma in heath care: providing human beings everywhere with the same first-rate health care we would expect in Western hospitals, regardless of financial costs and ultimately justified with the statement: "Because we can." I would have recommended this book to Patrick, but judging by it's prominent place on his bookshelf, it looks like he got to it way before me.


On the streets of Mumbai (with addicts)

In Mumbai, Sam and I were invited to visit the drug rehabilitation center, Sankalp. We met Eldred, the founder, in Pune where he was being recognized for his work.
Eldred is a brilliant entrepreneur not only for founding Sankalp but because he has challenged a process. He has created new rehabilitation techniques, that were first criticized but now are well respected and replicated all over the world. Eldred has also challenged the way many think about drug users and he pushed others including myself to look at drug users from a different perspective.
We began our day with a visit to one of their clinics, where Eldred offers the men a place to “hang out” during the day. At the clinic the men are able to consult a doctor, play chess, have their wounds dressed, and enjoy a small lunch. While the men eat, a nurse and counselor will speak with the men about general hygiene. The men pay a few rupees for their lunch, specifically for the men to understand that their money can be used towards their health as opposed to drugs.
Eldred came in and spoke to the men in the morning and I have never seen men listen so intently. It was as if he was preparing to reveal Jessica Simpson from behind a curtain. They listened to Eldred because they understand he comes from a similar background and he knows how to overcome the same challenges the men face.
He is tough on the guys, during our convo when a 70 year old man broke into tears about his family leaving him. Eldred told him to
“suck it up and to stop being a baby! Yes your family left you, good, you need to get your life together before you can rejoin your family.”

Eldred explained later after he saw the shock in Sam and I’s face that it was necessary for him to be hard on the old man, most of the time they just want a little sympathy out of you which they would translate as forgiveness. Forgiving these men does not help them take control of their lives, they need to do that on their own.
These conversations may or may not work, most of the men visiting the day clinic had used intravenous drugs within 24 hours and some of them were still high. Eldred explained to us that the main purpose of the clinic is to provide a safe place for them to stay during the day. It is not so much an opportunity to stop doing drugs, but an opportunity to stop the spread of HIV amongst the drug users. Most of the men we met were HIV positive and obviously the ones who were not were at high risk because of shared needles.
If he can keep them from using for a needle day, that is one day that a needle is not contaminated with HIV.
Sankalp does offer a rehabilitation boot camp for the men, but they have to make the choice to attend.
At 6pm we were greeted by Shitaya (he asked us to call him “Shit“ for short), who took us on an one of his outreach visits. Sankalp has 29 outreach coordinators, including Shit. Their responsibilities are to visit the areas known to have many drug users. During the visits he records the users name, age, and where they are from. After information is recorded they will exchange needles, collecting the dirty needles in exchange for a clean one. Also if the men are sexually active the coordinators will provide the men with condoms.
Our first visit was to an 18 and 22 year old, we arrived as soon as the 18 year old had stuck a dirty needle into his foot. He quickly removed the needle and exchanged dirty for clean and after a short conversation the 18 year old began to prepare the clean needle for injection. We walked away as he reinserted the needle into the side of his foot. (see photo above, taken with permission though while he was taking "brown sugar")
On the way to our next stop we drove through another red light district. Apparently Sam and I are very good at finding red light districts in just about all of the countries we visited.
Our next stop was a busy railway station. Many drug users find shelter near these stations and out on the tracks, they inject on the tracks because no one will bother them out there. While this may provide a haven away from other people the trains are still coming and they show little sympathy for someone passed out on the tracks. Many of the men we met during the day were missing a limb and disfigured.
Sam and I understood that our target audience was the men asleep on the ground, or out on the tracks. Normally I would have taken little interest in this men cast aside on the sidewalk, I would have ignored them as I walked by. Tonight they were men I recognized, men I had met at the clinic during the day. I knew their stories and struggles, I knew their names. It was a surreal experience, especially when they shouted my name and greeted me as a friend. That was something I would never forget.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

India's Future: Globalsensation?

Walking out of the international terminal in Delhi, India this past week, it was clear that we were out of our league, literally at the mercy of the second largest country in world. From all directions we were attacked by a barrage of “Taxi Sir”, “Tour guide sir”, “Cheap! Cheap!” With the exception of the kind family we stayed with in pleasant suburb of Delhi (Whom we had contacted through an acquaintance in Manila), Delhi and it seems many large cities in India can primarily be described as “extremely and persistently loud.” It was only after our first two days we spent touring the fascinating temples, forts mosques and finally the great Taj Mahal that we traveled to the West Coast of India and explored “smaller-town India” in the area around Pune. Pune, a mere metropolis of 6 million and nearly the same population of the state of Oregon is a favorite destination for over 127 large multinational firms from Europe and North America. Despite being a large auto manufacturing, call center, tech haven, Pune’s “noise level” was significantly muted compare to the perpetual traffic jam of Delhi and therefore much less stressful for making friends!

During our stay in Pune we met with the non-profit Ashoka for the first time. In short, Ashoka is a well-known supporter of social entrepreneurs around the world. Basically Ashoka inducts “Ashoka fellows” through a rigorous application process, that seeks to identify local leaders in healthcare, education, business law etc. These Fellows are selected based on their perceived ability to change national and continental policy in their respective fields within three fields. To help them along the way, Ashoka provides a three year living stipend to entrepreneurs and their families as well as an extensive network of fellow entrepreneurs, skill training and professional consultant. The evening we spent in Pune, we attended the national induction ceremony for all new Indian fellows, which allowed us the opportunity to learn about 20+ new ideas that hope fundamentally change public policy in India. For example, one fellow we visited, Asim Sarode, a “Ghandi-esk” human rights lawyer hopes to alter the reality of the Indian courts (and the US?): poor people are most always guilty. He provides completely free legal services to the incarcerated, sex workers and the homeless. Check out his organization Human Rights and Law Defenders.

After our meeting with Asim we headed to a meeting at the Pune Chamber of Commerce where city officials and a friend who is a local business leader were trying to convince the largest Belgian company in the world to open a few manufacturing facilities in the area. Walking into Pune’s Chamber of Commerce, constructed of spotless glass and white marble floors in contrast to the dusty streets and colorful stuccos of Pune we were lead to the “mission control” room of big business. On a solid wood conference table only fresh tea and biscuits sat between several optimistic Indian officials and two rather stiff and intimidating Europeans (My only contribution to the meeting was eating the entire cookie tray). After a polite exchange of introductions and a brief power point dictation about Pune’s desirable traits as an outsourcing Mecca, the Belgian execs sat and contemplated in uncomfortable silence. Just as chewing my mouth-full of cookies started to get awkwardly loud, the Belgians launched into an unexpected, but calculated attack on Pune’s record of development. One Belgian questioned: “Why is it that you have no expressways”
“But we do, Sir, just look at the new road to Mumbai” A local business leader retorted.
“Roads with cows and cross-streets are not expressways, why did you build a brand new highway without off ramps? The NEW road is practically useless” the Belgian countered.
“It is coming in the next 5 year plan, Sir.”
“The five year plan has lasted the past 30 years. What about schools for the workers, water supply for local villages and consistent power for businesses and homes? ”
Though after a brief pause the Indian representative proceeded to give a rehearsed appeal to optimism, it was clear that there was a fundamental, rhetorical question hidden in the Belgian’s interrogation: why are some countries developing and others developed? Why are some populations, ethnicities, religions, genders, geographic regions characteristically poor and other less so? Why can some developing countries time infrastructure to match growth and others not? At our meeting in Pune last week Austin and I had a rare and personal front row seat to big decisions that lead to globalization. Fortunately a multi-billion dollar, multinational Belgian company was asking questions that implied interest in INDIA’s social progress. In contrast, we later heard that U.S. firms seeking to invest in the Pune region have almost solely been concerned with property and profit incentives. I feel bad for eating all the cookies.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Micro-Financing really does work!

Hello Everyone,

Greetings from Mumbai India! Sam and I have many stories we would like to share with you, but very briefly I wanted to tell you all about our first introduction to micro-financing in Cebu Philippines.

The RAFI group took us to their micro-financing operations outside of Cebu, where they currently lend to about 10,000 Filipino women.

We went to their weekly meeting where the women deposit their repayment of the loan, their savings, and some of them received payments from the Micro-Bank. . It was incredible to actually watch these women receive their loan, especially after hearing some of their stories. Check out the video below of a women who runs an small bbq/ convenience store and is pregnant with her 8th baby. Talk about time management!

Most of these women operate at least 2 businesses and just about everyone in the room had a convenience store. The types of businesses ranged from hog raising and farming to a nail center and bakery.

Over the years of working with this bank and meeting weekly in this room the women had grown extremely close. It felt like a sorority meeting with all of the giggles, gossip, and inside jokes we got lost in. These women worked together as a team; covering payments if one of the women was not able to pay, offering advice, and babysitting each others children.

Then Sam and I asked the big question: Does micro-financing really work? This sparked a passionate response from the group. I didn’t film the entire response but check out the video below.

This women, Mary Faye, who supplies fish to local restaurants, explained to us how another women in the room was able to send her children to college with profits from her business. She was also able to purchase a vehicle to deliver her eggs not only to her village but all of the villages around her.

These women confirmed to us that micro-financing really does work! The question now is how can you take micro-financing to the next level?

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Father to hundreds of daughters

Last Monday we stepped onto a 7:30am flight to Cebu, one of the 7,100 islands that make up the country of the Philippines. Initially weary of a flight piloted by Captain “Snappy Gusto” we arrived safely in Cebu and into the what would become truly incredible week of both excitement and frustration. For our first several days we spent time touring the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation a remarkable organization in Cebu that, through their portfolio of social services to the community just seems to do everything right (More to come about this later). Then, after a few days indulging in the white sand beaches of the Philippines, we headed back to Cebu for a last minute visit to some of Austin’s acquaintances from El Paso. Hilary and David are wonderful young couple that has spent the past five years building their maternity clinic Glory Reborn to serve the slums of Cebu, and Hilary took some time to introduce us to a friend of their’s Father Heinz, a German priest from the Society of the Devine Word who has spent the past several decades of his life severing the young women of Cebu who have fallen victim to the sex trafficking industry. When Hilary and David offered to accompany us on one of Father Heinz’s nightly walks into the red light district to provide free health care to sex workers, Austin and I both quickly agreed that this opportunity could not be missed…
Standing at the gateway to Cebu’s red light district, I waited nervously as Father Heinz explained himself in Cebuano yet again to the pimp of all pimps, who stood watch at the entrance to a narrow, muddy street enclosed by tall shacks and dim yellow street lights. Father Heinz, a tall man in his late fifties, sported Birkenstocks with socks a carried a large duffle bag which he had meticulously packed with three shallow plastic boxes, each with a dozen small compartments filled with pills of every shape, size and color. Hilary stood guard at my side, armed with her own duffle bag stockpile of fruity condoms. “He’s the head pimp, he decides if we get in tonight.” Father Heinz tells me in German as we finally get an official nod. “Let’s go.” Taking our first steps past the male guards at the front of the street we are quickly swarmed by a crowd of friends. “Fahderr” one older woman calls, and Father Heinz reaches out to place one hand on her shoulder as his other hand grabs her child’s upper arm. No fever it seems but the child has a cough. Father reaches into his pack, pulling out a colorful box of cough syrup and a candy bar for the mother. It seems they have not eaten for several days he explains, she is too old to be sold to men. Not more than a minute into his conversation with the mother several more “Fahderrs” can be heard and we move towards the calls, into a circle of young women, from their looks no older than 18. Father Heinz reaches out a grabs a vanilla ice cream cone from one of the girls, takes a huge bite and hands it back to her grinning. She pouts, but quickly returns his smile along with a long hug. This young woman, he explains, is taking medication for an STD. He lovingly draws the number “2” on her forehead with his finger reminding her she must take her pills twice a day. Explaining to the young girls he has work to do, they all lunge forward, hugging him in turn and wishing him a speedy return. Further down the street we gradually enter a tunnel of young prostitutes lining the streets on display in white plastic lawn chairs. Hilary asks those who are allowed by their owners (usually older women called “mama sans“) to speak to us if they would like a box of condoms and if so which fruit flavor. Hilary explains that giving them a choice of which flavor they would like is one of the only decisions they can make for themselves in their lives. Instinctually I begin to make conversation but am quickly reminded by Hilary that my questions regarding age, family and where they are from are not allowed in the red light district. Most girls are forced to lie about their age anyway, presuming that many are much younger than 18 years old. Hearing a young cry for “Fahderr”, Father Heinz returns from his rounds of chatter and diagnosis to a young girl sitting right next to me in a weathered lawn chair. Her name is Genevieve, she is beautiful, 16 years old and I am quickly informed that her 1 year old daughter, Maria, is playing in the street in front of us. Father Heinz tells me in German about her past pregnancy, as Genvieve’s owner is standing right inside the brothel behind us and Genevieve is not allows to talk about or acknowledge her daughter while she is at work. Instead an older, “unusable” young woman must baby sit young Maria in the street while her mother works.
Walking back on the dirty streets ringing of techno music and nasty thug hip-hop Father Heinz begins to narrate the Filipino sex industry. The young girls I have met, no older than my sister, are promised opportunity in the rural provinces and then sold to middle men who transport them via boat into larger cities such as Cebu. Finally pimps and brothel owners mama-sans purchase the girls for wholesale prices and “rent” them to clients. (The word in Cebuano for renting a house or renting a woman is the same Father Heinz explains). When girls cannot buy food or fall ill they must barrow from their owners and they never can pay back. It is a never-ending cycle of debt and repayment. A form of slavery. On the last stretch of red light street, I am approached by a middle-aged client who is on vacation from a nearby country to “tour Cebu” with his friends. He is trying to pick out five girls to bring back to his friends‘ hotel, but he’s having a hard time deciding. I’d lasted two weeks in the Philippines without getting sick, and I suddenly began to feel incredibly sick to my stomach…

The picture above is map of all the night establishments in Cebu, as investigated by Father Heinz.


Friday, September 5, 2008


Stepping off the plane into the sweaty heat of Manila many doors were suddenly opened to both Austin and me. I mean this in the most literal sense. In public as well as private places in Manila we can hardly open a door, throw away a banana peal, or pour a drink without several astonished Filipino looks wondering why on earth we find it so difficult to accept their polite assistance in everyday tasks. I’ve mentioned this phenomenon of magical opening doors for two reasons: First, and most important of all, I am most grateful for the generosity of our Filipino friends who are sharing their home and family with us. We’ve had two jam-packed days of loud family dinners, birthday parties and visits from relatives as evidenced by the awkward family pictures our host mom insists on including her two, 6 ft and pale white sons in. Second, outside the wonderful hospitality Austin and I have been coping with an uncomfortable dilemma in our attempts to explore an “authentic” neighborhood in metro Manila: it’s hard to find a way to safely and respectfully enter the slum areas of Manila to meet with some of the people affected by the organizations we have visited. For example, after we had a meeting with Gawad Kalinga Austin and I were troubled by the consequences of just walking into one of their project areas. Can we ignore our host family who does not feel comfortable letting us into those unsafe areas? Should we change into shoes and pants? How do we avoid being embarrassed if we are dropped off in a nice car in front of peoples homes just like a tourist attraction? After only several days in the Philippines it has become increasingly clear that downgrading our car, changing our clothes and assuring our host family of our safety will not be enough for us to simply walk into regular neighborhoods in Manila. We showed up on an international flight at the airport to visit the Philippines for vacation, that was indication enough to expect open doors at the malls and closed doors in the slums. Luckily we’ve meet some friends who have offered to show us their great work in communities all over metro Manila very soon!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

In the words of Ferris Bueller "The question isn't, 'What we are going to do,' the question is, 'What aren't we going to do?'"

Frequent questions...

On this Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008 at 1:20am Austin and I will depart San Francisco for the Philippines, our first stop on a three month trip around the world. For six months we've been planning day and night for a trip that we both agree seems to have no real plan. The basic idea, however, is that we will travel west, hitting Asia, Africa, Europe and finally South America to explore our personal interest in social entrepreneurship. In other words we're seeking out leaders and entrepreneurs who are making a difference in their communities with the help of basic business principles. One example of programs we are interested in visiting are the 10,000+ micro banks scattered on every continent. Maybe we'll just check out a few here and there :). Here are a few questions we've been asked frequently ...

How long will you be gone for? How many countries?
3+ Months. September 2nd until December 18th. Right now we've got 12 countries on our list. Check out the map in our blog to follow along.

Where will you be staying?
This depends (On how much planning we did per country). While in the Philippines we're planning on staying with a few generous families. After that we have little to no clue. Ideally we'd fine dirty hostels or friends along the way who may be willing to host us for a few nights.

Why now? Why at all?
Both Austin and I are interested in social entrepreneurship/economic development/micro finance as an "academic" topic but also as potential career paths someday. More than just amazing trip for a couple of college graduates we're really treating this trip like an educational experience and opportunity to do informal research about how entrepreneurs are providing life-changing services, and opportunities in the developing world.

How much are you packing?
Back packing. 3 pairs of underwear (1 fresh pair per month)

Our mother's question: Will you be safe?
More than likely. Austin has been training in ancient Chinese martial arts and I have been "bulking up" at the gym. We both have officially taken more immunization shots than shots at the HUT.