Archive for the ‘Kiva’ Category

Nocera and Bruni

September 3, 2013

In “Fighting Poverty, and Critics” Mr. Nocera says Jeffrey Sachs is trying to help villages in Africa, but is his work making a difference?  If you have $25 and want to make a difference make a loan at Kiva.  Mr. Bruni, in “Traveling Without Seeing,” says in our digital cocoons, we go everywhere and nowhere.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Nina Munk’s new book, “The Idealist,” is about the well-known economist Jeffrey Sachs and his “quest to end poverty,” as the subtitle puts it. I know: That subtitle sounds like classic book-industry hyperbole, but, in this case, it’s not. That really is what Sachs has been trying to do. The question of whether or not he is succeeding is where things get tricky.

The quest began in 2005, when Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, started an ambitious program called the Millennium Villages Project. He and his team chose a handful of sub-Saharan African villages, where they imposed a series of “interventions” in such areas as agriculture, health and education. The idea was that these villages would show Africa — and the world — how the continent could loosen the grip that extreme poverty had on so many of its people.

From the start, the Millennium Villages Project has been controversial. It has soaked up large sums of money — the original seed money was $120 million — which its critics believe could have been better used on more targeted, less grandiose forms of aid. Because Sachs, for years, refused — on ethical grounds, he said — to rigorously compare the results at his villages with villages that didn’t get the same kind of help, development experts complained that there was no way of knowing if the project was making a difference.

“There is zero scientific evidence that the Millennium Villages Project is meetings its goals,” says Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a leading Sachs critic. Sachs, for his part, insists that the Millennium Villages Project has been a roaring success, so much so that its interventions are now being imitated — “scaled up” — in nations like Uganda, with full government support.

It is not quite right to say that Nina Munk has sidestepped the dispute between Sachs and his critics. Mainly, though, she has looked at the Millennium Villages Project through a different lens. She has spent the last half-dozen years traveling back and forth to Africa, to see for herself how the Sachs experiment was unfolding. She focused in particular on two villages: Dertu, Kenya, and Ruhiira, Uganda.

“Jeff is a charismatic man, and I wanted to believe in him,” Munk told me recently. (She and I overlapped at Fortune for several years.) She is quick to give him credit where it is due: for instance, his passionate advocacy for free distribution of insecticide-coated bed nets, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, is an important reason that the scourge of malaria is being reduced. But her reporting also caused her to become disillusioned, and humbled, by the difficulties that any Western aid effort is likely to encounter.

With almost every intervention, she documents the chasm that exists between the villagers and those running the project. At one point, the Millennium Villages Project persuades the farmers in Ruhiira to grow maize instead of their traditional crop, called matoke. “The results were fantastic,” she reports, a bumper crop. Except there were no buyers for the maize, so most of it wound up being eaten by rats. In Dertu, Sachs’s staff decided it should set up a livestock market. It flopped. Efforts to convince villagers to start small businesses largely failed. The critical problem of getting clean water to the villages was enormously expensive.

Ultimately, reports Munk, Dertu was abandoned by the Millennium Villages Project while Ruhiira is today lauded as one of the project’s most successful villages. “There is no question the lives of people in Ruhiira have been improved,” Munk told me. “I’ve seen it.” But she is dubious about what that means — other than the fact that if you pump millions of dollars into an isolated African village, the villagers’ lives will be better. (Sachs’s defenders say that most of her reporting was done before the project really found its footing.)

And there’s the rub. Sachs has always aimed higher than helping a handful of villages. He wants to put his imprint on all of Africa. When I spoke to him recently, he claimed that is exactly what has been happening, thanks to more than $100 million in loans from the Islamic Development Bank. But when I looked at the press release announcing the “scale up” in Uganda, the money involved was less than $10 million — a pittance, really, and unlikely to transform the country.

That things in Africa are getting better is undeniable. Child mortality is down, as is the number of people living in extreme poverty. In his book, “Emerging Africa,” Steve Radalet, the former chief economist for the United States Agency for International Development, gives credit to such factors as more democratic governments, a new class of civil servants and businesspeople, and sounder economic policies. Sachs, on the other hand, wants us to believe that the main driver has been the Millennium Villages Project, which has shown the way.

“The Idealist” makes it tough to believe it’s the latter.

Next up we have Mr. Bruni, writing from Shanghai:

I’m half a world from home, in a city I’ve never explored, with fresh sights and sounds around every corner. And what am I doing?

I’m watching exactly the kind of television program I might watch in my Manhattan apartment.

Before I left New York, I downloaded a season of “The Wire,” in case I wanted to binge, in case I needed the comfort. It’s on my iPad with a slew of books I’m sure to find gripping, a bunch of the music I like best, issues of favorite magazines: a portable trove of the tried and true, guaranteed to insulate me from the strange and new.

I force myself to quit “The Wire” after about 20 minutes and I venture into the streets, because Baltimore’s drug dealers will wait and Shanghai’s soup dumplings won’t. But I’m haunted by how tempting it was to stay put, by how easily a person these days can travel the globe, and travel through life, in a thoroughly customized cocoon.

I’m not talking about the chain hotels or chain restaurants that we’ve long had and that somehow manage to be identical from time zone to time zone, language to language: carbon-copy refuges for unadventurous souls and stomachs.

I’m talking about our hard drives, our wired ways, “the cloud” and all of that. I’m talking about our unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.

This coddling involves more than earphones, touch pads, palm-sized screens and gigabytes of memory. It’s a function of how so many of us use this technology and how we let it use us. We tune out by tucking ourselves into virtual enclaves in which our ingrained tastes are mirrored and our established opinions reflected back at us.

In theory the Internet, along with its kindred advances, should expand our horizons, speeding us to aesthetic and intellectual territories we haven’t charted before. Often it does.

But at our instigation and with our assent, it also herds us into tribes of common thought and shared temperament, amplifying the timeless human tropism toward cliques. Cyberspace, like suburbia, has gated communities.

Our Web bookmarks and our chosen social-media feeds help us retreat deeper into our partisan camps. (Cable-television news lends its own mighty hand.) “It’s the great irony of the Internet era: people have more access than ever to an array of viewpoints, but also the technological ability to screen out anything that doesn’t reinforce their views,” Jonathan Martin wrote in Politico last year, explaining how so many strategists and analysts on the right convinced themselves, in defiance of polls, that Mitt Romney was about to win the presidency.

But this sort of echo chamber also exists on cultural fronts, where we’re exhorted toward sameness and sorted into categories. The helpful video-store clerk or bookstore owner has been replaced, refined, automated: we now have Netflix suggestions for what we should watch next, based on what we’ve watched before, and we’re given Amazon prods for purchasing novels that have been shown to please readers just like us. We’re profiled, then clustered accordingly.

By joining particular threads on Facebook and Twitter, we can linger interminably on the one or two television shows that obsess us. Through music-streaming services and their formulas for our sweet spots, we meet new bands that might as well be reconfigurations of the old ones. Algorithms lead us to anagrams.

I keep thinking about a widely circulated speech that the movie director Steven Soderbergh gave earlier this year. He recounted a flight he’d taken from New York to California and the way a nearby passenger had been using an iPad. “I begin to realize that what he’s done is he’s loaded in half a dozen sort of action extravaganzas and he’s watching each of the action sequences,” Soderbergh said. “This guy’s flight is going to be five and a half hours of just mayhem porn.”

Soderbergh was mainly lamenting the endangered appreciation of real storytelling and character development. But there’s an additional moral to his story. As his fellow flier traversed an entire continent, he used a device capable of putting a galaxy of information within reach to collapse the universe into one redundant experience, one sustained note, a well-worn groove also known as a rut. There he happily spun his wheels.

I say that as someone who has too frequently spun his own, clutching my smartphone, looking down instead of up, tap-tap-tapping, maintaining unbroken contact with the usual suspects and entertainment and ideas. But I try to resist, because trading serendipity for safety is a raw deal in the end. There’s a skyline in Shanghai unlike any I’ve seen. Who knows what other discoveries are in store?

Kristof and Collins

December 6, 2012

Mr. Kristof has his annual gift column today.  In “Gifts That Change Lives” he says if you are looking for ways to say Happy Holidays that are noble and truly make a difference, he lists some little-known organizations doing meaningful work.  I’d also ask that you consider Kiva.  I’ve been making loans for years.  In “Santorum Strikes Again” Ms. Collins has good news, people! Thanks to a big Senate vote this week, now we know what happened to Rick Santorum.  There are some things that I’d just as soon NOT know, but if she insists on telling us…  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Looking for an unusual holiday gift? How about a $60 trio of rabbits to a family in Haiti in the name of someone special? Bunnies raise a farming family’s income because they, well, reproduce like rabbits — six litters a year! Heifer International arranges the gift on its Web site (heifer.org).

Or for $52 you can buy your uncle something more meaningful than a necktie: send an Afghan girl to school for a year in his name, through the International Rescue Committee (rescue.org).

Yes, it’s time for my annual holiday-giving guide. The question I most often get from readers is “what can I do?” This column is an answer. As in past years, I’m highlighting small organizations because you’re less likely to know about them.

Shining Hope for Communities (shininghopeforcommunities.org) was started by Kennedy Odede, a slum-dweller in Nairobi, Kenya, who taught himself to read. A visiting American gave him a book on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and it inspired Odede to organize local residents to fight against social injustice — particularly sexual violence, because his 16-year-old sister had just been raped.

Odede now runs an outstanding girls’ school in the heart of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, along with a clinic, a water and sanitation program, and job training classes. That slum school is one of the most hopeful places I’ve ever visited.

After I wrote about Shining Hope in 2011, Times readers contributed $180,000, leading to a huge expansion so that Shining Hope (mostly through the clinic) now serves some 36,000 people. Another nearby slum, Mathare, has invited Odede to start a girls’ school there if he can find the resources.

Dr. Hawa Abdi (vitalvoices.org/hawafund) runs a hospital, school and refugee camp in war-torn Somalia. She became an obstetrician-gynecologist partly because her mother had died in childbirth, and she has focused on helping rural Somali women.

The land around her 400-bed hospital, outside of Mogadishu, has become an encampment serving up to 90,000 people made homeless by war. Hawa has provided water, health care and education, and when students transfer to Mogadishu they are up to three grades ahead of children there. Hawa also is battling female genital mutilation, and she runs a jail for men who beat their wives.

An extremist Muslim militia with 750 soldiers attacked the hospital two years ago, saying that it was against religion for a woman to run anything substantial. Hawa stood up to the attackers and — because ordinary Somalis sided with her — she was able to force the militia to back down. Then she made the militia write her an apology!

Yet Hawa’s hospital and school are struggling financially. Vital Voices, a Washington organization supporting women’s rights, has set up a tax-deductible mechanism to keep Hawa’s work going.

Polaris Project (polarisproject.org) is a leader in the fight against human trafficking in the United States. One of its most important projects is a nationwide hot line, with interpreters on standby for 176 languages, for anyone who sees people who may be trafficked. It’s (888) 373-7888. This year alone, Polaris says, it has helped more than 3,200 victims get services through the hot line.

Polaris, based in Washington, has also been a powerful advocate for tougher laws around the country — those that target pimps rather than just the girls who are their victims. Polaris says that this year alone it has helped 17 states pass laws on human trafficking. And Polaris has supported nearly 500 trafficking survivors as they start new lives.

Fair Girls (fairgirls.org) is also based in Washington and fights sex trafficking at home and abroad. Its founder, Andrea Powell, braves dangerous streets and disgusting Web sites for hours in search of girls enslaved in the sex trade, and she is fearless about confronting pimps and prying girls from their grasp.

Earlier this year, I wrote about one of the trafficking survivors Fair Girls has helped: Alissa, the street name of a Boston girl whose cheek is scarred where a pimp gouged her with a potato peeler as a warning not to run away. Alissa ultimately testified against her pimps and sent them to prison. Now, with Powell’s mentoring, she is helping other girls escape that life as well.

Fair Girls also trains trafficking survivors to make jewelry, which makes nice gifts and is available on the group’s Web site.

                                                                                  •

Another possible gift: tell a university student to apply for my annual win-a-trip contest! I’m hereby announcing the contest for 2013: I’ll take a university student, undergraduate or graduate, with me on a reporting trip to Africa next summer. Together we’ll shine a light on neglected issues. Information about how to apply is on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground, and thanks again to the Center for Global Development in Washington for helping me choose a winner.

Now here’s Ms. Collins, who insists on telling us about the Frothy Mixture:

Lately, you’ve probably been asking: “What ever happened to Rick Santorum? The guy who ran for president in the sweater vest? The one who compared homosexuality to bestiality and did 50 push-ups every morning?” It’s certainly been on my mind.

Santorum is still in there swinging. Lately, he’s been on a crusade against a dangerous attempt by the United Nations to help disabled people around the world. This week, he won! The Senate refused to ratify a U.N. treaty on the subject. The vote, which fell five short of the necessary two-thirds majority, came right after 89-year-old Bob Dole, the former Republican leader and disabled war veteran, was wheeled into the chamber to urge passage.

“We did it,” Santorum tweeted in triumph.

Well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

The rejected treaty, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is based on the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark law Dole co-sponsored. So, as Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts kept pointing out during the debate, this is a treaty to make the rest of the world behave more like the United States. But Santorum was upset about a section on children with disabilities that said: “The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

“This is a direct assault on us and our family!” he said at a press conference in Washington.

O.K.

The hard right has a thing about the United Nations. You may remember that the senator-elect from Texas, Ted Cruz, once railed that a 20-year-old nonbinding United Nations plan for sustainable development posed a clear and present threat to American golf courses.

The theory about the treaty on the disabled is that the bit about “best interests of the child” could be translated into laws prohibiting disabled children from being home-schooled. At his press conference, Santorum acknowledged that wasn’t in the cards. But he theorized that someone might use the treaty in a lawsuit “and through the court system begin to deny parents the right to raise their children in conformity with what they believe.”

If I felt you were actually going to worry about this, I would tell you that the Senate committee that approved the treaty included language specifically forbidding its use in court suits. But, instead, I will tell you about own my fears. Every day I take the subway to work, and I use a fare card that says “subject to applicable tariffs and conditions of use.” What if one of those conditions is slave labor? Maybe the possibility of me being grabbed at the turnstile and carted off to a salt mine isn’t in the specific law, but what if a bureaucrat somewhere in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to interpret it that way?

No one should have to live in fear of forced labor in the salt mine just because she bought a fare card at the Times Square subway station! I want some action on this matter, and I am writing to my senator right away.

But about the U.N. treaty.

In the Capitol this week, disabled Americans lobbied for ratification, arguing, among other things, that it could make life easier for them when they travel. Since more than 125 countries have already signed onto the treaty, there will certainly be pressure to improve accessibility to buses, restrooms and public buildings around the globe. It would be nice if the United States was at the table, trying to make sure the international standards were compatible with the ones our disabled citizens learn to handle here at home.

But, no, the senators were worried about the home-school movement. Or a boilerplate mention in the treaty of economic, social and cultural rights that Senator Mike Lee of Utah claimed was “part of a march toward socialism.”

At least some of them were. There would almost certainly have been plenty of votes to approve the treaty if the Republicans had felt free to think for themselves. The “no” votes included a senator who had voted for the treaty in committee, a senator who had sent out a press release supporting the treaty and a senator who actually voted “aye” and then switched when it was clear the treaty was going down anyway. Not to mention a lot of really depressed-looking legislators.

The big worry was, of course, offending the Tea Party. The same Tea Party that pounded Mitt Romney into the presidential candidate we came to know and reject over the past election season. The same Tea Party that keeps threatening to wage primaries against incumbents who don’t do what they’re told. The Tea Party who made those threats work so well in the last election that Indiana now has a totally unforeseen Democratic senator.

The threat the Republicans need to worry about isn’t in the United Nations.

Everyone knows that the UN is going to come with black helicopters and storm troopers to steal all our golfs and lock us up in high-rise ghettos.  Just ask Glenn Beck…

Kristof and Stewart

March 27, 2007

Today it’s Rory Stewart saying we must acknowledge our limits of power and knowledge in Iraq and Afghanistan and concentrate on what is achievable.  Wishful thinking…  Nicholas Kristof tells us a way to help fight poverty by becoming a microfinancier.  Here’s Rory Stewart:

We must acknowledge the limits of our power and knowledge in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and concentrate on what is achievable. The question is not “What ought we to do?” but “What can we do?”

This is rarely discussed. When I ask politicians whether we can defeat the Taliban, they reply that we “have to” defeat the Taliban. If I ask whether we can actually do any good by staying in Iraq, they reply that we have “a moral obligation” to the Iraqi people.

By emphasizing moral necessity, politicians can justify almost any risk, uncertainty or sacrifice and make compromise seem cowardly and criticism treasonous. When I suggest recognition of Moktada al-Sadr or negotiation with the Taliban, I am described as an appeaser. But these moral judgments are fragile, and they increasingly cloak despair, paralysis and preparation for flight.

We are learning, painfully, that many of the problems in Iraq or Afghanistan — from violence and state failure to treatment of women — are deeply embedded in local beliefs, political structures and traumatic histories. Iraqis and Afghans do not want their country controlled by foreigners and non-Muslims. A powerful and effective minority is trying to kill us. The majority is at best lukewarm: they may dislike Sadrists or the Taliban, but they prefer them to us.

We are also now aware how little we can comprehend. Our officials are on short tours, lack linguistic or cultural training, live in barracks behind high blast walls and encounter the local population through angry petitions or sudden ambushes. We will never acquire the subtle sense of values, beliefs and history needed to create lasting changes, still less as we once intended, to lead a political, social and economic revolution.

Paul Bremer, then the top American administrator in Iraq, told us in October 2003 that we had six months to computerize the Baghdad stock exchange, privatize state-owned enterprises and reform the university curriculum. Now he would be grateful for stability. The American and British people have sensed that their grand objectives are unachievable, and since no one is offering any practical alternative, they are lapsing into cynicism and opposition.

Meanwhile the paralyzed leaders, afraid of their impotence, flit from troop increases to flight, from engagement to isolation. We must prevent this by acknowledging our limits, while recognizing that although we are less powerful and informed than we claimed, we are more powerful and informed than we fear.

A year ago, for example, I felt it would be almost impossible to help re-establish ceramics, woodwork and calligraphy and restore part of the old city of Kabul. I worried that Afghans were uninterested, the standards too low, the prices too high, the government apathetic and international demand nonexistent. But I found great Afghan energy, courage and skill and received imaginative and generous support from the U.S. government. Unexpected markets emerged; the Afghan administration helped; men and women found new pride and incomes. There are many much better established and more successful projects than this all over Afghanistan.

My experience suggests that we can continue to protect our soil from terrorist attack, we can undertake projects that prevent more people from becoming disaffected, and we can even do some good. In short, we will be able to do more, not less, than we are now. But working with what is possible requires humility and the courage to compromise.

We will have to focus on projects that Iraqis and Afghans demand; prioritize and set aside moral perfectionism; work with people of whom we don’t approve; and choose among lesser evils. We will have to be patient. We should aim to stop illegal opium growth and change the way that Iraqis or Afghans treat their women. But we will not achieve this in the next three years. We may never be able to build a democratic state in Iraq or southern Afghanistan. Trying to do so through a presence based on foreign troops creates insurgency and resentment and can only end in failure.

“You are saying,” the politician replies, “that we ought to sit back and do nothing.” On the contrary I believe we can do a great deal. But ought implies can. We have no moral obligation to do what we cannot do.

Rory Stewart’s latest book is “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.” He runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and is a guest columnist this month.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

For those readers who ask me what they can do to help fight poverty, one option is to sit down at your computer and become a microfinancier.

That’s what I did recently. From my laptop in New York, I lent $25 each to the owner of a TV repair shop in Afghanistan, a baker in Afghanistan, and a single mother running a clothing shop in the Dominican Republic. I did this through www.kiva.org, a Web site that provides information about entrepreneurs in poor countries — their photos, loan proposals and credit history — and allows people to make direct loans to them.

So on my arrival here in Afghanistan, I visited my new business partners to see how they were doing.

On a muddy street in Kabul, Abdul Satar, a bushy-bearded man of 64, was sitting in the window of his bakery selling loaves for 12 cents each. He was astonished when I introduced myself as his banker, but he allowed me to analyze his business plan by sampling his bread: It was delicious.

Mr. Abdul Satar had borrowed a total of $425 from a variety of lenders on Kiva.org, who besides me included Nathan in San Francisco, David in Rochester, N.Y., Sarah in Waltham, Mass., Nate in Fort Collins, Colo.; Cindy in Houston, and “Emily’s family” in Santa Barbara, Calif.

With the loan, Mr. Abdul Satar opened a second bakery nearby, with four employees, and he now benefits from economies of scale when he buys flour and firewood for his oven. “If you come back in 10 years, maybe I will have six more bakeries,” he said.

Mr. Abdul Satar said he didn’t know what the Internet was, and he had certainly never been online. But Kiva works with a local lender affiliated with Mercy Corps, and that group finds borrowers and vets them.

The local group, Ariana Financial Services, has only Afghan employees and is run by Storai Sadat, a dynamic young woman who was in her second year of medical school when the Taliban came to power and ended education for women. She ended up working for Mercy Corps and becoming a first-rate financier; some day she may take over Citigroup.

“Being a finance person is better than being a doctor,” Ms. Sadat said. “You can cure the whole family, not just one person. And it’s good medicine — you can see them get better day by day.”

Small loans to entrepreneurs are now widely recognized as an important tool against poverty. Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his pioneering work with microfinance in Bangladesh.

In poor countries, commercial money lenders routinely charge interest rates of several hundred percent per year. Thus people tend to borrow for health emergencies rather than to finance a new business. And partly because poor people tend to have no access to banks, they also often can’t save money securely.

Microfinance institutions typically focusing on lending to women, to give them more status and more opportunities. Ms. Sadat’s group does lend mostly to women, but it’s been difficult to connect some female borrowers with donors on Kiva — because many Afghans would be horrified at the thought of taking a woman’s photograph, let alone posting on the Internet.

My other partner in Kabul is Abdul Saboor, who runs a small TV repair business. He used the loan to open a second shop, employing two people, and to increase his inventory of spare parts. “I used to have to go to the market every day to buy parts,” he said, adding that it was a two-and-a-half-hour round trip. “Now I go once every two weeks.”

Web sites like Kiva are useful partly because they connect the donor directly to the beneficiary, without going through a bureaucratic and expensive layer of aid groups in between. Another terrific Web site in this area is www.globalgiving.com, which connects donors to would-be recipients. The main difference is that GlobalGiving is for donations, while Kiva is for loans.

A young American couple, Matthew and Jessica Flannery, founded Kiva after they worked in Africa and realized that a major impediment to economic development was the unavailability of credit at any reasonable cost.

“I believe the real solutions to poverty alleviation hinge on bringing capitalism and business to areas where there wasn’t business or where it wasn’t efficient,” Mr. Flannery said. He added: “This doesn’t have to be charity. You can partner with someone who’s halfway around the world.”

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.

I am SO glad he’s bringing Kiva to the forefront.  I have four loans out now.  This is an amazing organization — please visit their site and just see if you don’t find someone to help.


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