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La Vita Grassa

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Location: Aarhus, Denmark

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Maybe we should take a lesson from the "3rd World"

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stumbled, in great part, due to demands by congress that they make more loans available to low-income borrowers (see Herald Tribune, http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/10/05/business/fannie.php). They are called "risky borrowers" hailing from the "treacherous corners of the mortgage market". Maybe this label only applies relative to higher strata of American borrowers. When compared to many Bangladeshi or Mexican loan-seeking applicants, they might actually look quite attractive. Basic assumptions about the borrowers changes. For example: their familiarity with financial institutions, or indeed, handling money itself. Maybe these individuals could actually be successful borrowers under a lending scheme that catered more directly to their situations.

What I am driving at, is the suggestion that some principles from the Microfinance industry, (so popular among disenfranchised in the developing world) might apply. Mohammed Yunus, in his development of one of the first microcredit institutions in Bangladesh, recognized that the modern banking industry is geared toward the collateral-possessing, money-washed rich (or at least middle class). Typically, this process excludes the poorest sectors. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been the U.S. government's semi-private answer to this sector of Americans. However, these loans are still labeled "risky" or "treacherous".

But what makes them risky? Treating them like any other typical loan. A lending agency operates on the assumption that they must have good credit and/or collateral, and are well acquainted with savings, paying off previous expenditures or budgeting, for instance. Just the slightest touch of condescension is sprinkled into the conversation. Maybe this assumption should not be made. Could teaching tools, or a mentorship-type role make a difference? Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac certainly do not consider themselves educators, by any stretch of the imagination. For any bank in the U.S. to consider it their job to educate their clients, or mentor them sounds slightly ludicrious. But Mohammed Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in creating the international phenomenon of microlending, recognized the need to take a partner role in helping the poor dig themselves out of a deep, impoverished pit. He realized that neither traditional banking practices, nor loan-seeking applicant requirements would suit this sector.

Loans have to be engineered to help poor pay them off. This, in part, means minuscule but frequent repayments. The Grameen Bank has an astounding 98.08% repayment rate. Be reminded that all of their clients would fall far below the traditional borrower standards. Often initial loans amount to $50. The Bank puts borrowers in groups that became both a support-group, and social/financial pressure to keep their word, as each group member depends on, and suffers with each other. If one lender fails to make a payment, the group is responsible for her. Lenders visit borrowers in their homes, or in a community building weekly. They help individuals set goals, and have factored crisis into the system... providing a safety net for the realities of their borrowers' often tumultuous lives. A famine can wipe out an individual's entire possessions, or even the lives of family members. Fluctuations of a few pennies, in the world market prices for wheat can consume an individual's entire income, or wipe out their profits from crops. Few Americans - even the poorest sectors - feel the affects of such events as the rising price of wheat. For us it is a distant problem, but one that must be factored into the livelihood of the poor.

In America, the poorest sector right is obviously suffering from high petrol prices, and high (or "ballooning") interest rates on homes. Commuting to a low-paying job suddenly becomes financially unfeasible, and utility bills consume any discretionary spending left. Thousands more are literally losing the roofs over their heads. Under our banking system, the quiet mumbling is that these were "poor-credit, risky borrowers" to begin with. The solution, among our institutions, seems to be that the banking system should never have offered them loans. They are pitied, but no clear solutions are offered. A tax-refund handout, is an unsustainably petty attempt to correct their financial slide. The solution should be to see these borrowers as some middle-term group, hovering between credit-worthy, collateral-posessing borrowers; and the impoverished groups that need the attention of a microcredit institution to pull them out of the poverty cycle.

The Grameen Bank (Mr. Yunus' institution) has Sixteen Decisions that its borrowers must declare, in taking out a loan. These include such declarations (at once incredulously basic and visionary-idealistic) as "Prosperity we shall bring to our families", "We shall not live in dilapidated houses, we shall repair our houses...", "We shall grow vegetables all year round, we shall eat them and sell the surplus", "We shall keep our families small". These are necessary actions for this impoverished families. They would be ridiculous to require of the average CEO of an American company taking out another loan; some portions of them may not be so ridiculous for the poorest Americans. They speak to diet, maintaining one's home; providing and planning for one's family... valuable lessons.

We should take away the standard assumptions that loans operate on, and look at the unique situation of this bracket of borrowers. Credit, as Mohammed Yunus declares, should be a basic human right. The circumstances of providing that credit, however, should be tailored to varying income-brackets far beyond balance sheets and credit scores.

This terra cotta city..

The Priviledge

I am studying, as I mentioned before, at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (at the Bologna, Italy campus for the first year; DC for the second year). Five years ago, a recent graduate of Cedarville University, I was advised by a former professor/life mentor and good friend, Dr. Frank Jenista, to read the Foreign Affairs Journal to keep up with current events and the policy ideas floating around the international affairs arena. I took his advise to heart, and attempted to digest the bi-monthly journals. Often, at the bottom of the article, the by-line would read: Professor so-and-so from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. I decided that this was where I wanted complete my Masters degree. I was not at all certain if this decision would actually meet the reality of my little life in Cincinnati, but somehow, by God's blessing and direction, it has. The fact that I'm here is still incredible to me.

Yesterday, I sat in our first Macroeconomics course, under Dr. Anthony Elson. What better time to be studying macroeconomics, than when we can see the world tumbling into a financial crisis in real time? Not to be nonchalant about what is happening... the front-page news is rather horrifying. It is also a bit overwhelming to try to grasp all the nuances of how exchange-traded derivatives, or how the long-term effects of current US and European bank bail-outs are changing our modern financial markets. Taking a class under a senior consultant to the New Rules for Global Finance Coalition offers a little window into macroeconomic decisions that are being made. I just sat in class trying to soak up his every comment.

Sitting under the teaching here, is to sit under many of the great minds that are shaping American economic and foreign policy, or developing the current theories of international relations. Reading our first assigned articles this week, I kept discovering that the author is either a SAIS professor such as Francis Fukuyama (who famously declared the "End of History"after the fall of the Soviet Union) or Fouad Ajami (a great mind on US-Middle East relations) or that the author "just happens to be visiting from Harvard next week", as in the case of Stanley Hoffman, a prominent writer in the political sciences. One of our orientation presentations was by a Senior SAIS Fellow, John McLaughlin, the former Deputy Director and Acting Director of the CIA. He gave us big thoughts about what the next "age" of the world should be called. He shared tidbits about how decades ago the CIA used to fly rockets with cameras around the earth, taking thousands of pictures, and then trying to coordinate those photos being dropped in a box onto a passing aircraft... naturally failing dozens (or was it hundreds?) of times, before successfully recovering one of the little boxes of film. These are the little pieces of reality we glean from our teachers. Men and women who have shared in policy creation or the administration of U.S. Presidents.

To partake in this academic experience is fascinating; it is humbling. It is a priviledge. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, when I'm reading those same Foreign Affairs Journal articles as class assignments.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A little jaunt to Cinque Terre.. (again)

So I suppose I should be showing you photos of me pouring over the books, squirrled away in the library at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Bologna, Italy.

It's more fun to show what one does on the weekends ... hop, skip, and a jump over to Cinque Terre. I must say, one must feel truly blessed to visit Cinque Terre, Italy two times within a year's time, on separate trips.

The windswept chics beside me are (left to right) Heather Kauffman, Yumna Madi (my housemate!), and Lauren Consky. We became friends as a study group in DC, during four weeks' Microeconomics intensive pre-term. (Along with our dear friend, Roberto Pena, who also came to Italy).

For some (odd, but delightful) reason, Johns Hopkins decided to offer this graduate program as two separate years: the first overseas, the second in DC. Why not? So here I am. Classes begin in serio, this coming week. In the mean time, we are taking 5 hours/day of italian. (The courses are in English, not Italian.)

(The fall grape harvest has begun, they make their own brand of Cinque Terre wine which is delicious)

Yumna; eating our focaccia + pesto + cappuccino + strawberries for breakfast.

We left on a Friday evening, took a train for a few hours, dropped at La Spezia, where we were supposed to take a connecting train to one of the little Cinque Terre villages (actually a campground nearby). None of the trains appeared to be moving, however. There was a strike. It seems to be a hobby of most train personnel, as I experienced the same exact problems in Florence, heading to Cinque Terre last year.

(l to r: Lauren, Yumna, Jonathan, Joe, Heather)

So, we grabbed a hotel across from the train station. There just happened to be a festival in La Spezia that weekend, with performers throwing flames and swords into the air. The next morning, the only possible way to get to the five (cinque) little villages was to take a ferry. Oooh.. how miserable is this life of mine!

Mother Nature overlooking the sea...

In the first consecutive five minutes it rained, I bought an umbrella from a guy on the street. I opened it, the wind and rain puffed on it, and up it went, all the little plastic pieces breaking. The wisest 10Euros I've invested to date. Jonathan valiantly stood in the rain trying to fix it, but when we couldn't.. and the discovered all the little shops didnt' have trash cans "for umbrellas" I (er hum) left it the street.
The seas were rough, so we couldn't make it all the way to the villages, and had to stop in Porto Venere... it was cold, with blustering busts of rain to chill us. No matter, we warmed up in a castle hovering over the village.

The two little churches capping the hilltops were full of nuns, brides, bishops and sailors ... a slightly bizzare conglomeration.

Nuns strolling down the street is a common sight in Italy ...

A bride emerging to the sounds of church bells tolling, white doves alighting in the air, and clusters of tourists and guests huddled alll about.

Heather discovered a little snail on the trains between the villages ...

The girlies splashing around in the surf ..

Photos courtesy of Lauren Consky, Jonathan Vogan, and Heather Kauffman

Nine months interlude...

I am now a student at Johns Hopkins University, in Bologna, Italy. Nine months lie between my new life here and that ferry ride across the Straits of Gibraltar.

Those months were spent working at Play Mart, the family playground business ... including working with a great team certifying our playground equipment to meet international playground safety codes, analyzing the recycled content of our plastic lumber, making a short-film of how are playgrounds are made from milk jugs and giving tours, to name a few fun items. I also got to spend quality time that I dearly missed while in Morocco with my parents, siblings and little niece and nephew.

The whole crew: L-to-R, top row first: Nathan, Laura (his wife), me, Dawn (bottom row:) Priscilla, Gracia, Mom, Dad, Samuel, and Tabitha

This is Gracia, running away from her "aunties"

And little "mambo" aka Samuel

I also soaked up every minute I could spend at my parents' luxurious abode... we gardened and landscaped and potted flowers and cooked and watched movies and took strolls through the neighborhood or down to the lake. This was basically my life outside of work. A lovely interlude between "roughing it" in Morocco (if you can call my Peace Corps service that..) and an intense graduate school program.

My sister, Dawn, also happened to be transitioning from Virginia Beach at the same time I was there. We were able to reconnect as adults, having both lived in different places ever since she left for college in Texas.

Mom, Dad, Priss and I went to San Francisco one weekend in May on a whim. Priss wanted to move there, but it somehow didn't "click". Instead, she visited me last month in Washington DC (during pre-term, before I flew to Italy), fell in love with the place, and has already moved in with my friends!

Mom, Dad, Priss and I went to San Francisco one weekend in May on a whim.
Priss wanted to move there, but it somehow didn't "click".

Instead, she visited me last month in Washington DC (during pre-term, before I flew to Italy), fell in love with the place, and has already moved in with my friends until she gets established. Hopefully we'll live together next year when I return.

Like clockwork, one of my Cedarville friends gets married: every six months to a year. Always a perfect excuse to reunite. The problem: the group of ladies standing behind the bride, waiting to catch the bouquet of flowers has dwindled ... to me. The boys have almost caught up to the girls, so I'll have to decide if I'm going to keep us on schedule or remain the single friend who hops around the world, giving them a life to live vicariously.

Photos courtesy of Dennis Beach, Tabitha Beach, Dave Black

Thursday, April 10, 2008

After a long absence...

My few faithful readers (when encountered on rare occasion) have slyly hinted that "even a paragraph would be nice, you've been on that hiking trip for almost half a year now!" So, I shall write.

I finished Peace Corps December 1. It was bliss to goodbye to Peace Corps forever ;)

This is our group. Those who lasted two full years. Youth Development & Small Business.

Dancing out of Peace Corps

Don't misunderstand me. It was very hard to leave my little village of Agdz. As the time drew near, I became more hesitant and reluctant to walk away. How do you just say goodbye to a town you may never return to, in a little corner of the earth, and a family that has treated you as one of their own for all that time? I wept. My "family" wept. Most others braved goodbyes in stoic smiles. Or maybe I give too much credit to our attachments. And Peace Corps friends: our "Draa Valley Crew" as we called ourselves: April, Aaron, Mona, Jong, and Kate, had become very close. The goodbyes were painful. The happy thought with them, however, was that we both were, in our own time, returning to the other side of the ocean.

Couscous Lunch on the Peace Corps HG lawn with the Staff

There were certainly those (like my landlord, a man whose very face often swelled anger to my cheeks and tightened my fist) who I was glad to be rid of. My poor friend, Frank even got into a yelling match with him over arrangements in the last days.

We arranged for the local Korti (taxi manager) to come to my house and pick me up. As my friends stood around, waiting for me as I (literally) ran to the water office to sign the last set of paperwork, and one casually mentioned that I was on my way out, for good. They said a look of shock took over his face, and he turned to hide welling sadness. This is the goodness of people I was not even a friend to, but from whom I demanded the "two" front seats of every taxi so I didn't get car sick.

Drea was... just a little happy to be done.

Peace Corps was an experience unlike any other. I would have a hard time "doing it again", knowing all there was ahead of me this time. But if for no other reason than to understand some of the frustrations of people in a land much poorer than our own, it was worth it. Now, when I see a veiled woman, I will not be thinking of Al Qaeda, but instead I'll be reminded of my sisters in Morocco and how much I miss them.

So what am I doing now? I am home. Home is Somerset, Kentucky. I live with my parents. Oh what a funny ring that phrase has to it. :) I am the "Sustainability Specialist" at our family's company, Play Mart. I started work three days after arriving home. But don't pity me. I was eager to have a "real job" with a place to go, and a desk of my own, and a team to work with. I also wanted to be able to contribute to a company very much a part of our family's lives.

Our "official" stamping out ceremony.

In the interrum, however, my sister Priscilla (Miss Priss or Prissy), met me in Casablanca and we traveled like hurricanes for eleven days. Casablanca to Rabat, tearful goodbyes with Frank, Bob, Linda, and other friends. Then Fes, Chefchaouan, and Tangier. We ferried across to a little town near Gibraltar.

If you want a dramatic goodbye upon leaving a country, let me recommend the ferry. You walk on board, with all your belongings on your back, turn around and watch a country you have called home for two years slip off into the fog. It felt more tangible than flying away and plopping down at home.

Prissy standing against the Rabat coastline

This is us standing on the ferry with Tangiers behind us.

I'll save photos and stories for another post, but from Gibraltar we went to Granada, onto Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona, Montpelier, and ended in Paris. Priss's birthday was December 7. We had cocktails in three different cities (Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona) on her birthday. Not that I would recommend that pace of travel...

....to be continued.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Rock Climbing! Todra & Dades Gorges

I brought rock climbing shoes to Morocco. After two years I finally got to use them. If you like nature, I recommend going to both the Todra and Dades Gorges (between Ouarzazate and Errachidia).

Let's go...!

Ropes snaking up the cliff...

And that little white speck? Yes, that's me. Actually the routes I climbed were pretty easy, but it was my first climb in two years so I didn't push too hard... Ah I missed climbing!

Hassan was a great climbing guide. He would even scramble up the faces shoeless.

Majid set the routes and belayed for me ... such a happy fellow

My good friend: the resident nature-lover and camera man.. Frank Sposito.

Photosynthesis in living color

Dades Gorges.. if not high-walled, much more extensive and beautiful. God's works of art.

The little bridge that could..

Passing on the baton..

(Mona - Antoine's Youth Development replacement, Me and Kate)

Kate F. has been chosen as my replacement volunteer. I met her during one of the several sessions I was invited to facilitate at the Stage training site (near Agdz). The sessions gave me the opportunity to talk about my various projects and activities. Kate approached me one afternoon and said that she had a background in IT and marketing. The typing, brochure and Excel classes looked interesting to her. As did finding ways to market our pilot Hammock project. We talked to Tariq, the assistant Program Manager and he said he would consider our request. (Older volunteers often appreciate the opportunity to 'scope out' the new Stages, looking for a potential good match to their work/sites.) Kate and I were blessed: she was assigned to Agdz!

We've spent this week wandering around meeting families, stopping in at the Neddi, dreaming up ideas of how to improve or market the hammock, going to the weekly Souq, or sitting at a cafe and just sharing ideas and my history of work here. It is very good to have a solid week to work together and introduce her to key community members. Instead of her walking in completely ignorant as I did two years ago, with a rather unhelpful (and often inaccurate sheet of paper), she'll already have a number of good conversations (via Raja as translator) with girls whom she'll begin to teach English or Nadia, my host sister, who will become her informal counterpart. Tomorrow's schedule:

9AM: Work with Nadia in redrafting her quarterly reports in Excel (on a new computer)

11:30AM: Introduce Mona and Kate to the the local Caid (like a mayor)

12:30: Break for lunch (so I can do laundry, etc.)

2:30: Go to the douar and meet the Ben Mammas (artisan) family, the bamboo-furniture family, and the Badu family (Antoine's old host family, and whose father happens to be the local Sheikh, also on her list to meet).

4:30: Return to my house for a brochure class with Zahra, one of the eager Neddi girls who started a brochure with me over the summer. Either she or I haven't been around to finish it, and now she has great ideas to make a brochure advertising Agdz as a whole. She is very sharp and creative and I hope Kate, in time, can carry on her training and possibly turn this into some sort of occupation.

My emotions have been running a little high, having to say goodbye to very dear friends such as Frank or April or my host family (yesterday my host mother and I, trying to plan our last few weeks - realizing our days together are dwindling- looked at each other and burst into tears). There are many special families and girls and teachers that I have spent countless hours with over the past two years. I was also hoping to finish my graduate school applications before leaving, but as it is, I do not think time or mental energy will allow before I fly out of Morocco. And Close-of-Service paperwork for Peace Corps. And packing all my things and deciding who gets what, and if I should sell my laptop. And buying my last souvenirs. And picking up the special cut of a particular wood piece for local craftsmen to create spreaders for the hammock.

Over the last weeks a couple of other volunteers have approached me concerning various projects I was involved in. One girl is interested in taking up the shipping survey project, and hopefully lobbying the Ministry for rural shipping services. Another emailed to ask my impression of her site, as I recommended it from the April workshops and helped develop it over the summer with Tariq. She also noticed photos of me at the Zagora craft fair and said her specialty is exhibitions. Maybe she'll plan the next big craft fair in the region.

It is a very refreshing feeling to pass on knowledge capital, regional contacts, projects, and future hopes to new faces; to pour my experience and impressions into them and let them take these and run with them. Kate, at every turn over the past couple days, has exclaimed how much she likes Agdz and is enthusiastic about the projects I have kicked up. She has many creative ideas of her own and a good business head. Hopefully, however, I can continue to assist her and Nadia from the States with marketing hammocks once the prototype is complete. But in a few weeks I will walk away and Agdz will no longer be my little village, but hers.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Figuig at the edge of the world.. (The Algerian Border)

A couple weeks ago I was invited to participate in a survey-tallying and website development project in Figuig. Bob and Linda, the wonderful couple that Frank and I hiked Toubkal with, thought it was an excellent opportunity for a reunion of the foursome.

On the drive out to Figuig, we noticed adorably grubby little children, or women strapped with many bundles clapping their hands to get off the bus in the absolute middle-of-nowhere. All we could see was rocks dotting the flat, dry desert floor and mountain ridges lining both our north and south views. And off they wandered. Where were they going??? Occasionally we would catch glimpse of a tent far off in the distance. They were nomads.

Bob said that some men in Figuig are what he likes to call "weekend warriors". They have homes in Figuig and jobs during the week. But on the weekends, they take off across the desert and roam with the nomads.

Figuig is basically a peninsula oasis jutting into Algeria. The borders between Algeria and Figuig are currently closed. Mountains surround the peninsula, but the forbidden neighbor is clearly visible between mountain ranges. One evening Frank and I took a walk to the actual border gate. It was dusk, and being during the month of Ramadan, all the guards were occupied indoors, stuffing their faces after fasting all day. We entertained the idea of making a dash to the other side.

Frank has been working for months on a brilliant website structure that artisan groups can then tailor without using any HTML. I had discussed my shipping services survey project at the In-Service Training (Agadir, June '07) and Bob and Linda were very interested in conducting a similar survey in Figuig. When we arrived, they had already passed out over a hundred surveys with tourists and ex-patriots home on summer vacation. The surveys were geared to determine how interested the Figuig ex-pat community abroad (in France, Spain, etc.) would be in a Figuig Artisana website. It would then give them a solid idea of what features were important for the websites' most likely visitors.

Bob and Linda obviously had done their homework. They had a sizable grant available to the artisana for a complete technology upgrade/website development. We held meetings to discuss responsibilities for establishing a website, to explain to them how to develop a color scheme and structure for the website, etc. Their counterpart is a highly-educated, sharp and motivated man who genuinely seems to want to help the artisans who frequent the center. We tested out a wireless Internet system and showed him Frank's prototype (being developed for his Erfoudi Fossil workers, Manar Marble). The brilliance comes in his efforts to make it easy to upload photos, make product categories or manage personnel in a background database. Once set up, any artisan can quickly be taught how to upload a photo, name it, crop it, and organize it's location without knowing any computer programming languages. (Like my blog site.) The association could instantly make business cards or a contact list from the inherent SQL database. He has been working for months on the project, incorporating seven computer languages into the website.

In between meetings or survey data-entry and analysis, we took bike rides in the palmary. I (to be clear) am very partial to Agdz's palmary, but their intricately woven cobblestone alleyways weaving through mud-walled villages and palm plots was captivating.

Algeria, visible between the mountains

Another day, all four of us went on a bike ride around the seven villages that make up Figuig. We counted 14 mosques from the rock outcrop. At dusk, the valley was filled with overlapping wails: calling men to prayer.

Bob and Linda: a great team and great company

Linda and I

It looked like a giant sandbox with little toy car tracks scraped through the sand

Frank and I

All photos taken by Frank Sposito