Monday, May 3, 2010

cookie eater

"oh my gosh i love thin mints! you know what else is good? samoas. you know what i like to do with thin mints? put them in the freezer."

-every single person i've offered a girl scout cookie

Monday, April 19, 2010

lucretia, alternative menstruator

In honor of Earth Week, the story of one girl who stared the menstrual industrial complex straight in the face...and blinked. (The Leader and Most Trusted & Recognized Name In the Menstrual Cup Industry) explains:

Simple to use, both The Moon Cup and The Keeper are innovative feminine hygiene products that are worn internally, freeing women from dependency on cumbersome, uncomfortable, expensive, paper-based products. Economical, efficient, comfortable, and environment-friendly, reusable menstrual cups are attractive alternatives to other feminine hygiene products.

Lucretia, a good friend for years, was a hardcore Keeper user until an incident in a yoga class made her reconsider. Hysterization of women's bodies? More like hysterical.

Tell me about yoga today.
Well, it was my first class in three weeks so I was a little nervous. My hamstrings were tight. And then my keeper turned upside down halfway through class.

So that was hot.

How does that happen?
I have no idea! It's only supposed to happen if you have an orgasm or something dramatic happens in there, to make it shift.

Were you being overdramatic about your love of yoga? What were you doing when it flipped?
Well, I was in downward dog split, which is when your hands and one leg are on the ground and the other leg is in the air, and I felt it go upside down and then it felt like my water broke.

Did you try to squeeze and stop it mid turn? Like, I guess, the Titanic?
Yep, except it was warmer than in Titanic.

Have you been slacking on your kegels?
Did you ever see that Family Guy where Stewie says to the prostitute, "so is there any tread left on the tires, or would it be like throwing a hot dog down a hallway at this point?"

Anyway, that is not to suggest that I did anything to bring this upon myself. It was very traumatic and I had to jump over all these people and get up and run out and it made a LOUD NOISE.

Well so it flipped over and spilled?

Are we talking a lot of blood?

When was the last time you had emptied your keeper?
Probably about 12 hours previous. Which is fine? I’d say that’s like a shot and a half. I’m bad with volumes.

I had to book it to the bathroom to stanch the flow. Pun intended. It was terrible. My pants are ruined and I'm going to have to find a new yoga studio.

When you ran to the bathroom did the other people in the yoga class notice?
I was in the back of the yoga studio, so I had to jump over people to get to the bathroom you have to go out of the one studio and down a hall past the other studios and past the reception, and it making noise the whole time.

Were you Hansel and Gretel'ing the whole way? Wait, what was making noise?
The spilling keeper was making noise!

Like what kind of noise?
Umm like a queef plus dysentery, if you catch my drift.

So you ruined the Zen.
Oh definitely.

What did you do once you got to the bathroom?
Well so I’m in the yoga bathroom and I am checking things out. It’s a disaster. I was going to wait for Lindsay to be done because she was still in the class. But then I realized my pants and clothes and everything were in my bag in the studio. So I had to go back in and get the bag while they were in shavasana which is the like total silence relaxation pose, so it was really obvious and awkward. And you're REALLY not supposed to go in during it.

People definitely noticed something and those people who know I just back from Nicaragua probably thought I had some crazy intestinal parasite

So then you change and leave?
Yeah, I text Lindsay to call me after class so I can explain

Wait is this bad bad Lindsay Brown?
I guess?

Still single?
How is that related?

When you got home, did you clean your keeper and put it back in?
Fuck no. I'm done with that shit. It’s all bleached tampons for me from now on. Unrecycled.

Why were you using the keeper in the first place? How long had you been using it?
Environmental concerns, plus it made my period shorter and lessened my cramps. I’d been using it around a year.

And everything had gone swimmingly?
Yes, especially swimming!

You would have recommended it to other people?
A small leak here or there but nothing major. Yeah I was a complete evangelist about it

And now would you discourage?
I’d discourage physically active people from it, or at least suggest they have backup. I mean, if you're sitting on your ass all day it doesn't matter.

Does yoga count as physical activity?
Don’t be a jackass.

But so isn't the environment still around and wouldn't it still shorten your period?
Yeah but it's totally inconvenient. I have to be honest and say I care less about the environment than about bleeding all over myself in a public place

Maybe you should just keep using the keeper for everyday stuff and then before physical activity change in a reusable, washable cloth pad.
Period advice from a man. As if.

In college we used to run an annual workshop for Earth Week called Alternative Menstruation. Matt Evinger and I sewed a reusable cloth pads.
Oh fuck you guys, that’s gross. I don't support that. You don't have the right to tell women how to deal with their bodies

Alright alright. Are we done? Did I get it all?
Yes, you got it all. Unlike the keeper.

Friday, November 21, 2008

gmail themes survey

This chat is off the record Learn more Cancel

me: which gmail theme are you using?
Ryan: tea house
me: zoo zimp
Ryan: yeah you would.
I like the Ninja theme
me: i think that's when you're supposed to say "yeah you would"
Ryan: oh right sorry
Ryan's new status message - ))<<>>(( 4:48 PM

3:48 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
Jim: zero.
3:49 PM i put the beach on, then I missed the old one.
me: how'd you pick beach?
3:54 PM Jim: seemed relaxing.

4:25 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
sam: the awful new one
i haven't explored yet
which are you using?
me: zoo zimps obv
4:26 PM me: i've been using it as an insult
sam: hahahahahaha
is horifying
me: what kind of person do you think uses contrast black?
4:27 PM slipknot fans or the house music crowd
sam: al qaeda guys maybe?
me: ahhahaha
sam: gay belgian teenagers use zoozimps
is a masterpiece.
4:28 PM me: i thought graffiti was actually kinda nice
which do you think laila is using?
candy probably
me: aggressively racist ninja?
sam: all the girls are using candy
i love aggressively racist ninja!
i'm white
it doesn't offend me.

4:32 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
4:33 PM Laila: idon't know!
i just know i opened gmail and it looked weird
4:34 PM me: i probably should have been able to guess that you wouldn't know what was going on
Laila: thanks mike
me: oh no i didn't mean it like that!
4:35 PM you always say "oh laila luddite strikes again"
Laila: hahahahah

3:48 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
sara.nann: the pebbles
i dont like it though
3:49 PM me: how did you pick?
sara.nann: settings and then themes
me: oh haha.
how did you select pebbles?
sara.nann: it gives you options

3:53 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
Liane: mountain
me: how'd you decide on mountain
Liane: i tried them all
3:54 PM mountain is nice because it changes with the time and its photos and its like you're actually on the mountain
i also like desk
me: oh woah
Liane: because its like your actually sitting at a desk
and then you realize you are
me: how does the mountain change?
3:55 PM Liane: and then its so meta
the sunlight changes with mountain
like, its daytime on the mountain
but there is sunset mountain
and morning light mountain
3:57 PM have you seen the sarah palin interview where they're killing a turkey in the background
god love her

3:47 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
3:48 PM Caitlin: summer seas
which theme are you using?
summer ocean, I;m sorry. It reminds me of Hawaii
3:49 PM me: oh wow
how did you pick?
3:54 PM Caitlin: well
3:55 PM I've decided to change it once a week
I need constant stimuli
me: oh wow
what about terminal?
that's gonna be a bad week
Caitlin: is that the old-school green and black one?
yes, I agree.
Terminal is a little difficult ot deal with
3:56 PM I cannot put so much strain on my eyeballs
3:59 PM me: or what's up with tree?
4:00 PM the colors are nice
but there's no tree anywhere
Caitlin: On the veeeeery veeeery bottom
it is....subtle

3:48 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
Lindsay: classic
i'm so boring
me: oh why?
4:06 PM Lindsay: cause i got all freaked out when it changed over
my life is very stressful right now
i need to maintain stability
maybe after finals i will change it :
4:07 PM me: tea house says stability to me
Lindsay: lemme look at the choices
4:08 PM oh it's lovely!

3:57 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
caitlin: none
me: oh boo why?
caitlin: bc i don't have the option i don't think?
how do i get a theme?
me: oh jesus i can't even deal with you right now

4:03 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
sarah.mroue: green sky
4:04 PM me: desk
4:05 PM sarah.mroue: haha that one is too cheesy for me
me: aw why?
sarah.mroue: i dunno. it's just not me
4:06 PM me: i bet you're really using bus stop
you're a tourist.
4:09 PM sarah.mroue: no way!

4:09 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
4:10 PM me: ooh
how'd you choose it?
4:11 PM Ari: it was the most awesome! obvs.
4:12 PM me: christ
Ari: you know it's true.
which theme are you using?
me: just switched to zoo zimps
Ari: hahahaha
you would
5:13 PM Ari: how long has it been since you've had a jolly rancher? forever?
5:16 PM me: huh?
i thought you were doing a joke
go fuck a farmer
5:18 PM Ari: haha
i don't think you understand how jokes work

3:48 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
Nate: sunset, but my heart's not in it
3:53 PM you?
me: notebook
how did you choose sunset
Nate: ?
I like earth tones?
4:02 PM me: sunset reminds me of how i don't like pumpkin beer
4:07 PM Nate: what on earth do you have against pumpkin beer?
me: i feel pressured to like it
but i just can't get into it
4:09 PM Nate: the other problem with sunset is that I keep thinking that everyone I'm chatting with is saying something I haven't responded to, but then I remember that they're orange by default

3:50 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
Cameron: classic
3:51 PM the new ones make me anxious

3:56 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
4:00 PM Aubrey: grafitti
because i'm so damn street
4:01 PM me: graffiti is kinda nice
who do you think they hired to write gmail in graffitime: what is the average WWE employee using?
contrast black i bet
4:12 PM Aubrey: hah, i don't know
4:15 PM you heard the new gnr?

3:48 PM me: which gmail theme are you using?
Gina: cherry blossoms
3:49 PM me: how did you decide?
Gina: it's pink!

Monday, November 12, 2007

cindy sanders, peace corps

Cindy Sanders is currently working for the Peace Corps in Niger, and we spent about three weeks e-mailing back and forth, during which time she talked about her daily activities, the differences between working for an NGO and working for the Peace Corps, and whether or not she thinks it’s all worthwhile.

Talk about what you're doing in Niger, how long you've been there.

I've been in Niger since the beginning of 2007. I'm an agriculture volunteer, which means that my basic function is to work with the farmers (who, in Niger, constitute 95% of the population). This is a process that includes several things: helping farmers increase their yields, introducing new planting techniques, introducing new pest control techniques, introducing new crop species, and acting as a liaison for various NGOs that might want to do work in my village with me and the villagers.

Niger is a hard place to do this (actually, it's kind of a hard place to do anything). All the farmers are subsistence workers who have roughly 4 months of the year in which to grow an entire year's worth of food for themselves and their large families - population growth rate here is 3.3%, with an average birthrate of anywhere from 7.2 - 8 children per woman, depending on which statistics you read. Rains fall in Niger from June to September, and that's it. The “fields” where farmers plant are in the desert surrounding their villages. The sand is quartz-rich, prone to erosion and desertification, and basically without nutrients. In it they plant their primary food crop, millet, as well as sorghum, beans, and peanuts, if they can afford the seed.

Rains started early this year, in April, and the men went out to plant. The rains then, of course, immediately stopped until June, and all the previous plantings shriveled up and died, wasting the men's time and money (especially money). Hunger season, which generally starts in March or so when the grain reserves run out and lasts until harvest time in October, was particularly hard this year. We lost a lot of kids in our village, so the fact that the rains were playing games with us was very difficult. People haven't been too happy with Allah lately, but have tried for forgiveness by observing Ramadan very strictly this past month. Most people won't even swallow their own spit during daylight hours, hoping that Allah will notice and bring better rains next year. This has given me a very different view of Islam than I held before.

Did you know anything about farming before you got to Niger? How'd they get you up to speed?

I had gardened with my father since I was small, and then I worked on an organic sheep and vegetable farm in the Catskills for a while when I was at NYU. Then before I left for Niger I worked on an organic farm in West Virginia, which was great. But nothing adequately prepares you for farming millet in the desert. It's all new once you get to post.

What made you want to join the Peace Corps?

I don't know why I joined the Peace Corps really. Maybe it had something to do with reading Amanda Gardner's Myspace blog. She made it seem like a lot more fun than it is. Maybe that's because she was in Mozambique.

What did you think about doing besides joining the Peace Corps?

A lot of things. I'm still thinking about them/doing them. I saw Peace Corps as a bridge to other things, which a lot of people do. Prior to leaving for Niger I was doing a lot of really fun stuff. I was assistant executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County, MD. I was a freelance newspaper writer. I ran an ultramarathon. I had my own home-based vegan baking business, which was awesome. I was writing and painting and running a revolving art gallery out of my house. I was traveling all over the place. Things were really fun.

But I don't know, I also wanted to live abroad and I had kind of wanted to do Peace Corps since middle school, so now here I am. I'm still busy here too: I just finished applying to grad schools for fall of 2008, and I've been writing, drawing, painting, reading... there's a lot of free time here, like every afternoon when the temperatures are above 100 degrees F and everyone just lies around. And now I speak Hausa, which is relatively useless but kind of interesting, so yay Peace Corps.

It's not fun?

It can be fun. But American fun and Nigerien fun are different things. Nigerien fun is (only men) sitting on mats all day drinking very sweet, very hot green tea and staying up all night. Fun for women consists of pounding millet grain into flour with your friends while all the men sit around. Fun for children consists of running around and periodically staring at me. This is a very traditional Islamic society.

But honestly though, fun can be had. You just have to understand your context.

Why'd you choose Africa? Did you have a type of country in mind, like a post-conflict country or a more developed North African one?

When you apply for Peace Corps you can state which “region” you want to be in. These are clumped together in basic parts of the world, like Central and South America, Africa, Asia, etc. My recruiter did 3 years in Vanuatu in the Pacific Islands. His walls were covered with pictures of him bungee jumping into green verdant rainforests and smiling on fishing boats with villagers who adored him. This, for some reason, didn't influence me, and I said I wanted to go to Africa The only place I really didn't want to go was Eastern Europe, because it didn't seem “Peace Corps-y” enough to me. Most Eastern Europe volunteers have things like electricity and running water and I didn't want those at the time. Electricity and running water seem pretty pie in the sky to me now. I was a fool back then.

Why Africa? I don't know. At the time it seemed like the right place. I thought, as I think most Peace Corps volunteers do, if even briefly, that the place I'd somehow end up might complete me somehow, that it would offer me this chance to connect to a world that I otherwise wouldn't experience. I wanted to broaden my perspectives, to have a more thorough understanding of the world. 4 billion of the 6 billion people on earth live in 3rd World countries. I wanted to go there and see what it was about. It was the opposite of America, so it had some inherent interest for me.

I didn't have a say as to where within Africa I would go, however. For some reason I was almost positive I'd get sent to Mali, but when I got my letter from Washington and it said “Niger”, I was pretty slack-jawed. I didn't even pronounce it right. I said “Ny-jer”. It's “Nee-zhair”. Or, as Chris Rock says, “that N country”. Chris Rock is funny.

You've been there for 10 months now, so you have about 14 months left. Do you feel like you'll be happy with your contribution at the end of the program?

No. My contribution will be minimal and unsustained, and that's the reality of it. Most of what I'll do in my village will be trashed by the time I'm gone, local corruption will take off with any money my income-generating activities might accumulate, and my work with the education and empowerment of young girls will be absolved by hundreds of years of repressive religious tradition. This is how it goes. Niger has remained the least developed nation on earth for years for a reason. For many reasons, actually.

As a person, however, I will be remembered. Peace Corps volunteers are famous here - you get talked about for decades. I will honestly always be remembered as the weird white woman who came to live in the village, always wore sunglasses, and rarely covered her hair (I balk authority! Ha!). And if entertaining throngs of children who watch my every move, allowing them to have stories to tell their (many) grandchildren, is my only contribution - which it will be - then so be it. I'm not terribly happy about it, but it is what it is.

I'd think that most people that do PC in Africa go into the program with little specific knowledge of the context into which they're being placed - like you probably weren't particularly informed about Niger, Muslim communities, millet farming, etc. What do you think your role is, as a foreign service worker?

There are two distinct roles: the role Peace Corps tells you to play, and the role that you actually perform. Peace Corps' mission (paraphrased) is to send “qualified men and women to other nations to help their need for manpower and for these people to act as ambassadors of America, and for them - through letters and upon returning to the States - to be ambassadors of the country in which they worked”. We actually have pretty specific project plans we're supposed to follow, i.e. helping increase yields, crop diversification, etc. This is what the Peace Corps wants to believe we do.

What we actually do, however, is quite different. No other non-profits or NGOs work quite like the Peace Corps, placing these “qualified men and women” directly into small communities and making them live there at the level of their villagers. Even PC Niger is rare in that we learn local language (Hausa, in my case, or Zarma), rather than the colonial language (which for Niger is French, and which just about no one actually speaks). Being in the village has its pros and cons. Pro: you know exactly what issues the village faces and can ascertain these needs accordingly. Con: the forest for the trees thing, you know? [here] Additionally, by becoming a villager I've found that I automatically lose any and all authority I might have once had. As a fellow villager in a society deathly afraid of people stepping out of line or doing something non-conforming, they are far more reticent to take my advice. Thus, my role being has been relegated to that of neighbor and woman (neither of which hold much water, especially being female), and subsequently my projects don't get done. To be honest, my real role in this whole thing is to show the village that people outside of the village exist, and that sometimes they look different to boot.

There’s also the sustainability issue; most PC people will leave after 2 years, and new workers will come in. Do you have any thoughts on the turnover?

Villages generally only have about three volunteers in a row, which means, if all volunteers complete their service, they have an American for six years. Sometimes the volunteers are all in the same sector (health, education, agriculture or natural resource management). Sometimes they're different. Sometimes volunteers early terminate and leave after a few months or a year, and the village has a lull of months between volunteers. Sustainability is as pie in the sky as my hopes for running water and electricity in my village - it just won't happen.

I'm sorry about the negative tone of most of my answers. PC has taught me that I really don't agree with international development or aid, and that it's definitely not my life's work. Most aid is just sugarcoating other countries' foreign services agendas. PC, for example, is just America trying to say that we actually do help those third world countries we hardly care about. It's a depressing thing to realize, especially when you only get it once you're abroad. But then again, there are a few organizations out there that are doing amazing work. GOAL, out of Ireland, is one of them. They've got it right; Peace Corps not so much.

PC just celebrated its 45th anniversary in Niger. 45 years of continuous service, hundreds (or maybe thousands) of volunteers in and out of country, hundreds of villages playing host to an American or three. But is Niger better off now that it was in 1962, just two years after the French granted them independence? The old men in the village say no. “When the French were here we got paid for work,” they say. “Now we don't have any work or any money.”

If you could stay longer than 2 years, with the same Peace Corps structure, salary, benefits, etc., would you?

No. In fact, I probably won't even stay my full two years here. I have already finished applying to grad school for 2008 and may be leaving as early as next March. I have no regrets about this however. I'll have lived in Niger for over a year and tried my hardest to work as well as I could. I came up against a society that plainly doesn't want me to do anything other than cook and clean.

So is the Peace Corps a good thing or a bad thing?

Peace Corps is a good thing. There's a saying that every volunteer creates their own service and no two services are alike. There are a lot of people in Niger who are having amazing times, life-changing experiences, and are really happy with their lot. Perhaps if I were in a different village, in a different position, or maybe if I just wasn't a woman and therefore less respected, I'd be one of those people. I'm not though. I'm trying my damndest but it's just one of those things.

Peace Corps, for Americans and the villages where they live, oftentimes ends up being a very good thing. The village, in principle, does profit from the volunteer's stay, and the volunteer obviously comes away with a greater world view. It's a global education in the most literal sense. We come away speaking another language, knowing about different cultures, and having traveled and seen some of the most remote parts of the world. The US's foreign policy people constantly tout Peace Corps volunteers as making differences across the globe in the service and spirit of the States. So Americans definitely benefit, and even if the volunteer doesn't do much in his or her village, they at least come in and spend money (buying food, souvenirs, services, etc). Maybe this sounds cynical, but it's true.

Honestly though, I do support Peace Corps for the most part in what they do. I'd even consider doing it again later on in my life, albeit making it very clear during my second go-round in the application process that I'd want to live in a country where gender quality is more of a reality and less of an impossibility.

How would you change it to make it better?

Structure. PC Niger has been here for 45 years and we're still tackling the same problems we were tackling in 1962. Farmers are still working at subsistence level. Schools are run-down and few children go. Health problems have grown worse, not better, since more people still die of preventable diseases in the sub-Saharan region than most anywhere else in the world. Maybe it's the American in me, but if they had handed me a job with a specific set of goals (rather than "let's not let these people starve"), I'd be better suited for it. I've found that a lot of my friends feel the same way. It's hard to be dropped in a village and told to do good without having any real idea of what to do, other than a few suggestions we were given in training.

It's my belief that this is the issue worldwide with Peace Corps. A program launched in 1961 that has remained essentially the same for 46 years obviously needs a few alterations to keep up with the times. Certainly there's more of a focus on AIDS now, and in some other, more developed, countries, PCVs work with internet and computer training, small business development, and other, more advanced, practices. In Niger, however, we're very much so in the same place as we were in 1962. As I said before, it's taught me that international development isn't my thing, so deciding exactly what has to change about Peace Corps and its programs is difficult for me.

Was you doing the Peace Corps a good decision or a bad one? If you could go back, would you still do it?

I have this weird feeling that people reading this interview are going to think I'm terribly wishy-washy and can't make up my mind. Here's the summary of it, as best as I can explain: I am happy to have done Peace Corps. Very happy. The decision has been good for me. It's been my first time living abroad for an extended period of time, and my first time in Africa. Some of the people I've met here, Nigerien and American both, are excellent people, people I'm honored to know. Some of the work I've done here I'm proud of. Some of the things I've seen are going to stay with me forever, and certainly influence how I live the rest of my life.

What this experience has also taught me, however, is that I cannot live in a society so utterly, stoically, and seemingly happily repressed (I say this because no Nigerien woman will complain about her subservient role in society - a common adage is "What Babba [the big one, usually meaning father or husband] says, you do." Most women cannot function on their own and fear independent activity). Gender inequality kills me, it really does. I feel like it steals little pieces of my soul that I can't get back after being treated this way. So I have been placed in a very difficult situation; it's not the terrain, the heat, the desert, or the constant sickness and diarrhea that bothers me. It's the way I've been treated just because I'm not a man.

Do you feel more completed? Even if that completion is just knowing your limitations?

It's hard to say. I believe that's one of those things that can only be answered once I return to the States.

The completion originally sought, or perhaps hoped for, has certainly has not occured, but that was such an outrageously high expectation for the experience that it could never have happened anyway. The changing of perspective, a certain objectivity where subjectivity once was, and maybe even some, oh I don't know, personal growth or something - those things occured, and for those I'm grateful. But completion? Maybe I'll know more about things like that when it's over. Maybe that's the only time to know about these things.

Friday, November 2, 2007

jason walcutt, microfinancier

Jason and a flow chartJason Walcutt and I both attended, in a secularly religious way, the free vegetarian cooking class put on every week by the Hare Krishna club at NYU. The cooking class attracted a lot of dirty kids, and Jason, a business school student who always sat in the front row and wore a leather jacket, stood out.

Wearing his leather jacket over a Ho Chi Minh t-shirt, Jason and I sat down to speak in Washington Square Park, where he told me about the differences between working in India and Mexico, why he thinks microfinance should be handled by banks and not non-profit NGOs, and about that time he stole a fridge from someone's house.

How'd you get into microfinance?

I was heading home from NYU and I remember I was heading home from graduation, and I thought I was going to hitchhike across the country and go work as a fisherman in Alaska, and then hitchhike down to Mexico, that was my big plan, and then a buddy gave me a call and said, "someone dropped out of this program I'm doing and they need someone else to work for an NGO in India, would you be interested?" so I just got lucky with it. And I didn't really have any other real plans so I said sure.

They asked me what I was interested in, I said entrepreneurship, helping people start businesses - that was sort of what I had studied in school - and I guess that paired up well with microfinance.

Real quick, how would you define microfinance?

Providing funding for people, entrepreneurs, on a very small scale, but who are all trying to do their own individual business activities, starting up small little shops.

OK. So you knew about microfinance before you went to India?

I actually didn't know about microfinance before I went over. There was definitely a Google search done after I found out about the job. It was right at the point where, I think, microfinance was starting to get a lot of press, in 2005.

I got set up with a fairly well established, mid-sized NGO, about 30,000 members - all women, set up in a self-help group system, where 5-10 women meet every week or so and they talk about their problems. And over time they establish a sense of trust and community, and then they start doing other activities, like saving money together, and once they build up enough savings, they can give out loans. So the NGO started out as a self-help group and sort of turned into a pretty substantial microfinance organization. We worked in the middle of India, in Maharashtra, which is about 10 hours east of Mumbai.

My specific role was starting up a separate program, a micro-health insurance program. What the NGO realized while they were doing this work in India, was that a few people defaulting, and they did research and found that the reason some people were defaulting was that they were taking the money they got from microfinance loans and using them for hospital bills. The government of India is supposed to provide free health care for people, but it doesn't actually work out that way -- you find that the system is very corrupt, the public health care systems provide very basic health care, if that, and that the doctors, if they're actually there, aren't that helpful. A lot of times people are forced to go private institutions, private doctors, that charge substantially more and it sort of creates a poverty gap.

Does that happen a lot, people using the loans for non-business purposes?

Well, the people always want to say, yes, this is for a business. In India, I was working for an NGO, which has a social/community aspect that a bank doesn’t have, so for these, the money was just going to people that needed loans. The alternative is that the people would go to a loan shark, who just don’t loan out money to the types of people we were dealing with, which are people that make about $2 a day, which put them just above the poverty line. If they went to a loan shark, they’d have to pay something like 100% interest, 120% interest.

What were you guys charging?

Around 60%. Those figures are per year though, and most loans are for a few months, so 60% interest is 5% per month.

What were you actually doing for the health care program?

For me it was really interesting, because I got to travel throughout India to study different kinds of health insurance programs that had already been started by NGOs. I got to go to Bangalore, where I saw a hospital sponsored program, and I went to another that had a partnership model, and another that had a community based program, which is the one we decided to go with, where all the funds actually come from within the community. The other two usually requires a larger financial backer in case things get out of hand.

How’d that work?

Everyone pays a premium, and that amount of money supports the health insurance that they pay out. I think we were charging about $1 per month for the insurance. So everyone pays the premium, and how health insurance works is that not everyone uses the health insurance every month. If your health insurance covers surgeries, you’re going to need a lot of cash on hand to cover the bills, but ours was a more simple program of primary care and checkups, where we worked out deals with doctors where we guaranteed them business every month in exchange for a reduced rate. So it made business sense for the doctors, but there was also an altruistic element to them being involved in the program.

And again, this is people just above the poverty line?

All the communities I was working with were already part of the microfinance network, so they weren’t the poorest of the poor. They had stable communities, where they had funds coming in, but, you know, no electricity in houses, no indoor plumbing, kids were running around naked – It was definitely the developing world.

What was your friend working on?

He was working in the microfinanced communities, working on the business structure after they people had already gotten loans and had some savings, trying to start businesses that can employ people in the community, so the money stays in the community and doesn’t escape out.

One thing he was working on was a home grocery delivery program, where, instead of having people go to the market every week, they would get a basket of groceries delivered every week. So the business charges a premium for the delivery service, but it also employs the local women, which gives them a job, more income in circling through the community. He also worked on outdoor toilet construction business.

One of the differences I would figure between programs run by NGOs and programs run by banks is that the programs run by NGOs would bring a value added component to their loans - education, technology, etc.

Right. A microfinance organization is just a few steps away from a bank, so the interesting thing about the NGO’s microfinance program was seeing how it shifted towards running more like a business. While I was there they had actually hired consultants to analyze them and figure out how to turn it into a business. That’s something you’re seeing a lot more of. Communities that utilize the NGO model can only take it so far; the NGO turns into a nice shell that you can turn into a business, that’s very workable, that already has roles assigned. A coordinator in the field gets made into a salesperson – where before they were going out into the field and teaching people about microfinance, now they’re going out into the field and selling loans.

So one of the good things about an NGO becoming a bank is that it can then employ more people from the community?


So then, and this is just the first thing that popped into my head, it might seem like it’s just a cycle, that people learn about microfinance, educate more people about loans, then sell the loans, and then the bank becomes bigger and can employ more people - which means it can educate more and more people about loans, sell more loans, and employ even more people. Aside from just giving the people who actually work for the bank a job, is the bank benefiting the community in any way? Or it just kind of snowballing into a bigger and bigger entity?

One of the great things about it, and how I always viewed microfinance, is that it was sort of the capitalist way of social movement, social mobility, social enterprise. It goes to some of the lowest levels and says to the person, “If you work hard, you do your job and have a little bit of luck, whatever the venture it is you’re starting, maybe you have a scale and you weigh people and they give you a little bit of money, or a little handicrafts thing, if you do this and it sells, you’ll get more money coming in, and that money doesn’t go to a foreign bank, but goes back into the community.” Then with that money, you can either take out another larger loan or maybe it goes to your neighbor, who themselves start larger enterprises. And part of the reason why America’s been so successful is that we’ve had so much access to credit.

One of the biggest shocks I had when I went to China or Mexico, was how hard it was to get credit. It’s very hard to trust people. Here, you just pull out a credit card – I’ve got three in my pocket right now. But in other countries, it’s not that easy. And that’s why we’ve really grown so much; it’s so clean and it’s so nice. We have the access to capital and credit if we need it. So microfinance takes that idea and brings it to the lowest level.

When you hear that an NGO is becoming a bank, you think that it loses that social component, but actually it just…you’re not losing on the social component because the rules are the same, it’s just making sure that people abide by…if you don’t pay your loans, the community suffers. I do believe that an NGO gets to that point and doesn’t become a business is actually harming the community from further development. If someone takes out a loan and doesn’t repay it, and NGO might say “that’s OK”, but that hurts the NGO and it hurts the community, and that means that another person can’t get a loan now. So it’s important that you get stricter standards, and that’s what a business does, makes sure people pay. That whole social component comes into play much more strongly in Mexico.

OK, can you tell me about Mexico then?

I was in China and ended up in a meeting with the head of one of the first microfinance banks in China, seeing if I could get a job working there, and I didn’t, but I told him that I really wanted to learn and that I was willing to travel to wherever the next for profit microfinance program was going to start up, and that ended up being Mexico.

So that was a big change – Right away, you could tell that [the one in Mexico] was a business. In India, people would sort of wake up, go into work whenever they wanted, and if something didn’t happen that day, that was fine. That might have just been India, a cultural thing, a “whatever whatever” attitude at times; things get done in India, but time just seemed like it was never an issue over there. But in Mexico, they had an office, everyone in shirt and tie, loan officers in matching uniforms.

So the organization in Mexico was a for-profit company that had 5-6 branches spread across the state of Vera Cruz, which is on the Gulf of Mexico. I was there when the organization was about one year old. I guess one thing, the clients were very different. The poorest of the poor in Mexico are different than the poorest of the poor in India. The people we worked with in Mexico were lower middle class, just above poor – way above India. They had access to credit, and they were in a city.

The Mexican microfinance organization only gave loans to businesses, so you could only get money if you had been up and running for X amount of time. And that’s where I learned a lot about how they actually determine whether or not they can give a loan to someone, they had a very strict procedure. How it works: they have loan officers that would just walk around the city and go into businesses. In Mexico, you know, there’s a ton of small little mom and pop shops, selling tacos, shoes, groceries. So they go into the little shops and say, “Hi, my name is So and So, and I’m from this Microfinance Organization, and let me tell you about this loan.” It was door to door sales of loans. I always thought it was funny because I imagined if in the US, I just walked into a pizza place and was like, “Hi, my name’s Jason, I want to sell you a loan.” But that’s how you sell loans in Mexico.

So they meet with the people and take their information down, go back to the office and do a credit check on the business, then go back to the business and do an evaluation. The evaluation was 5 or 6 pages and was basically an accounting. Most of the places don’t keep records, they just go by, “OK I bought X number of tortillas this week and X amount of lettuce and by the end of the week I have this much left over so that means I have to buy this much more.” So we would go through and say, “How many tacos do you sell a week?” “50 tacos a day, so 350 tacos a week.” “How much do you sell each for?” “5 pesos.” So you’d get the revenue and do the same, “How much do you pay for each head of lettuce” etc etc. So then you can figure out their profits.

Then you’d list the assets they have – chairs, a refrigerator, a TV for people to watch. You’d also do their family’s assets, because a lot of people lived in the back of their stores. So, “OK, you have a car, you own your house.” So we’d get a financial profile of the family and their business, and then we’d run the numbers through some formulas, just like a bank here in the US decides whether or not you’ll be able to pay back one of their loans.

Then the loan officers go to the bank manager and the loan committee and everyone asks questions about each candidate, so other loan officers can ask you questions like, “Well how much cash do they have?” – so everyone can be very critical of each other. So the whole thing took some time. The company also has strict standards, like each officer has to get X amount of people each month to qualify for a bonus.

What were you doing? Did you know Spanish?

I was following the loan officers around. They didn’t pay me but they gave me housing. So I would walk around with the people, and you learn Spanish pretty fast when people are speaking it all day. In the beginning it was pretty tough, especially without knowing the lingo for cash, other slang. But by the end of my stay, I did one complete deal, where I found a person and said, “Hola! Me nombre es Jason. Soy un consultador.” And the person would say, “OK, I don’t know who you are, but sure, go ahead.” But the people who run the businesses are actually very smart; right away they’d say, “What’s the interest rate? Per year? Are there any secret fees?” They were actually pretty savvy.

In India, some of the people would be like, “Credit? What’s a loan? What’s insurance?” They had no idea what it was. But the Mexicans were pretty on top of it. So I went through the whole thing, talking to them about the business, going to the committee and presenting about it, and the people got the loan.

Did the loan officers get a commission on each loan?

It was sort of a weird structure. It was a bonus system. Each officer had a target, 5 new loans a week maybe, not including reloans where you’d renew people’s loans. Just to give you an idea, each loan would be around 3,000 pesos, which is about $300, and was for a term of 4-6 months, with an interest rate of 60% a year, so 5% a month.

What were most of the businesses using the money for?

Lots of things. It depended on what the business was. My favorite was the taco guy, because, well, the taco guy wants to take out a loan, that’s funny. People would want to get shelves for their store, or a new sign for their business, maybe a fridge. I think the largest loan I saw was for 20,000 pesos, $2,000, to a mechanic that wanted to buy some special piece of equipment.

How did the bank make sure the people were using the loans for their businesses?

You really can’t. After you give them the money, you just have to hope they pay it back. And that’s one of the major problems, so you run into, “What do you do when someone doesn’t pay you back?” You have to remember, when a person doesn’t pay, it’s really bad for the bank. That means that money they’re expecting to come in can’t go to someone else. Even when they’re a day late, it becomes an issue. And it became a pretty bad issue. I came right when the bank was having a lot of issues with people not paying back the loans. What happened was that the bank managers had just approved a lot of bad loans, people that already had loans or bad credit records and they gave out the loans anyway. I got there when a lot of turnover was happening.

That’s when I learned about the dark side of microfinance, which is what happens when people don’t pay. So there were times when I was on runs to steal people’s…well, not steal, but to take people’s refrigerators. You go into people’s houses and…if the people don’t pay, you can’t just say “No, it’s OK.” If this was an NGO, you might say that, but this is a business, so you have to get something to make the business run, otherwise the whole thing falls apart, and the people that are taking good loans out won’t be able to get loans anymore. I did a lot of banging on doors at nighttime, “Pay your loans back, we need the money now.” That stuff happens in the US too, so it’s not surprising that they use the same tactics in Mexico.

To effective ends?

Well it’s never good when someone doesn’t pay. What’s a bank gonna do with someone’s refrigerator? I guess they could auction it off, but a bank isn’t a seller of goods. It’s not really the desired outcome. But yes, they collected people’s goods and auctioned them off so they could make some money back.

What did you bring to the program in Mexico?

I brought them experience in microfinance, and no one was really fluent in English, so I did a lot of looking over documents, because a lot of the investors spoke English, and the bank was certified by the World Bank. I was there to learn but we both got something out of it. I wrote a few reports for them.

How did you leave the job in Mexico?

So after my 4 or 5 months in Mexico, I went to the CEO and said, “Put me somewhere I can do something.” I wanted to go to China but they had just opened one up in China, so they said, “What not try Sudan?”

They went from China to Sudan?

Yeah, yeah. Sudan would have been a program in Khartoum doing Islamic banking which is like regular banking but you have to obey certain Islamic laws. I wasn’t quite sure how it worked..

Like, you can’t charge interest, right?

Yeah, you can’t have usury and certain fees.

Is that an industry term? Usury?

No, no. That’s just…that’s what they [Islamic laws] say.

But a few things happened, like the US put sanctions on Sudan, and the embassy closed, and I realized a few things. The organization wouldn’t really support me, and I don’t speak Arabic, I’m not Sudanese. It would take me at least a year to get used to living there and then a year to actually do something impactful, so it was a very long commitment so I sort of backed out of it.

What would the setup have been like?

I would have been in Sudan, trying to setup the microfinance organization, with the help of another company called Damas, which is a Dubai-based jeweler. It would have been a full out bank.

You’ve done microfinance for a while -- have you become politicized about it, how it’s seen, etc.?

I think it’s still very new and it’s not going to go away, because it’s very effective. For organizations, for the individuals. It fills a niche and need. There’s a really great book by C.K. Prahalad called The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid [subtitle: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits], a University of Chicago management professor. There’s billions of dollars amongst billions of people at the very bottom of the pyramid. And these people work really hard, and they don’t get the benefits. These people have the hardest jobs in the world, things like shoveling in the dirt for 14 hours days, and if they can devote that same energy to a business or entrepreneurial activity, then they’re going to do well. They know what hard work is and they’re willing to do it. There’s real potential to tapping into them and giving them a chance to start their own.

So the potential for microfinance, is it in eradicating poverty?

No, I don’t think that’s possible; we still have poverty in the US. It can definitely bring a lot of people’s standards of living up. I just think it’s a lot better than throwing money at people. You throw money at people, they don’t appreciate it and it gets wasted. But if you tell people, “You work for it,” people value that money and the work that they’ve done a lot more.

One thing I should say is that I think NGOs really do a lot of great work. I think that they’re the way that it starts out. They get in the community and start to understand it. I worked with banks in India that wanted to start up microfinance organizations and they just didn’t have any idea…Each community is like an organism and their problems are so unique to them. So where a bank would try a one-fit model, an NGO would know the right way to market it and interact with the people the right way.

So, maybe, the places you went would aspire to be served by banks, not NGOs?

Yeah, absolutely. If all these communities had a local bank…If my parents can go into a Chase, they know the people that work at the bank and they know they can get a loan from them because they know that these people are trustworthy. In a lot of these areas, a very poor person will go into a big city bank and won’t get a few words out of their mouth before they’re asked to leave. In a community bank, the bank manager knows your situation and your individual business; I worked in Mexico with this branch manager who said, “I know this guy, I know his business, he always pays back.” And that’s a good feeling, when people that can trust the Bank and the Bank can trust people.

When a bank gives a loan to a community business in a developing community, the intention is that the business will make more money, pay off the loan and be able to take more money home. Where does that money come from? Inside the community, outside?

It depends on the community, but say in India they harvest sugarcane and travel to another village to get groceries and healthcare. So if someone starts a business that sells eggs, the people don’t have to go outside the village to get eggs, and the money circulates back into the community. Someone is getting less business, yes. But, say, that someone that is getting less business is a corrupt doctor that is charging exorbitant amounts for services that should cost a fraction of what he’s charging, then I hope he does get less business. That’s something I saw firsthand. I’d go into hospitals and just see doctors abusing their rights as doctors, charging ten times as much as they should be for a simple procedure, simply because there’s no other alternative. If he loses, I’m fine with him losing.

Does that happen? So it’s like a capitalist justice and the free market is the sheriff?

Yeah, it’s called social capitalism.

You saw that in action?

It was one of my eye opening moments. I would talk to people who would talk about a doctor that was overcharging, then a new doctor would come in with more reasonable prices and say, “No, what’s fair is fair and what he’s doing isn’t fair, and I’m going to be fair,” and as a result he gets lots of new business.

So is that another example, that the more doctors or businessman there are, the more they will compete and the cheaper services and goods will be?

Well, it depends on the product, but the hope is that the people who do good work will do well and the people that do bad work will do worse. Inequalities in these systems are present all the time and we hope that microfinance will help balance it out and give the people a little bit of leverage. Cash in pocket gives a person a bit more bargaining power. If you’re at the doctor’s table and he tries to charge you 10 times what he should, and you have cash in pocket, you can say to him, “Well then I’m going to go to the other doctor,” and the doctor in front of you might lower his prices. So yeah, it’s capitalism.

When you read about microfinance you often see it framed in a certain way, like the guy that won the Nobel Prize, that it can lift countries out of poverty. Are you saying that’s not really how you think about it?

The only way the industry’s going to survive is if it becomes more business-like and it takes a real business approach. You can’t let people off the hook when they don’t pay, and that causes problems for everyone in the community. Microfinance gives people a real good alternative to what they have, but there’s a point when the NGO needs to say it itself, “For our survival, for the community’s survival and growth, we need to put more standards in.” And that’s where the industry is trying to figure out what its next path is, what’s going to work in the future. I’ve seen dialogs with people from Africa and Russia and China and they mix their ideas together, this has worked here and not here, so it’s a real global test; everyone’s trying to figure out what’s the best thing and I think in a few years you will see some very clear cut models for how to do business in these countries.