Monday, June 15, 2009


A boda-boda ride with Dennis Ewalu

From The Guardian, here's a brief video showing the day in the life of a bicycle taxi driver in Uganda.

I've long wanted to follow a motorcycle or bicycle taxi to see what kind of money they make, what a day looks like. This is also a great example of someone who might want to join a savings and credit association. Small, somewhat irregular income ... could use some lump sums of capital, not really in the market for a microcredit loan.

Here's the summary:

Started with a loan from his brother to buy a bicycle frame only, worked hard for the rest.
Rides 45 minutes one-way, 3 days a week, to get to Soroti Town for the better business.
Best day yields about 10,000 Ugandan Shillings ($4.64 USD) from 10-12 customers.
Supports himself, a wife, his mother, and 6 children.
Pays for primary school, uniforms, books ... and he also saves.
One day hopes to buy a house with corrugated roofing and also some oxen.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


My eulogy for the funeral yesterday, 6/9/09, 4pm.

Her obituary in the Pensacola News Journal:
Polly Baranco died peacefully in her sleep surrounded by her family on June 5, 2009.
She was born in Pensacola, FL on October 28, 1923 to Mary Alice and John Hall Sherrill. She graduated from Pensacola High School, attended Randolph Macon Women's College her first two years and graduated from the University of Alabama. She was married to the late Dr. Paul F. Baranco. Polly was devoted to her family, friends and to her community and spent the majority of her life in volunteer endeavors. She was a charter member of the Junior League of Pensacola and a former president of the league as well as receiving one of its highest awards, the Joan B. Gonzalez Award for volunteer work at the Pensacola Public Library. Polly was an active member of the Friends of the Library, the Escambia County Medical Auxiliary, having served as president, and she and her late husband were Founding Board Members at Azalea Trace. Polly was a life-time member of the First Presbyterian Church and a loyal member of the Calvin Sunday School Class.
She is survived by her daughter Fran Hartley (Ted) and her son Paul Francis "Speed" Baranco, Jr. (Sian), four grandchildren, Thomas Bryan Hartley (Gina), Robert Paul Hartley (Danielle), Nicholas Paul Baranco, and Matthew Patrick Baranco, one great grandchild Taylor Ashlyn Hartley, a sister-in-law Joe Sherrill, and many nieces and nephews, great nieces and great nephews who loved her dearly.
She was preceded in death by her husband, her parents, her sister Peggy Bach, and her brothers Frontis W. Sherrill, John Hall Sherrill, Jr., and Alan Prather Sherrill.
A memorial service will be held at the First Presbyterian Church on Tuesday, June 9, 2009, at 4:00 PM followed by visitation in the church parlor.
Memorials, if desired, may be made to Friends of the Library; Covenant Hospice, 5041 N. 12th Ave. Pensacola, FL or to a charity of your choice.
Harper-Morris Memorial Chapel is in charge of arrangements. Published in the Pensacola News Journal on 6/9/2009

Kagame on aid and African prosperity

Africa Has to Find Its Own Road to Prosperity
Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Financial Times
Government activities should focus on supporting entrepreneurship not just to meet these new goals, but because it unlocks people’s minds, fosters innovation and enables people to exercise their talents.
This article popped up in a conversation about Moyo's Dead Aid (HT: Joe's friend Claire).

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Save Paste

Haste makes waste. PASTE makes great music very readable. Paste Magazine. It's about music.

Anyway, a couple of years ago, PASTE Magazine offered new subscribers to pay whatever they wanted for a year's subscription. I paid $2.00 USD. For 12 months I received a steady flow of magazines, each containing a CD of select music, often containing artists I knew and liked (recognizable ones like Radiohead) and then artists I'd never heard of. Some was weird and awful, some was weird and great, and some just had to grow on me. The magazine was pretty good. My consumer surplus was great.

So, PASTE has fallen upon the fiscal woes of our times, and it is now asking readers for help. Many loyal readers had already offered. Many musical artists are falling in to help, too. The PASTE Campaign is trying to raise enough money to keep the magazine going. I contributed, maybe you'd like to, as well.

If you do contribute, you can help yourself to a vault of over 100 songs that artists have donated to the cause. Here's my favorite playlist at the moment from the 127 songs I downloaded:


sleep. when we die., anchor&Braille
Nothing Makes Me Cry, ROBYN HITCHCOCK
See the World, GOMEZ
Come Home Sam, LIAM FINN
Sucker Punch Town, DODD FERRELLE
Making the Move, ARI HEST
Morning Chrome, BLOODKIN
Sugar Tongue, INDIGO GIRLS
Great Ocean, DAN DYER
Deep in the Jungle, DAN ZIMMERMAN
Screaming Lobster, SOUL-JUNK
Dirty Dishes, DEER TICK
Elegant Chaos, PORTASTATIC
Wetlands Dance Hall, VENICE IS SINKING

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Miracle of microfinance

I am excited about this new paper (May 2009) by Banerjee and Duflo, The Miracle of Microfinance: Evidence from a randomized evaluation. 2 months and 3 posts ago, I had just posted about these two star MIT development economists. This new paper is presented on the Poverty Action Lab (J-Pal) site, and J-Pal is about as good as it gets for economic research on poverty.

Here is a very short summary of this paper – a summary clipped from a summary by the Private Sector Development (PSD) Blog:

the first large-scale randomized trial of access to microfinance"

microcredit does have important effects on business outcomes and the composition of household expenditure

microcredit … appears to have no discernible effect on education, health, or women's empowerment … in the short term (within 15-18 months)

Here is my first reaction after only skimming the paper and reading the PSD review:

  1. Microfinance is not a miracle.

    We don't need a scientific paper to say microfinance is no miracle. The fact that there are positive business outcomes after 15-18 months is great. The fact that people aren't smarter, healthier, and more egalitarian … normal. Maybe some people have been parading for some time as though microfinance were a miracle, there have been many such miracles in the past, disappointing panaceas for the developing world that have surged and failed. A point that Banerjee and Duflo would likely support is that there are also many development solutions that have come and gone untested by academic rigor. That is where I am very happy to read this new paper. But let's read it for the rigor, not for miracles dispelled. We're agreed on the miracle point.

  2. PSD post: "The verdict is in on microfinance."

    The first large-scale randomized trial is in. I wouldn't say that's the verdict. The best part about this PSD post is that the first sentence after the "verdict is in" is: "And it's not pretty." What? Positive business outcomes, uncertain social effects after 15-18 months of opening a new microfinance branch in a slum. How pretty are we looking for? We've seen 50 years of development efforts leave much of Africa poorer, I think we can give microfinance a little more than 15-18 months to see sweeping social change.

Ok, microfinance is a tool to alleviate poverty in a way that is sustainable and respects human dignity and responsibility. It's not a miracle answer, and the verdict isn't exactly in regarding its overall effectiveness. That being said, I'm excited about this new paper. I guess I should read it now.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Lancaster for rent

2BR, 2BA, $550-$800/month, utilities included: W/S/T/H. Washer & dryer, dishwasher, 1st floor, hardwoods, good kitchen, living room + dining area, off-street parking, yard, pets OK. In-town, walk-able neighborhood. Move in July 1st!

Have you seen this ad above for Lancaster, PA? If so, let me know immediately, we'll take it! The above is our ideal, and we've seen this out there before so we know it exists, but I'm mainly posting it here so I can compare with what we actually do get in a month and a half from now …

Danielle gave a pretty good description of our search process so far.

Even after we confirmed our latest apartment love was a scam, Rob returned the scammers email asking for a picture of the back yard. It was a really beautiful apartment. Almost worth the scam.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Savings of the poor: Boston Globe article

From the Boston Globe:
Q and A with Daryl Collins Financial secrets of the world's poorest people.
A new book, "Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Live on $2 A Day" takes a detailed look at the daily income and expenses of 285 families in South Africa, India, and Bangladesh, studying how they pay doctors when their children get sick, put food on the table when they're out of work, and pull together money for weddings, funerals, and holidays.
The Economist article in the preceding post cites this same book, a book I am eager to see.

Savings of the poor: Economist article

Even those with very little money have a sophisticated approach to finance

PAYING interest on your savings will strike most people as odd. Yet some poor people in the developing world do just that. In West Africa, for example, some people pay roving susu collectors a fee amounting to a -40% annual interest rate for looking after their deposits.

From The Economist print edition, May 14th 2009

(You may be asking why I would provide a hyperlink to the print edition … and that's a good question. As a disclaimer, the article is from the print edition, but the hyperlink will not deliver you that print edition, merely an electronic reproduction from that print edition. Too much explanation?)

Friday, March 06, 2009

MIT development economists

Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee are two star development economists from MIT. While the merits of microfinance are highly hyped, these two prefer rigorous science, particularly randomized experiments, before placing so much hope on the hype. Not that there's anything wrong with microfinance, but development fads come and go, sometimes before we even know if they were effective. Practitioners try one thing and move on without testing and knowing – that may be a paraphrase from one of the two, so I'll just give you their actual comments on microfinance from a recent interview at Poverty Action Lab:

ED: Look at microfinance. There is no evaluation yet of the impact of a microfinance loan – we have the first preliminary results ever of the impact of a plain vanilla, group lending microfinance model. That's it. It is not as if there have been mixed results before now. The studies don't exist. And that is microfinance, where there are already a hundred economists studying it.

AB: So, if microfinance suddenly doesn't make all babies do calculus by the age of five, it is deemed a failure. I think if we just accept that in the end a few things work and somehow that gives people the spirit or the enthusiasm or the hope to act a bit more and enable those things to accumulate on their own.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Why Christian microfinance shouldn’t go away

Why should a nonprofit (or a Christian organization) use a business model like a bank instead of letting businesses do that? One of the trends in microfinance these days is big banks seeing the profitability of making big profits on small loans to the world's poor. Nonprofit microfinance institutions are in some places struggling to compete and stay in the market. Mexico is a great case study for big bank profits in an industry that has largely been nonprofit:

NY Times - Microfinance's Success Sets Off a Debate in Mexico

microLINKS - Mexican Microfinance: How Big Banks are Making Astronomical Profits

Why do nonprofits do microfinance? Easy. The world's poor are undercapitalized to grow their businesses and improve their welfare. Commercial banks do not make accessible loans to these poor entrepreneurs. Well, commercial banks used to not make those loans, but in some places they are beginning to see the profitability. There are a lot of poor consumers; it's a very big market. So now nonprofits are struggling to compete in some of these places where commercial banks are entering. The point is to bring in capital to stimulate the working economy of the world's poor, why does it matter if a nonprofit does it or a business does it? It still improves the lives of the poor.

Why should nonprofits compete to stay in the microfinance industry?

For one, and this is really my only one point, nonprofits can take risks that commercial banks cannot. Commercial banks enter and compete when the risks and rewards give them a green light, but when the light turns yellow, commercial banks turn back, when the light turns red, forget it. The poor are on their own. What happened to the banking industry that served poor business owners after civil war tore through Liberia? What happened to the banking industry that served poor business owners when a typhoon devastated Thailand?

It's a good thing that private sector industries bring services to the world's poor. But we cannot depend on the private sector when disaster happens. Nonprofit microfinance goes to the hard places, and it stays. If nonprofit institutions get competed out of the market, where will be the capacity when it is needed again?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What can I do for you?

The Prime Minister of Rwanda visited a small village near Kibungo. A true politician of the people, while visiting Kibungo the PM asked the people, sincerely:

"What can I do for you?"

Nothing, thank you. The group addressed by the PM was an active savings and credit association trained by our champions. They didn't need anything. Well, one thing … the group requested that the PM just keep police on the streets and they'd be happy.

This savings group was already doing for themselves. They are particularly disciplined in working each other's fields, they have saved consistently, and if one of them gets sick, there is another one assigned to take care of them. They are extremely well organized. This group works together so well and so diligently that they have earned themselves one full month of vacation each year! Do you take one full month of vacation? Nearby is the Akagera National Park and a beautiful lake with the President's vacation house (I am typing right now from across that very lake). I can clearly imagine group members taking a travel day to fish or lay out by the lake. They are meeting their own needs with time to spare, time to enjoy. They told the PM no thanks.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Teach a man to fish

Neal Baker introduced me to this modified saying:

Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he'll drink beer all day.

That's why it's better to teach a woman to fish, she'll feed her whole family.

In reality, our savings training teaches men and women to fish in terms of managing money and making it grow. We don't give out any fish, or money, but we teach to fish, or to manage money. Within the local church, our savings groups have also empowered men and women to become fishers of men and women. The church is drawing in community members who recognize the groups as more than pools of money. As a matter of fact, many community members might otherwise avoid a church scheme involving money/savings, but that's not what's happening, they are being drawn in because of how these groups are working.

Our groups' members are working in each other's fields, paying for each other's emergency needs, building houses and building relationships. That kind of success is visible, the fruits are good, the success inspiring.

It's hard to say that we just teach the very poor to save their own money, that we don't give them any food or money. But what we are teaching is how to manage their own resources. One day when we are gone, they will still be managing their own resources and making their money grow. Not only that, it's making their communities and families grow because it involves groups and it involves women.

Development theater

Bill Gates opened a jar of mosquitoes at a TED gathering and said, "Why should the poor be the only ones to get malaria?"

Foreign Policy: "misguided and somewhat tasteless attempt to make wealthy donors experience the realities of Third World poverty"
The World Economic Forum at Davos featured a "Refugee Run" so that millionaires can experience the horrors of fleeing violence and oppression.

Bill Easterly, NYU Economist: "Did the words 'insensitive,' 'dehumanizing,' or 'disrespectful' (not to mention 'ludicrous') ever come up in discussing the plans for 'Refugee Run'?"

It's difficult to respond to poverty and injustice. Give money, raise awareness … these are the approaches generally available to the concerned public. For those desperate for change, there is also desperation to tell the story in such a way to motivate much more money and much more awareness. I respect the need to do something that motivates change. When we know the pain in the world we must mourn it and strive to be peacemakers. But when our attempts become theatrical or consumerist, and the results are indeterminate, does our response respect the dignity of those who suffer?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Paycheck to paycheck

Part of spreading savings and credit associations is convincing beggars and widows and prostitutes and street youth to save amounts near $0.25 per week … Convincing subsistence farmers that they can subsist on a little less right now so that they can invest in better crops some four months later. It's hard sometimes to cast this vision to the very poor, that they can live with more purpose and greater insurance and brighter future by saving now. The very poor, however, are not the only ones who lack the vision to save.

Consider these numbers from Harper's Index, December 2008:

Percentage of Americans who say they live "paycheck to paycheck": 47

Percentage of those making over $100,000 per year who say this: 21

Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday, February 06, 2009

New friends, new house

15 gathered together every week for 2 years. On Fridays, they rotated to each member's home to work on that farm. Sharing work on farms is a very common trend added onto these savings groups. And we know the efficiency of having more hands to share the work, not to mention the encouragement. After they work on that member's farm, each free laborer then pays the recipient of the labor with their weekly savings. Wow. We all work on your farm this Friday, and then we pay you our savings for the week.

They save a total of 1,100 RWF ($2.00 USD) per week, 1,000 rotates to the host farmer, and 100 goes into the accumulating fund. They make loans at 10%, and right now the group has a total of 40,000 RWF ($72.73 USD) on account and 24,000 ($43.64) out on loan. Marita uses her rotating lump sum to buy paraffin and soap, Susanne was able to purchase a phone. Francis took a 5,000 loan plus his own 2,000 and purchased a goat for 7,000 RWF ($12.73 USD). Ngendahayo has bigger plans.

Ngendahayo is quite a young man who seemingly spends much time on the farm by himself. Before this savings group, he was isolated. Isolation is a common theme for many in poverty, but here is this young man, hard working, plenty of promise, and his future is soil and toil. His future is poor and alone. Recently, his future changed. Ngendahayo has joined a savings group where he thrives, and he says that he now feels free to meet others. In fact, he is just energized about life. With a supportive social network and 16,500 ($30.00) on loan for materials and nails, he is now building a house … and plans to marry soon.

Mothers Union

The 12 members of the Mothers Union in Butare meet on the 3rd Friday of each month. Each contributes 600 RWF ($1.09 USD) monthly; 500 rotates to one member each month, 100 accumulates on account. The group has a total savings of 12,000 RWF ($21.82 USD) and they make loans at 10% to group members.

An interesting addition to this Mothers Union group is their extra monthly activity. On that 3rd Friday after they pool their savings, they contribute some equal share of expenses for purchasing materials to make mats. With their mat materials, these mothers make as many mats as possible. For any mats made on that Friday and sold later, they contribute 100% of the sales into their accumulating savings account. That's a pretty crafty way that these mothers value their savings.

Mats sell for 1,500 RWF ($2.73 USD). I'll have to take some pictures and then you can place your orders.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Example of a farming/savings setup

Here's a quick example of a farming-based SCA.

The group meets weekly to farm and save. When they meet each week, they rotate to another member's farm to work together there. Each week, 100 RWF from each member goes to the one member whose farm they're all working on. Another 50 RWF goes into an accumulating account just for emergencies.

Once a month, the group gives another savings contribution of 750 RWF each into an accumulating account just for savings and loans. They currently have 26,000 RWF on account.

Farmers do not have the most consistent cash flow; a lot depends on weather, land, workers, and then sales. Monthly is better for regular saving. At the same time, weekly is better for small contributions towards seeds or manure fertilizer. The emergency fund is useful if someone gets robbed or maybe an animal dies or there's just no farm production and one family needs food.

Our groups are given much guidance on how to set up consistent, transparent, and understandable pay-ins and pay-outs, and also how to handle different group situations. Within that training, groups still have a wide variety of ways of making the savings group fit their lifestyles and needs.

Reactions to savings groups

As we collect stories about our savings groups, members and their purchases, we also collect reactions to our programs within their communities. Here is a sampling of reactions so far:

  • Our training in record keeping and policy guidance has restored some of the trust and faith that were lacking in some traditional savings groups. Before people feared pooling their savings because some won't pay back loans, others leave the group early, and still others argue about pay-ins or pay-outs. The structure we give in training frees them to get the benefits of community saving and lending while also drawing people together in healthy relationships. It's all about the trust.
  • Some churches report that their cell groups had no objective. They meet, pray, and go home. Groups thrive on having purpose, and we have heard that saving together and participating in their personal and community-level economic development has given groups vision. Moreover, many have said they are encouraged by hearing testimonies and principles like starting small and growing big, and they are realizing the importance this has in their lives. Giving vision is giving hope.
  • One trainer said that our savings program has been different from all the other trainings he's been to. "Many go start something but don't go back to see what's happening at the grass roots level." The groups we visit really appreciate and feel encouraged that we go to see what they have done.
  • As we assess programs, our group leaders and trainers in the field are realizing that they too can go assess their programs. They have commented on the benefits of sharing stories and discovering groups' challenges, and our monitoring and evaluation trips are becoming a model for trainers to monitor and evaluate the groups they have created. That's an exciting by-product for the health of our programs!
  • Unfortunately, we have also learned that people have been burned before with savings and credit. Some MFIs (not us) have moved into the area, taken savings and given unsound loans, and then they have folded up shop and gone home without reimbursing people's money. Of course, SCAs are different in that we do not hold people's money, they do. Still, we deal with the repercussions of doubt left by unsound agencies in the past.
  • Some (in one particular area) have been reluctant to join savings groups because they are active in trading business in town. The ones who find savings more attractive are women, mainly widows. This system of savings is somewhat new in this area, so the advantages are not readily apparent to everyone, even though those same traders may be able to make better purchases and better profits with improved access to informal credit and social networking.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Of hens and goats

Velerie belongs to a savings group in Kayenzi that meets every Tuesday. She puts in about $1 every week; $0.90 goes into the rotating amount that goes to one member per week, $0.10 goes into an accumulating savings account.

Before belonging to a savings group, Velerie probably never thought that she might be able to put away an extra $1 per week. She never would have thought that if she could put away $1 for 4 weeks in a row that she could buy a hen for $3.65. Now that she's saving in a group of others who support and encourage her, she sees a bigger picture. Velerie comes each week, puts in a dollar, and soon the ROSCA rotates to her and she receives a lump sum of $13.50!! Velerie buys two hens and is left with money to spare for household expenses, health insurance … I don't know, chicken feed? The ROSCA payout provides her with a large sum of money at once. Money that would have never been around if she just had a little bit each week that seeped away into other, smaller, pedestrian purchases. Now, she has two hens.

Velerie cares for her hens for months and sells eggs in the community. During this time, she has built up $5.50 in egg money. Velerie sells her two hens, adds in her egg money, and she's got another large sum of $12.80 – which just happens to be the going rate for goats.

Velerie now owns a goat. She's not counting her eggs before they hatch (awful metaphor choice – we've moved on to goats now), but she's hoping to sell baby goats when her goat gets old enough to give birth, if she could be so fortunate [her words]. In case you're wondering, the Rwandese aren't big on consuming goat milk or goat cheese, just the goat.

An interesting part of this story, looking at it from our point of view, is that Velerie could have bought a hen without the group if she just disciplined her saving over one month. Only within the group, however, was she able to see a bigger picture and receive a bigger lump sum of money than she would ever otherwise have to spend. The "before" Velerie would never have bought those hens, even if we think she could have. The "after" Velerie invested in hens, sold eggs, and then attained a goat. The "after" Velerie is in business.

For reference: Hens cost 2,000 RWF; egg sales totaled 3,000 RWF; goats 7,000 RWF; Velerie saved 600 RWF weekly.

Saving high schoolers

When I did graduate school at Georgia State, I also worked in the Office of Civic Engagement. During my time there I had the privilege of being an interim staff advisor to the Economic Empowerment Initiative (EEI), which was student led by my friend Terrance Rogers.

This group was fantastic. They trained students to be smart with their money: How to save and invest, wisely take out loans, and buy responsibly. Most students aren't learning these lessons elsewhere. They also have a Match Savings Program in partnership with Bank of America. If students continue membership in EEI, earn good grades, and save x amount of dollars, Bank of America will match their savings when they graduate (that's a loose description).

Rwanda doesn't have an EEI for students that I know of. What Rwanda does have is the Christ's Friends Anglican Student Association of Butare. These students go to high school for 3 months then break for 2 weeks. While they're off from school, they meet and save money. They are not exactly banking a lot of money being in high school, but the group puts together 100 RWF each and they have 40+ members, so the total every three months accumulates over 4,000 RWF ($7.27 USD). In total, though, they have now accumulated about 25,000 RWF ($45.45 USD).

Each student's individual share is still not very much money, but as a group they have mobilized $45 that they can make loans from. Where else can a high school student get a loan? Where else can a high school student save? More importantly, nowhere else are high schoolers learning how to save.

2 students have loans out right now. They take loans through their parents and repay them through their parents at 10%. They see their pastors saving, see their parents saving, and now these high schoolers are saving. They are practicing managing their money and making it grow. Where else is that happening among the very poor?

That's economic empowerment and a lot of initiative.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Pastors and savings groups

HOPE's savings and credit association (SCA) model in Rwanda partners through the local church. This provides a great institutional framework for training volunteers and mobilizing new savings groups. A danger to using the church, however, is that money is a root of all kinds of evil. Trustworthy reputation for a church (or for a microfinance institution) is vital.

So, for the savings programs to grow and be successful, we need pastors and ministry leaders to be excited and involved. For savings programs to not endanger reputations, we need pastors to keep out.

In Rwanda, the message has been clear throughout the trainings, don't handle your people's money. How have Rwandan pastors responded? Beautifully. They start their own groups.

In Kigali, Pastor Sam Mugisha has an SCA of 46 pastors, and pastors only. They are excited, involved, and they know the value of saving and how it works. In other dioceses, we have seen the same story again and again. Most pastors are in a group with other pastors, and they have passed the training on to their churches and communities. There are several good stories of the ways pastors use their own groups, and I know of one group of diocese employees that also includes the bishop (though he doesn't hold any leadership position within his group). Most pastors' groups have similar variations, but here is one example:

The 3rd Sunday of every month, 5 pastors from nearby parishes gather together in one of their parish churches, which rotates each month. A visiting pastor will preach that week. After service, the 5 gather and each save 3,000 RWF ($5.45 USD) of which 2,000 is given to the host parish pastor, and 1,000 is put into an accumulating account. Their accumulating account has grown to 30,000 ($54.55). The rotating fund typically goes to something for hosting like utensils, plates, cups … but sometimes the rotating fund goes to community projects in the parish, like new roofing for the church. When church members see visiting pastors use their own money to fix the roof, they feel it would be good to contribute, too. The pastors not only set a good example by their fellowship and savings, but also by their giving in the community. This particular group of pastors takes their monthly visits a step further toward helping the community, they dig coffee holes. 60 cm deep, 40 holes per pastor, they prepare fields for coffee plants that are purposed solely for the community to benefit.

In different pastors' groups, the stories are similar. Often the pastors are empowered to care for community members better than they otherwise could. One pastor was robbed, and with an internal loan from his group he was able to restore his household quickly and pay it off slowly, and when students came by for help with school fees, he was prepared to help. Even after an emergency like being robbed, a pastor on a pastor's salary was able to restore his house and help students with extra money, too. That is a strong statement to the parish.

Emergency giving

A cell group in Shyogwe meets together each week representing 15 different families. Each agrees that the weekly contribution will be 200 RWF ($0.36 USD), which makes the group's total weekly contribution 3,000 RWF ($5.45 USD). After meeting for a short time, there was an incident that changed the way they saved. A single mother in their community became unemployed and had difficulty caring for her 3-year-old child. Economically empowered and mutually encouraged, the cell group intervened.

Each of the members agreed to contribute an immediate emergency fund of 20,000 RWF ($36.36 USD) per person, a total of 300,000 RWF ($545.45 USD). This is an impressive amount of capital. The purpose of this emergency offering: 50,000 RWF ($90.91 USD) per month for rent over the next 6 months.

They paid her rent for a half of a year in advance.

This cell group decided their policies needed to change. Now, the 15 members still contribute 200 weekly, but 150 goes into the accumulating ASCA account, and 50 goes into an emergency fund they can use to support their community. That's how they do economic development.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Ability to buy small things

When we gather stories about SCA group members benefiting from saving together, we always like to hear that they saved $0.10 per week and then started their own barber shop franchise. I was recently very pleased to learn that is exactly what one group has done, in effect. They have saved and bought hair clippers and then saved and bought more hair clippers and they are growing their business of cutting hair as a geographically dispersed group serving different areas.

Ok. But what about the lady who wants to buy soap. That's good, too.

A widow in Byumba says that she was "poor behind the others." She had no soap. But also, she had nothing to eat so she couldn't even think about soap, but she wanted that. Joining the savings group, she has now managed her finances so that her purchases work better for her; she can purchase using lump sums and she can also see her savings grow over time and with interest on others' repaid loans. She says she has something to eat now, and she can buy soap easily. She can buy soap easily. That means something. That changes your days, makes you happier.

When Danielle and I were in graduate school, both fulltime students, we were newly married with no money so we decided no purchases. We ate cabbage and rice and beans, drank water, studied on the weekend, and didn't spend money. We would have to have a discussion before going to the dollar store. Now, it wasn't so bad, we had budget to buy cokes when guests came, we rented movies sometimes; we weren't poor. But, we had decided not to spend extra-budgetary money without serious need.

One day, I had an opportunity for extra-budgetary income. I was asked to speak at a weekend college retreat that would pay some small amount. I told Danielle, "I am going to buy you shoes." She said, "No, husband, don't do that." I said, "No, I don't care, it's my money, it's extra money, I'm going to buy you shoes." Well, all of our money is really our money, but it won the argument. She had not had new shoes in a long time and the ones she loved were ripping at the seams. When I told her I would buy her new shoes, my dear wife cried.

Another widow in Byumba said that because of her savings group, she was able to buy shoes. My eyes watered up a little. That means something, to be able to buy shoes.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

What can savings group members buy?

Many savings group members don't save much. Many don't have much. Marie-Jeanne was asking a group, "If you have 100 RWF, what can that buy in the market? 1/2 kg of salt is 150 RWF. If you eat a cup of sorghum porridge, that's 250 RWF, you do that twice per day and that's 500 RWF. So you can save if you just miss one cup of porridge each week."

What then? What can you buy when you save that you cannot otherwise?

First, there are two types of purchases, those made from ROSCA funds and those from ASCA funds. Most groups contribute either monthly or weekly into one of each kind of fund.

ROSCA is the rotating savings and credit association, so if my group of 10 each saves 100 per week, one week we meet I will receive the whole 1,000.

ROSCA spending is typically:

  • school fees, books, and supplies
  • agricultural purchases like seeds or manure
  • small animals like hens, rabbits, and goats
  • household items like soap or salt
  • clothing, shoes
  • medical insurance

A few people report that their ROSCA amounts helped them clear debts, like one family owed 10,000 RWF for their daughter's wedding and their ROSCA cleared the whole debt in one day. The groups tend to allocate the ROSCA distribution according to the timing of members' needs, but each member definitely gets a turn before the next rotation.

ASCA is the accumulating savings and credit association, so one meeting my group may put 500 into ROSCA, and may also put 100 into ASCA. The 100 accumulates until it is large enough to loan out at some group determined interest rate.

Some ASCA purchases have included:

  • larger farm investments for seeds, labor, or land
  • bicycles
  • phones
  • home rental and home building

Obviously there are varying amounts of what people can save, but there are also different degrees to which the savings and loans enable purchases that otherwise wouldn't have happened. Susanne was very proud to purchase and own a phone; that was a big purchase for her that may create new opportunities for her. In Shyogwe, we heard of a more elaborate use of an ASCA. One group member used a loan to purchase 216,000 RWF worth of musical instruments to donate to the church and for the use of the group. That's about $393 USD. A purchase like that means they already had some money and some purchasing confidence, but then again, they may have never felt capable of mobilizing that much money at one time and paying for it slowly.

Spreading out payments on what would otherwise be inaccessible purchases, that's what savings and credit can do for individuals.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

SCAs on average

After visiting three Rwandan dioceses and their respective savings and credit associations (SCAs), we are beginning to get a picture of what the average group looks like. Of course, we haven't seen enough groups to be scientific about all of this, but again, we're getting a picture. There are lots more stories forthcoming that illustrate what individual groups may look like, and in the next post, what group members actually buy with their savings and loans.


18 Group members

5:1 Ratio of ROSCA (rotating) contributions to ASCA (accumulating) contributions

8:5 Ratio of groups contributing monthly to groups contributing weekly


1,800 RWF ($3.27 USD) - Monthly individual contribution, ROSCA + ASCA

21,000 RWF ($38.18 USD) - Monthly group contribution, ROSCA + ASCA


1,500 RWF ($2.73 USD) - Monthly individual ROSCA contribution

18,000 RWF ($32.73 USD) - Monthly group ROSCA contribution


300 RWF ($0.55 USD) - Monthly individual ASCA contribution

3,000 RWF ($5.45 USD) - Monthly group ASCA contribution


350 RWF ($0.64 USD) - Weekly individual contribution, ROSCA + ASCA

5,800 RWF ($10.55 USD) - Weekly group contribution, ROSCA + ASCA


300 RWF ($0.55 USD) - Weekly individual ROSCA contribution

4,000 RWF ($7.27 USD) - Weekly group ROSCA contribution


50 RWF ($0.09 USD) - Weekly individual ASCA contribution

1,800 RWF ($3.27 USD) - Weekly group ASCA contribution

**Remember, ROSCA goes to one member each week; ASCA goes into a loan fund or bank account.

Wife update

Danielle (wife) has some great news. No, she is not pregnant with triplets (that we know of), but it is her birthday on Tuesday (Feb 3) and, more directly, she just got a job!

So far, Danielle has been volunteering with HOPE and also with a local orphanage, and she helps direct the children's ministry at church. Now, she can add to the list working for World Relief Rwanda. She will be supporting the Office of the Country Director as well as the Programs Department. Her work will be research and communications related to HIV/AIDS and community/economic development, marketing and church engagement, and support for their 3-year strategic plan. Great for Danielle's experience and talents, and also it will be 25-35 hours per week. This is perfect for what she has been wanting for the rest of our short time here in Rwanda, and we really like the people and the mission of World Relief.

First assignment: pictures and stories from the WR child survival program in Cyangugu. If you'll note my travel schedule from my last blog, I'm going to Cyangugu next week. It's all very perfect.

She'll be able to work from home a lot and continue her volunteer work. She'll get incredible experience doing exactly what she likes with an organization we both admire. (Side-note: World Relief is also a partner with HOPE in our microfinance institution here in Rwanda, Urwego Opportunity Bank). We can honestly say that this opportunity fits every criteria Danielle was looking for, and the country director is looking into free World Relief caps and/or shirts for Danielle's husband. Very good.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Diocese campaign tour

As I've mentioned we are traveling around Rwanda assessing our savings programs to date - more stories are forthcoming. Malu and the core team trained for a year, so before we train some more, we're seeing what has happened.

We are encouraging groups and leaders, gathering stories of success and challenges, casting vision and receiving advice, and laying the groundwork for a wholesale group-by-group reporting scheme to get the hard numbers on the economic development.

Below is a brief schedule of the diocese campaign tour. Each week, we spend Tuesday through Friday on the road hitting dioceses in pairs.
Byumba, Jan 22-23
Shyogwe, Jan 27-28
Butare, Jan 29-30
Kigeme, Feb 3-4
Cyangugu, Feb 5-6
Kibungo, Feb 10-11
Gahini, Feb 12-13

Shyira, Feb 17-18
If you want to visualize where we are, and I'm sure this is particularly helpful for my wife who is wondering where I am right now, then this map gives all of the Anglican diocese locations with an added bonus of emphasis placed on dioceses with the most churches. Byumba has 327, Cyangugu has 76.

(Thanks to Gary Hobday for reminding me how much I love maps.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Brotherly love

Brotherly love, like the city of Philadelphia, can sometimes be an enigma. Brothers fight. Philadelphians can be rude.

Living in the same Rwandan village there were two brothers, neighbors, who would not talk to each other. Their families would not talk to each other, and their children were not allowed to play with each other. I don't know how the feud started, and there's a good chance that they don't know either, but these things have a tendency to die hard.

Somehow the two brothers ended up in the same savings group. Probably because there was just one savings group, and both valued membership enough to somehow tolerate the other. This savings group, like many others, rotates locations in each member's home. How did the brothers not see this coming?

The first time the rotation lands on one of the brothers, the other brother had to choose.

Surprised, at the end of the meeting the other brother returned home safely and nothing had happened. He shared his brother's home for the first time, and both faced another day.

The next tense meeting, the brothers switched roles. Now the first brother entered his brother's house and again nothing bad happened.

Actually, on this second occasion, something did happen. At the beginning of these meetings someone usually prays. At this meeting, someone read John 3:16 and began to discuss love. That was enough for the brothers to begin crying and ask forgiveness.

Reconciled brothers. I think something meaningful happens when you put faith, community, and what you do with your money in the same gathering. These are important matters.

Supporting the church

HOPE's savings program in Rwanda is partnered through the local church. Church leadership has decided that poverty is not a good condition for the human soul, and so their churches are involved in various development endeavors to strengthen the local community, Christians and non-Christians.

Hopefully, our savings programs also support the church and its ministry. Well, we see that happening in hundreds of ways through the stories of these savings groups, but here is one story that does more than support its local church.

In Shyogwe diocese, a group of about 11 households have been meeting together and saving together. They were trained by a pastor who was trained by HOPE. The pastor set up the group, taught them the foundations and principles, help them set guidelines, monitored their progress. The group traveled long distances to attend church and they consistently met and saved.

Over time, the group decided they would not travel long distances to come to church anymore.

Instead, they took a portion of their savings and rented a house for 5 months. Everyday … full time. They plan to buy the house. The house is where they meet, where they save, where they discuss common concerns. The house is also where they gather on Sundays. They have asked the parish priest to provide a catechist who will lead their "home" church. Not only has this group of households decided that they no longer accept poverty, but they have also decided that they will be responsible for shaping their own community - even starting their own local church. That's one way to support the local church.

(As a side note, successful savings groups in the area are drawing many Christians and non-Christians who want to join these church-based cell groups that are "doing savings.")

Price of development aid

Prices are interesting. I asked my dad once how much my George Brett rookie card was worth; he responded, "Whatever someone pays for it." What a bad answer. I knew at that young age that my dad had surely fallen to the fallacy of circular reasoning; his answer was worthless. Later in life, I look back and have decided that I owe him because I finally figured it out (I also figured out that my father, too, was an economics major).

Most things are scarce in that there is no endless supply. The more scarce something is, the more an additional amount of that something costs. Salt is very valuable, but additional salt for the average person is not so scarce and not so expensive. Economist magazines are not so abundant on the street of Kigali, so if I'm lucky enough to get another issue (I have only one Christmas edition issue now) then I would gladly pay over $10 USD. So price, what I am willing to pay, depends on the happiness that an additional magazine issue brings me. My demand for an additional unit of something plus the relative scarcity, this is where we get price. Some like to just say, supply and demand. Economics, … whatever.

Let's talk about the price of development aid. In Rwanda, NGOs flooded the market for social services after the war in 1994. There was great need, and there is still great poverty.

Made up scenario to illustrate the price of development aid:

One typical NGO response to poverty is to give a family a cow. The family receives the cow at a price of zero (0). After giving the family one cow, their demand for an additional cow is less than before. If every family in the village gets a cow and more than one NGO is competing to give away more cows, then cows at zero cost are higher in supply, and demand for an additional cow is lower. Now if an NGO wants to give away more cows, they may find that families are willing to spend less than zero to get that cow. What's less than spending zero? You pay me. I mean, if I'm willing to miss out on work that could make me money, there are opportunity costs for me to get your free cow; and if I have to travel to the village center to meet you then I incur transaction costs to get my cow. I find that I'm no longer willing to come get it, that is, unless you pay me. In fact, if NGOs are competing to give me a cow, and it is important for NGOs to fulfill their missions and report back to their donors, then the best strategy for the NGO is to compete on their respective pricing for free cows. That is, the prices for cows become more negative, NGOs pay for meeting attendance and pay extra for transportation allowance.

What is the cow worth to the villager?

That's not the primary question to the NGOs; they like to ask, "Is poverty being reduced?" If poverty is defined by not having cows, then poverty is being reduced. If poverty is defined by not having sick cows … It costs money to keep a cow from getting sick, by the way. NGOs can train people to care for cows, but the cows are not worth very much, relatively speaking. The cow has worth, but is it worth more than my time and effort in taking care of the cow, or worth more than the money spent to buy medicine for the cow? Not when an additional cow is provided to me at negative cost. I can get paid for receiving more zero-priced animals, so my time, effort, and money are better used elsewhere. Possibly, I'll want to devote more time to leisure, and that's a completely rational response.

Prices are supposed to align people's motives so that their pursuit of self-interest is guided by the invisible hand that makes society better off. How does society react with negative prices?

NGOs ask families to take care of their free livestock and to then donate any offspring to the next family in the program. However, neither of these things makes rational sense to the participants. Why invest in the cow? I don't have much money or high expectations for my future and more negative priced cows are available. Why give away the offspring? The same people that gave me my cow can just give my neighbor a cow, I can sell mine, we're both better off. What makes sense to NGOs does not make sense to the villagers because it's not in their best interest. You get the cow at a negative price, sell the offspring for a positive price.

When you artificially change prices, you distort people's choices, their incentives, and their actions. You do not, necessarily, change poverty this way.

Follow up pointers about foreign aid

Bill Easterly is blogging now at Aid Watch: "Just asking that aid benefit the poor."

Bill Gates [First] Annual Letter, optimistic and impatient, he tells us what's working and what's not. Also, it's gratifying to see an email in my inbox from Bill Gates and it's not asking me to forward to my 50 closest friends, even though now I am sort of doing that. Hmm.

New book – The Trouble with Aid: Why Less Could Mean More for Africa (African Arguments), Jonathan Glennie

Slight tangent, but relevant to foreign intervention/regulation in an academic kind of way (thanks to Jeff Kern for this gift of an article).

Cato Institute Trade Policy Analysis Paper: "While Doha Sleeps: Securing Economic Growth through Trade Facilitation," Daniel J. Ikenson

How do you define poverty?

How you define poverty makes a big difference in how you respond to poverty. Do you think poverty is …

  • Lack of money?
  • Lack of education?
  • Lack of health?
  • Lack of voice?
  • Lack of security?

Is lack of money a lack of cash flow (income) or cash stocks (savings)? Is lack of education a lack of trade skills (sewing) or human capital (ingenuity)? Is lack of health disease or malnutrition? The point that follows from these questions is that there are many pieces in the poverty puzzle.

If we have an idea that we need to do something about poverty, then we also probably have an idea what we mean by "poverty." If it's just a lack of money, well, let's send money. The last 50 years of sending money, however, has proven poverty more complex. Bill Easterly, a critic of foreign aid (Amartya Sen critiques his criticism here), describes in The Elusive Quest for Growth some economic growth panaceas that have failed chronically poor countries over the last 50 years:

Capital accumulation: there is insufficient savings and investment, but if foreign aid supplies investment for machinery and factories, then what about human capital plus the incentives to make capital productive?

Education: schooling is just part of human capital (think information networks for entrepreneurs), and does more education funds mean better education or increased national income? Sometimes it means educated people leave the country or learn to redistribute existing wealth instead of stimulate the economy.

Loans conditional upon policy reforms: how do you measure true reform instead of encouraging shifty adjustments, and does this still reward neediness instead of growth?

Debt forgiveness: perhaps poor countries want to grow but we've saddled them with too much debt … let's wipe the slate clean, right? Data from 41 high-debt countries from 1989-1997 shows that these nations were forgiven $33 billion in debt, yet in the years thereafter these same countries incurred $41 billion dollars of new debt.

Bono and the ONE Campaign have argued for debt forgiveness (somewhat as a Judeo-Christian "jubilee" concept) and have taken a lot of flak for such a bad idea, but they have worked with Jeffrey Sachs, noted economist and UN advisor, and have coupled their strategy with policy reform conditions for better future results. Philanthropists and scholars are working toward better responses - especially after years of seeing Africa grow poorer - but the lesson learned is that poverty requires nuanced strategy, holistic approach, noting that we treat poverty by how we perceive the poverty problem.

As Chalmers describes it, poverty is a mix of material poverty, isolation, physical weakness, powerlessness, and vulnerability. HOPE International applies Chalmers materials in our Savings and Credit Associations (SCAs) because our view of poverty is spiritual, physical, and social; poverty is a condition of the whole person and all of her relationships.

Read here how a Rwandan HOPE staffer describes the purpose of our savings groups.

SCAs are empowering at a micro level, they do not encourage dependency, and their results are more than just savings. SCAs are supporting renewed communities that believe in their ability to end their own poverty; progress that may well lead to a more sustainable development for economic growth.

For more reading:

Stuart Rutherford, The Poor and Their Money (FREE DOWNLOAD)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Connecting the coffee mugs

The families were like a bunch of coffee mugs with no spoons or mobile phones or napkins.

That is to say, we need to connect the coffee mugs.

There was a church program to increase food security in the village. There were no regular meetings, but every so often a grant would provide cows or goats or pigs that would be distributed to the community according to need. Most vulnerable families received first.

Once livestock was given, instruction provided, the families returned home. However, families were still isolated. They did not come together, and even if they were Christians, they did not pray together. The families considered themselves very different and for various reasons did not feel comfortable praying with those other people.

After everything, the families still had a poverty mindset. There was no money to care for the cows if they got sick, and there was little incentive to do so because they might just get more animals through the next grant.

A few years later, our savings program was integrated into the food security program. This is how things changed:

People met together. They heard that they could save money together, let it grow, and have access to larger lump sums of money. Perceptions changed. Before if someone was given a cow, he then had more disposable income for drinking or smoking. Now, the more he saves the more he has. The money has purpose and the community begins to take account of their assets. Not only do people meet together, they rotate meeting in each family's home. After they meet and save money, they fix one family's roof and next week work another family's field. Now, the communities cherish praying together because they truly share concerns, and they also share enthusiasm.

No more isolation. Community reconciliation. Praying together, working together. Perceptions of poverty change when people are empowered. That's what we try to do with our savings training. We don't just train in counting money, that's why other groups in the region that do similar self-help models are asking our "champions" to help their groups, too.

Our champions are bringing the coffee mugs into the village and connecting them with straws and pens and napkins. That changes the poverty mindset.

Beggar’s savings

Sylvain used to beg. He lives in a remote area in northern Rwanda, almost to the Ugandan border. There is a church in the area, not a building, but a church. It sits on a hill overlooking the market, and there the community members gather to pool their savings and generally support each other.

Group members enjoy sharing how the savings program has helped them and changed their lives. Sylvain stands up. Sylvain was known to be a beggar, yet still he was invited to bring 100 RWF (18 cents USD) per week to join the local savings group.

This group uses a rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA), so when each of 16 people put in 100 RWF, they distribute 1000 to one person one week and then rotate to another person the next week. Each week, someone gets a lump sum that is larger than what they would normally have on hand to spend. This is very useful, even though still very small. After the 1000 is given, there is still another 600 each week that goes into a general savings pool of which everyone in the group owns an equal share (like an accumulating savings and credit association, ASCA). When that pool of savings is big enough, they may lend it to some better use with a nice return, or they may start a joint venture together and purchase livestock or seeds.

For Sylvain, he has changed. The savings itself is useful, but he has also changed in how the community sees him. He has changed in how he sees himself. Sylvain has a purpose for his time and money, and more importantly, because this savings group shares his concerns and works together to lift everyone up, Sylvain no longer feels isolated.

Isolation is a significant part of being poor, especially for a beggar. But Sylvain is no longer isolated, and in fact, he is no longer a beggar. Lately he has been working in agriculture and some carpentry. And he is still saving and thinking about the future.

Time to make baskets

Her husband left her with two children. It happens sometimes. They are very poor and he is not happy; the husband can always go off and start fresh with another woman. He can make a new try at life.

Meanwhile, the poor family is now poorer. The abandoned woman still must feed her children, and she is committed to providing their school fees so they can have a decent try of their own one day. To take care of everything, the woman must work very hard. When you work so hard to get by, it's even harder to look ahead and insure against harder times, which will come. In spite of the difficulties, this woman joined a savings group and contributed her 18 cents USD per week.

This particular group is partnered with other programs that help them get medical insurance and some agricultural assistance. The woman now has a burden lifted, if but slightly. When the burden is lifted, she is able to take more time away from barely getting by and to spend time on higher and better uses: making baskets. Through the savings group, the money for schooling is there when she needs it. Imagine the stress relieved …

People are designed to be productive and enjoy life. Both are difficult when you struggle to get by. Struggle leaves little room for the joy of creating something beautiful and valuable, something you can sell in the market instead of just toiling in the dirt. Lighter burden, more joy, kids in school; now you are able to make baskets. And smile more.

Young man’s hope

When you work for an organization called HOPE International, you hope that when you ask someone about our impact, they say that we bring hope.

I'll be bringing lots of stories from the field over the next few weeks because we are traveling and speaking with group members. Many of the group members we meet will be women, but recently we met a young man who stood up and wanted to share.

He is young; he is energetic and handsome. He is also sitting around with mamas with babies, some widows, and others. He can make money because he is a young man. But he is still quite poor, relatively, and lives in a remote, poor area, so the question is: what is the point of making money? He will not go to the University of Florida, won't become an entrepreneur. He won't open a franchise coffee shop.

The young man stands up and says that his savings group has taught him hope. You don't save if you don't have hope for the future. You don't have hope for the future if someone doesn't believe in you, support you, and share stories of transformation.

In my thinking, it was not possible for me to have a cow. In future, I hope to buy [another] free range cow.
(He now already has one cow.)

The truth is, that village won't see a new Starbucks franchise in my lifetime (maybe I'm wrong), but the young man can become an entrepreneur. He has time, and now he has hope.

The cobbler

So I'm in Africa, and my shoe starts to burst from the seams and a piece of rubber is extending out to the side.

We drive down dirt roads by new construction into somewhat of a city center. We find a concrete megaplex of shops and people. We walk towards the back where it opens up to a great view of the mountains. Then, in the corner, I see old tires, scraps of rubber, and stalls of men with piles of old shoes and shoe parts. This is where the cobblers work.

I was first quoted 100 RWF. That's about 18 cents USD at my last exchange rate. The quote was for him to crazy glue my shoe. I'm not crazy, that's not going to work. I'm going to need a much more expensive fix. I go up to 500 RWF and have him sew it up with the aid of some fancy shoeing tool. Now we're talking 88 cents USD, but believe me, it was well worth it. My shoes are now fit for dancing.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

U.S. History Update

Far away from home, yet I feel happily American. Regardless of politics, there is something symbolic to the inauguration of our 44th U.S. president, Barack Obama.

The Washington Post quotes a boy speaking before the Obama family and the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church:
Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King Jr. could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run. Barack Obama ran so that all children can fly.
I'm listening to the live broadcast on Voice of America radio, and an interviewer asks an older woman why she is there in D.C. for the inauguration. She replies:
Because there was a time I wasn't allowed in restaurants and office buildings and laundromats.
We can visibly see in Kigali that this presidential inauguration is an international event. There is talk in the streets, movement and whir, and many are gathered now to follow along live at the U.S. embassy.

Our world is not at peace. Our president faces great challenges. But today, the symbol outweighs the doubts. Symbolically, for the world, the greater hope of our new president is the fact that we have chosen him, we are willing to change, though we may fail.

Change is not always good, and hope is not certainty; but overcoming, persevering, giving, trying, and believing ... that is American.

President-Elect Obama Recommended Reading List

From the same Washington Monthly article as the Obama Campaign Trail Reading List, below are the 25 books that the new president should read. Washington Monthly gives detailed descriptions for why each book is important for the incoming administration.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Pardox of Modern Iran, Hooman Majd

Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr

The Will to Believe, William James

Character and Opinion in the United States, George Santayana

Memoirs, 1925–1950, George F. Kennan

The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS, Helen Epstein

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn

America’s Defense Meltdown, Center for Defense Information (FREE download)

The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, Peter Schwartz

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, David Halberstam

The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington, Garrett Epps

The Quiet American, Graham Greene

The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Avi Shlaim

The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation, Stephen Flynn

A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds and the Perils of Financial Innovation, Richard Bookstaber

The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, Warren Buffett

Lost in the City, Edward P. Jones

The Pretence of Knowledge, Friedrich Hayek (FREE at

Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Irving L. Janis

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams

The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, John Zogby

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills

Beyond Human Scale: Large Corporation at Risk, Eli Ginzberg and George Vojta

Obama's Campaign Trail Reading List

According to the Washington Monthly, here are some books President-Elect Obama was seen with on the campaign trail:

The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jonathan Alter
Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, Larry Bartels
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, Steve Coll
The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Couch’s chairs

On average, my friends bring my coolness way up, and this is especially true of Justin Couch. Ever since our wedding, Danielle's dad asks how Couch is doing ... "He is one interesting guy."

Around 2004, Couch left his home in Georgia heading for the 'Frisco bay, which I understand is San Francisco. (As a matter of fact, I missed an SFO connection once and was graciously hosted at his brother's dinner, his favorite coffee house, a bayside tour, and his home.) Georgia Tech for Couch was industrial design, so San Francisco was a venue to test the waters and build a portfolio. Having tested those waters, Couch came back.

Now, Couch is testing new waters in Washington DC. As another matter of fact, he's making a few waves this time. Couch's work has been featured in the Express, the Washington Post's free daily that every living soul reads on the metro in the morning. In the pictures below, his chair and table were selected as the #1 style pick, and also, they called his District Table an irreverent approach to home furnishings, which I guess is good.

I love the way Couch has been designing furniture. For one, he's been poor. You've got to start there as a dreamer/artist. So how can you create and experiment with no money and no equipment? On top of that, could you even add in some time to invest in community and give to others? Yes. As Artist-in-Residence, Couch has been working with inner city youth at Off The Block Artisans Program where he teaches woodworking skills as well as job-related and life skills. In his free time, he can use all of the woodworking machines to do fancy designer things like above. He gets paid a little, he gets design time a lot, and he gets to give a lot. That's about as good as it gets, or at least until the next door opens for his creativity. Right now, that door looks like it may be Barninger & Couch. I've met Barninger, he's wonderful, and so I think this might go well.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Choices for/against prostitution

Nicholas Kristof had a couple of articles that got me thinking about a paper I wrote on illicit labor market efficiency back in economics grad school. He wrote one article on sweatshops and one on prostitution. Would you believe he was for sweatshops? (Not that I necessarily endorse this view, Private Sector Development Blog gives another view.) Where do you think he stood on prostitution?

Well, ease your mind, I think Mr Kristof and I are both against prostitution, so you can keep reading.

Why is he for sweatshops? Sweatshops offend our charitable Western sensibilities … no one should work in such conditions. Mr Kristof, however, asks his readers to consider the alternatives: no job or worse conditions. On a macro scale, how can a poor nation become an industrialized trading partner if it doesn't climb up through the mire and muck of difficult working conditions and low wage employees? We did it once long ago. People choose to work at sweatshops because it's their best choice given their circumstances.

Economically, the choices people make are often assumed to be the most efficient choices for them – rational choices. People know what makes them better off. Sometimes we would prefer better for people who work in sweatshops, but there may not be better alternatives. Refusing to trade with countries that "exploit" labor means that those people who were getting exploited are now out of a job.

Pro-sweatshops, anti-prostitution.

So, why not prostitution? Even worse, travel to Poipet, Cambodia, or Mombasa, Kenya, among others, and you will find a high premium on child prostitution. Economists may argue, though, that measures to prevent prostitution, even for children, will just leave those poor people with even less choice and much worse conditions … starvation, violence, death.

My question, and my economics paper from before, is about the efficiency of slavery, prostitution, and other forms of illicit labor. Don't people make rational choices to maximize their own welfare, and if we mess with that, then do we mess them up? Is prostitution an efficient labor market outcome?

Some economic papers concerning such illicit labor markets suggest that the main objection to jobs like prostitution is moral repugnance. We don't like the thought of it. We would hope for something better. Economically, they claim, illicit job choices are efficient, prostitution is efficient; prostitution is the best (sic) choice for some young women and young boys.

Ok, here's the quick of it: endogenous choices. The decisions that, say, prostitutes make are based on a predetermined game … where they lose. The idea is that, yes, if people choose a job then it must be their best alternative. If you ban prostitution, it doesn't help prostitutes, they'll just starve now. But here's the thing, what if prostitution is their best choice because someone has restricted their choices? – and therein lies the problem.

Forgive me here, but I'm reading a book on game theory, so let's construct a game:

First, let's simplify. All women in Mombasa can choose between two jobs, basket weaving and prostituting. All employers in Mombasa can choose to be good (respect their workers and pay fair wages) or choose to be bad (take advantage of their workers for higher profit). The chart above shows the payouts to employers in the upper right of each square, and the payout for women is in the lower left square. A payout of 4 is great; a payout of 1 is pretty poor.

Scenario A) Let's say that all employers in Mombasa are good (left column). Now the only choice is what work women prefer if employers are good. Women will prefer a payout of 4 instead of 3, so if all employers are good, women prefer basket weaving. Even if prostituting involves making more money, the payout for women may include more than just money, payout can be dignity plus income. Basket weaving wins out.

Scenario B) If every single employer in Mombasa is bad (right column), then women will prefer to prostitute because their payout is 2 instead of 1 for basket weaving. This may be the case because bad employers take advantage of all of their workers, but prostitutes can bring in more than weavers so there's a bigger take for the women to prostitute.

So the choice of basket weaving or prostituting, for the women, depends on whether all employers are good or all employers are bad. In a perfect world, however, the best a woman can do is 4, so any woman would ideally want to weave baskets for good employers.

What about the choices for employers?

Scenario C) Let's say that all women weave baskets (top row). Now the employers must decide: should I be good or should I be bad? If all women weave baskets, being good gets an employer 2 and being bad gets 3, so the employer will prefer to take advantage of her employees and be bad. Scenario D) What if all women are prostitutes (bottom row)? Well, the employer still gets a better payout for being bad, 4 to 3.

Note here that employers will choose to be bad, take advantage of employees, and receive a bigger payout regardless of whether women weave or prostitute. In game theory, this is called a dominant strategy: when one player has a choice that is always better than any other choice that player could make regardless of the other players' choices. Dominant strategy does not mean best overall outcome, just that one player has a choice better than all of that player's other choices no matter what others do.

If employers have a dominant strategy to be bad, they're going to be bad. If employers are always bad, we know that it is better for women to choose prostitution, as in Scenario B above.

Just because women choose prostitution, it doesn't mean that prostitution is an efficient economic outcome (much less an efficient human outcome).

The best choice for a woman in our model above is by far to weave baskets. Prostitution is simply the best choice given that the game is rigged against them.

The model above is very simplified, so what are some ways that the game is rigged against women or children or the poor and vulnerable? … Education, social stigmas, discrimination, AIDS, slavery, corruption, sexism, drugs, vicious circles of poverty.

Prostitution is bad, and repugnant. Do we fight to ban prostitution at the expense of the very poor? Mr Kristof wants to see brothels become unprofitable through systemic changes. Where illicit labor markets prevail, the economic, social, and justice systems are broken; so how can we see prostitution become a bad choice and how can we restore women's best choices?

Further Reading

Kristof, Nicholas. 2009, January 10. "Striking the Brothels' Bottom Line." New York Times, Op-Ed.

Kristof, Nicholas. 2009, January 14. "Where Sweatshops Are a Dream." New York Times, Op-Ed.

Dixit, Avinash K. and Barry J. Nalebuff. Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life. London: Norton, 1993.

Imperfect Outcomes for Illicit International Labor Markets: short bibliography.

Genicot, Garance. 2002. “Bonded Labor and Serfdom: A Paradox of Voluntary Choice.” Journal of Development Economics 67(1): 101-127. [More on endogenous choices.]