Category Archives: 2010

Au revoir Paris!

Well, my internship at UNEP is coming to an end. After three months in Paris, I am returning home to Texas in a few days to complete the final year of my masters program in Global Policy studies. I have worked on a variety of projects aimed at engaging the private sector to voluntarily adopt more sustainable envrionmental practices–practices that not only preserve the environment and its resources, but also often benefit the corporate bottom line and public image.

In my first blog I stated that the goal of my internship was to to gain a better understanding of the processes and mechanisms behind the coordination and development of environmental policy for governments and the international community. I can say I have definitely gained valuable insight into how a United Nations organization operates and
the process of interagency collaboration. I also have an enhanced appreciation of the role business and industry can, does, and will play in addressing some of our greatest global environmental challenges, including loss of biodiversity, sustainable production and consumption, and climate change. In light of the challenges and time-frames of negotiating major international environmental treaties, raising awareness, education and voluntary initiatives may prove the more productive path.

Does microcredit work for the poor?

photo of disbursement

DHF's program partner Multicredit keeps track of every new loan disbursement by taking a photo of the actual handover of the money. This helps promote transparency.

Does microcredit work for the poor?

Sometimes.

During my summer internship with DiscoverHope Fund (DHF) in Peru, I have learned a lot about what makes the difference between a microcredit model that works for the poor and one that doesn’t.

First, the mission of the microfinance institution matters. Whether it is for-profit or non-profit, the ultimate objective of the organization must be to help the poor. For example, at DHF, the mission is to “provide an opportunity for women in poverty to create their own prosperity through microcredit, entrepreneurship and training.”

teaching bookkeeping

The village bank promoter teaches the leadership board of a village bank how to keep track of their loan repayments.

Furthermore, the methods the organization employs to meet its goals must match its mission. For example, setting interest rates requires striking a delicate balance between achieving financial sustainability for the loaning institution and keeping interest rates low enough so as not to burden the poor. Our program partner Multicredit offers a monthly interest rate of 2.25%, which is much higher than rates you would find in the U.S., yet much lower than rates in Peru and easily manageable for our loan recipients to repay.

A new loan recipient examines her personalized booklet from Multicredit which she will use to kee track of her loan repayments.

A new loan recipient examines her personalized booklet from Multicredit which she will use to kee track of her loan repayments.

Second, you need an effective screening process for potential loan recipients. At DHF, we make sure women have a clear business plan for how they will use their loan before giving them money. We also try to give women the amount of women they need to expand their business, not the amount they want. For example, during the screening process for one of our new village banks, we interviewed a candidate who couldn’t even calculate her business costs. She told us she sold blankets for $10, but then a moment later told us she spent $12 buying yarn. Giving a loan to a woman who doesn’t understand her own business would be a disservice and an added burden for the poor.

Third, transparency is crucial. Our program partner Multicredit gives us detailed reports of all their monthly activities, and has effective bookkeeping methods for tracking loan disbursement and repayment. We meet on a regular basis to keep lines of communication open. Multicredit even teaches the women how to keep track of their loan repayment themselves with personalized booklets.

Finally, microloans should be complemented with training and other support. This is what DHF calls the “microcredit plus” model. Not only do we provide women with loans, but we also encourage them to have savings accounts, we provide them with business assessment services, and we coordinate classes like sewing,

DHF's newest village bank, Las Azucenas, celebrates their loan disbursement.

DHF's newest village bank, Las Azucenas, celebrates their loan disbursement.

knitting, cooking, and computer literacy that will expand their marketable skills.

This is by no means an in-depth analysis of the subject (if you’re interested, you can find plenty of articles online that analyze whether microcredit really helps the poor). This is just a reflection on some of the features of DHF’s approach to microcredit that I think make it an effective model for truly serving the poor.

India’s Water Conflicts: Politics over Water

Being here for three months working on watershed issues has indirectly led me to other unstable issues here in India. Water conflicts in India are becoming explo­sive and politicians are working hard to sustain them over a long period of time. Practically every state in India, particularly in the south, has at least one or more conflicts over water distribution with its neighbor. Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are at loggerheads with each other over the sharing of the Krishna waters; Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Kerala are in conflict over the Cauvery; Kerala and Tamil Nadu are fighting over the 113-year old Mullaperiyar dam. The intensity and frequency of these conflicts are increasing. No doubt that it will become worse with the in­creasing uncertainty of climate change.

Despite having negotiated several settlements with Pakistan over water with the help of mediators, it seems as though it is very difficult for Indian states to han­dle internal conflicts over water. One of the reasons is that there is a lack of an efficient frame­work and mediating mechanism for con­flict resolution, both within the govern­ment and civil society. There are a number of common themes among the conflicts over water in India.  For example, it is common for downstream users to distrust upstream dam building and operation, and this kind of conflict exists within states and between regions, at levels ranging from the village to the basin level. The other important aspect is that India’s systems are not oriented towards building trust. In fact, very often, the contrary is the case, especially when such conflicts overlap with state boundaries.

Another issue I see is that there is a lack of a scientific approach to water management. The science and the policy of dealing with water sharing have both considerably advanced in recent times around the world and especially in the United States. Water manage­ment in India does not seem to have advanced as much. As a result of a lack of communication between scientists and policymakers (ala Copenhagen) river flows have fallen below levels and have disappeared in many important fishing communities. India seems to have its own brand of the “rule of capture”. Dam construction technology has led to a construction race that aims at capturing every drop of water that everyone is entitled to. The complexity of climate change adds another serious dimension to the conflict. While the precise change in rainfall is disputed, all climate models agree on the likelihood of the increase of extreme events – extreme surpluses and extreme shortages.

Where Schools & Prisons Meet

The biggest appeal to me of working for the ACLU of Texas this summer was the opportunity to work on one of the greatest issues our country is facing: the tragic progression known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate and the biggest prison population of any country in the world. This is not because the U.S. has an inherently greater percentage of bad or dangerous citizens, but rather because our criminal justice system is undeniably broken . And the brokenness isn’t just evident in the adult criminal justice system; its also evident in the institutions that pave the ways to our prisons: the mental health industry, the juvenile justice system, and the public education system.

The nexus between our nation’s schools and its prisons is a critical junction for youth. Classrooms should be the place where children, regardless of their culture or their family’s background, can learn vital knowledge and prepare to excel as adults. Sadly, instead of leveling the playing field, many schools only exacerbate the inequalities in society. Kids who need the most nurturing too often get pushed out of the educational environment and end up in our criminal justice system instead. The ACLU is doing a lot of great work to try to end this national trend, including several actions centered on policy work that I’ve been able to contribute to this summer. A couple of my favorites:

1. Making Schools Safe for ALL Children: Since the increase in school shootings and gang violence in the 1990s, schools have been under great pressure to maximize campus security efforts. One of the negative consequences of this development is that adolescent misconduct is now frequently handled by school police instead of administrators, often with damaging results. A key project of mine this summer has been assisting in the creation of a report on the use of force on students, including conducting open records requests to school districts and identifying the extent to which police use tasers, pepper spray, and other extreme tactics on kids while they’re at school. Many schools have no clear policies on how force should be used, nor any recorded data on how often force is used – a disturbing finding given how many police are guarding our nation’s classrooms.

2. Reforming Policies that Contribute to High Dropout Rates: While many of the reasons why students drop out of school are difficult to remedy, some of the factors that contribute to low graduation rates could be addressed through changes to current state policy. One example specific to Texas: by amending the current method used by the State Board of Education in establishing school curriculum, the Texas Legislature could depoliticize the process of selecting standards and better ensure that subject requirements are accurate and culturally suitable for all students. Relevant, educationally appropriate curriculum is a key to engaging students and reducing dropout. Because current curriculum adoption practices allow the SBOE to sacrifice relevant curriculum for ideological purposes, I recently delivered a report on this topic to numerous legislative staff at the Capitol in hopes of fostering support for a bill next session that would bring forth needed change to the SBOE and to the process of determining what is taught in classrooms across the state.

A second policy in need of clear revision: Texas’ law regarding truancy for students 18 or older. Unlike in any other state in the nation, students in Texas who are over 17 and still striving towards their high school diploma can be prosecuted for truancy for too many class absences. Many older students are balancing work or family commitments that can conflict with school, and facing court fees and jail time for truancy only increases the odds that they will drop out before reaching graduation. Part of my internship has been learning about detrimental laws such as this and identifying ways the ACLU can advocate for appropriate policy changes in the 2011 Legislative Session.

As I work to address these school-to-prison pipeline issues, I’m particularly looking forward to this weekend when our Austin office will host the ACLU of Texas’ annual conference. This year the entire meeting is dedicated to youth rights in school discipline and many of the juvenile justice issues that I’ve been working on this summer. It should be an inspiring gathering of people who share my concern for the education and criminal justice systems, and I look forward to sharing more soon about the exciting conversations that will take place!

Business contributes to the MDGs

In 2000, world leaders adopted a declaration in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to help eradicate poverty and hunger, achieve universal education, reduce child mortality, promote gender equity, improve maternal health, combat diseases, and ensure environmental sustainability. While significant progress has been made toward these goals, much needs to be accomplished to meet the 2015 targets only five short years away.

We hear a lot about what governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations are doing to help reach these goals, but what about the private sector? Business and industry are key partners in the UN’s effort to help achieve the MDGs, and this September they will have the chance to discuss their accomplishments and contributions, as well as the remaining challenges and obstacles.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has invited CEOs to engage with world leaders and UN agency heads this September to review private sector contributions toward achieving the MDGs, and key challenges that remain. I have been helping organize UNEP’s participation, including engaging with CEOs who show a substantial commitment to environmental sustainability in their corporate programs.

A number of companies are taking measures to reduce their carbon footprint and promote environmental sustainability; for example, using power from renewable energy sources, reducing their use of hazardous chemicals in manufacturing and production processes, switching to electric or biofuel transportation fleets, implementing employee telecommuting programs, and promoting waste minimization, water conservation and recycling. Environmentally sustainable measures also contribute to many of the other MDGs—for example, reducing poverty and hunger through new green jobs, and improving health and combating diseases through access to clean water.

By promoting and investing in environmentally sustainable practices, businesses can preserve the environmental resources they depend upon and contribute to the MDGs, as well as benefit from increased cost savings, more efficient production processes, decreased risk, and improved stakeholder engagement and public image.

Land of the plenty

Uganda is commonly referred to as “the pearl of Africa.” Its landscapes include rolling green hills, vibrant crops  and lush soil. In rural Uganda, the majority of families do some type of agricultural work. Common crops include maize, potatoes, and greens. And then there is the wealth of fruits available wherever you look. In our backyard alone, grows papaya, mango, eggplant and banana. Nearby grows jackfruit, passion fruit and pineapple. The abundance of food is not limited to fruits. Goats, cows, chickens, pigs roam throughout each and every village.

So my question is….knowing all of this, why is there so much hunger in Uganda and the rest of Africa? I would estimate that 90 percent of children of under the age of 5 in Buwaiswa are malnourished. How can this be? Even after living in the village for 9 weeks now, I still am unable to answer this question. However I have noticed several characteristics that may contribute to the continuation of hunger in the country. These characteristics include the following:

1. Many villagers do not know what a “healthy meal” includes. They do not understand that eating foods like posho, maize and potatoes (all carbs) may leave you feeling full, but they do not fulfill the definition of a well-balanced meal.

2. Eggs, chicken and other sources of protein are often raised by villagers but immediately sold for profit instead of being consumed by families. Many people do not understand the importance of protein in their diets.

3. It is common in Ugandan culture for men to receive larger and better portions of food.  This means that men are more likely to consume more food and the women and children in the family are left with smaller, insufficient amounts of food.

4. There are so many mouths to feed. The average number of children per family is 8, making it difficult for each family member to receive adequate nutrition.

I realize that the problem of malnutrition does not have a simple solution. However, my teammates and I worked this week to contribute to the solution this past week by holding a nutrition sensitization in our village. We also  invited a local drama group to present on the issue of eating smartly. It was nice to present the issue of nutrition in a different, exciting way.  Since we always attract lots of children during our meetings, the drama was also an opportunity for the younger audience members to learn something as well.

On another note, this will be my final week in Uganda. I have really enjoyed my time here and I hope to return to Uganda in the future. This experience has solidified my desire to work in Africa in the area of international development.

Who wants to develop?

The president, secretary and treasurer of one of the village banks as they collect the final quota to repay their group loan

The president, secretary and treasurer of one of the village banks as they collect the final quota to repay their group loan

This past week two of our village banks completed their first loan cycle (a five-month loan cycle in which they repay about $140 per person with 2.25% monthly interest). After each cycle, the women decide whether they want to continue being a part of a village bank and whether they want to proceed to the next loan cycle, when they can receive a larger loan.

If the women want to continue, we evaluate them individually and as a bank to see if they qualify to move on to the next cycle. We not only evaluate them based on whether they have repaid their loan (we have had 100% repayment so far, so that is not an issue), but also whether they are fully participating in the mission of our project. They need to comply with monthly savings quotas (the women themselves decide how much they should save each month); they need to demonstrate their commitment to our business assessment program by completing homework assignments (practical tasks like naming their business and improving their customer service); and they need to participate in our community classes to show they are interested in furthering their personal development.

It’s hard to decide how much we should expect from each woman. After all, they are balancing a lot of responsibilities like running their own small business and caring for their families.

Is it fair to keep working with women who have a perfect repayment rate, but do not demonstrate interest in the other aspects of our mission? Our low interest rate (2.25% monthly) is very appealing; much lower than the interest rate they could get on individual loans here. But our funding is limited, and we want to target our loans at women who don’t have access to conventional credit; who have small businesses and are committed to expanding them; and who are interested in their personal development.

This is a tough decision, as we have to decide in the coming weeks whether one of our banks – who seem to be working with us just to take advantage of our low interest rates, and have rejected the opportunities for development we have given them – deserves to continue. While it would be difficult to let a group of women go, it would also open up space for new women to create a village bank… hopefully ones who are truly interested in challenging themselves to develop as women, businesspeople, mothers, and individuals.