Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I've Been Blogging!

by Charlie Leck [9 April 2007]

I’ve been blogging for a few years. I tried maintaining the blog on a personal web site; however, it became way too complicated and difficult. It seemed that it might be a little easier on a public blog service like Google’s. So, I’ve given it a try. I’ve had a pleasing number of folks who’ve been reading the blog entries on my website and, now, I hope they find it easy to switch over to this new location.

My subject matter will vary greatly. I’ll deal with life in the wonderful little town in which I live and I’ll write about being a grandfather. You’ll catch me bragging about my kids occasionally, too (though I’m certainly not going to get specific about their identity). You’re just liable to find me boasting about my wonderful wife, too. And, I’ll write about people I know. People fascinate me and I come across so many genuinely good and delightful people who remind me the world is mostly a good and hopeful place. If only we could harness all the positive energy from good people and apply it to the world’s current problems. I’ll also stifle you with opinion; however, it’s not just off-the-cuff viewpoint that isn’t thought out. I’ll try to show the thought-threads when I pump out my opinions and allow you to trace the manner in which I got to a particular place or idea. I’ll even write about food and recipes – and movies and plays I’ve seen and books I’ve read. Once in a while I’ll also write about faith and matters of theology. Though most of my friends think I’m a wild-eyed liberal who has no faith, it just isn’t true. It’s just not a street-corner or dime-store type of faith and you won’t find me evangelizing or proselytizing at all.

One of your responsibilities will be figuring out when I’ve got my tongue firmly planted in my cheek and when I’m wagging it for real.

I think I’m capable of maintaining a generally interesting blog because I do keep myself informed. I love to read both fiction and non-fiction and I am nearly addicted to the New York Times. I love to read the classics and can roam through the works of Dickens again and again. Yet, I also enjoy the work of contemporary mystery writer, John Grisham. He diverged from his usual path when he wrote A Painted House and I’m so glad he did. Though I read it more than a few years ago, that book lingers in my memory, and thinking about it always stirs my heart. I’ve never been able to bring myself to see the movie because I’m frightened I’d be disappointed. Grisham’s book, An Innocent Man, was listed on my blog as one of the best books of 2006. This is another instance where Grisham didn’t produce a fictional who-done-it, but dealt with hard, cold facts and did it extremely well. It’s a spell binding book.

Let me just warn you, as my friends would have me do, that I am an unabashed liberal. I’m politically liberal and theologically liberal. I have trouble with conservatives who are way out on the hard right. It doesn’t make sense. There’s too much need in the world – too much pain, too much ignorance, too much poverty and too much hunger. It seems impossible to me to look the other way. I wish everyone would read the remarkable book by Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope. It’s a very clear outline of what we in America must do in order to keep our nation great and in a leadership position. A friend of mine recently saw the newly released movie, Amazing Grace. As he watched this story about the efforts of William Wilberforce to make slave trading illegal in 18th century England, my friend was struck with the idea that this great English legislator must have been my great, great grandfather. Though my friend was taking a dig at my liberalism, I was enormously flattered. You will not find a drop of favorable sentiment in me for the foolish and misguided policies of our current President, George W. Bush.

I am very troubled by the growing divide in America between the rich and the poor. The rich have become so fabulously wealthy in these days. My father would have called it “filthy rich” and he would have meant it literally. How can we complain about government spending money on attempts to alleviate some of these horrible problems in our nation and around the world? Certainly, every attempt won’t work! However, we’ve got to try!

So, come try me on! Join me in conversation. If you respond to my writing, I’ll read carefully what you have to say and I will reply to you. That’s a promise! What a wonderful world! I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to blog! It would have been awful to have missed it.

Posted by Chas Leck on Friday, April 20, 2007


We're in the Banking Business Now
and we've made our very first business loan!
by Charlie Leck (28 March 2007)

There was no doubt. It was bound to happen eventually. After I first read about the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, and wrote an essay here called Poverty is Unnecessary it was clear it would happen.

Yunus developed the concept of Micro Credit and began lending very small amounts of money to small businesses in third world countries. It's proven very successful.

Then I recently read a wonderful column by Nicholas Kristoff, the New York Times writer, about how he's made several loans to such small businesses and has even had the opportunity to check on one of his businesses during a trip to Afghanistan.

It was a compelling piece and so I, too, gave it a try by following Kristoff's suggestion to a web site called KIVA.

It was a simple enough thing to do, you know. I just went to the KIVA web site and registered and then looked through many dozens of businesses that have applied for loans and I picked out Cony's Hot Kenkey. A few clicks later I had become a microcredit financier and Comfort Herssey was $50 closer to a goal of borrowing $700. "KIVA lets you lend to a specific entrepreneur in the developing world – empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty."
Comfort (I hope she'll forgive me for referring to her by her first name, but it's such a lovely name) is a 42 year old mother of 5 kids. Her fried fish and kenkey, a meal made from maize, are supposed to be very popular in Abokobi. I think she's going to make it and I think I'll be paid back with interest. You could help Comfort get closer to her loan goal by going to KIVA and investing in her future also.

I'll tell you, I sure feel good today about making the loan. I just wish I could get my hands on a piece of that kenkey. If it's as good as people say, Comfort and I are gonna make a lot of dough!
One of Kristoff's loans went to Abdul Satar, a baker in Kabul, Afghanistan. So, on a recent trip, Kristoff sampled some of Abdul's bread. The loaves sell for 12¢ each. Kristoff knew he had a winner when he tasted the product. Mr. Satar borrowed a total of $425 and used it to open a second bakery and hired four new employees. As Kristoff says, the baker now "benefits from economies of scale" and is able buy his firewood and flour in larger quantities and, therefore, for less money. Mr. Satar has no idea what the Internet is nor how he got the loan. KIVA works in Kabul with a local lender and the Mercy Corps. Those two organizations find borrowers and vet them.

In countries like Ghana and Afghanistan, commercial lenders often charge as much as 100% interest for business loans. People like Comfort have no hope of borrowing such funds. There have been hundreds and hundreds of success stories through the microcredit process. I'm hoping Comfort is another one of them.

Let me just append here that less than 24 hours after I hadcontributed $50 toward the $700 loan Comfort was seeking,the loan goal was achieved. I consider that rather spectacular.I was so inspired that I went back to the KIVA website and madeanother $50 loan, this time toward a $1,000 goal being sought bya woman in the Ukraine.

Click here to read about the Kristoff visit and watch the video.

I've taken some hits on the above essay from a number of readers. They think I'm hyperbolizing about the value of the microcredit program -- that the funds are going to more middle class persons than to the truly poor; that it really isn't changing the oppression of women. Unfortunately, none of the critics gave me permission to post their comments here.

In response I would like to post Frank Rich's reply to these same criticism. Rich's comments were posted on his excellent blog and, I think, go right to the point of the comments I've received.

March 28, 2007, 12:26 pm
Answering Your Questions on Micro-Finance
by Nicholas D. Kristof
Wow — I was blown away by the response on the Tuesday colum about Kiva (so were the people at Kiva!). Thanks to all who became newly-minted financiers, and let me try to address some of your questions.

Several people asked about terms and interest rates. In Kabul, the borrowers pay 2 percent per month. That sounds like a lot but it’s far less than money-lenders there charge. And of course some of that goes to inflation, so the real interest rate is lower.

The interest doesn’t go to you as a lender but go to the local organization, Ariana, that administers the process. It’s very important that these micro-lending groups become self-sustaining, and Ariana is expecting to become self-sustaining at an operational basis this year. That will enable it to expand much more broadly — and it’s far better to have interest-bearing lending that is self-sustaining than interest-free lending that requires subsidies and is thus limited. Right now Kiva is not allowed to pay interest to the lenders (under U.S. banking laws), but it is seeking permission to do so. Thus in the future you may find yourself getting a small amount of interest back as well.

A couple of people complained that I was taking a swipe at other aid groups when I mentioned that Kiva avoids bureaucratic layers. I didn’t mean to, for I’m a huge advocate of what aid groups do. In Darfur, groups like Doctors Without Borders, IRC, Care, ICRC, World Vision, AJWS, Islamic Relief, CRS and others do fabulous work. I’m a longtime sponsor of a child through Plan International, and I’ve seen their work on the ground. Ditto for Mercy Corps and many other aid groups.

But it is also true that the aid structure often involves top-down decisions, incredible bureaucracy and paperwork, and the dispatch of expensive American expatriates who have to drive around in SUV’s. Where possible I think it’s much better to support local groups rather than those expats. The locals cost much less than foreigners and they usually have a much better idea of what people need. So if Kiva can bypass expensive aid groups and lend directly to people who are screened (as in Afghanistan) only by groups like Ariana with an all-local staff, that really is a step forward.

One reader commented that micro-lending is not for the poorest but for the lower middle class, because the poorest don’t have the capacity to borrow. That’s just not true. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, you routinely see the poorest and most vulnerable people (e.g. widows) borrowing $50 or so to buy goods from a wholesale market and sell them in a retail market for a mark-up.

Moreover, empowering women is an essential part of the micro-finance story, and you don’t find anybody more vulnerable than poor women in these societies. In Pakistan, I spent a day with Kashf Foundation (a superb micro-lending organization, run entirely by Pakistanis), and it was incredibly inspiring. The borrowers are often completely illiterate and barely able to buy food. And the stories are amazing.

One woman who had only had daughters told me that her husband had been about to get a second wife (on the theory that she would bear him a son) when she borrowed a bit of money from Kashf to start a small embroidery business in her home. The business prospered, and now her husband says he would never think of getting another wife. Another woman told me that whenever her husband beats her, she tells him that she’ll stop borrowing — and then he stops and goes off sulking, but doesn’t beat her.

Micro-finance isn’t a magic bullet. As readers know, I’m a big believer in medical interventions, such as fighting malaria and AIDS and maternal mortality. But it’s definitely a part of the solution.
Posted by Chas Leck at 7:20 PM

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