Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Second Look: On Microfinance

While I have had many looks on the subject of Microfinance over these many years, it might be apropos to give it that old college try of laying out all the possible unvarnished results, both pro and con, on the subject. Especially given the wide acclaim and commendable laurels now heaped upon it by the global community, capped recently by the Nobel Peace prize choice of the father of the movement, Mohammad Yunus.

Now since global attention has been riveted to it, promises of billions of dollars more have been generated and gathered for its many ambitious plans. The august United Nations has lent its own somewhat tarnished credibility by posturing a more aggressive stance against the worsening global poverty and promising to promote microfinance activities. In the process, bringing in hardy support from the private sector, ranging from an unlikely ally in the person of a George Soros and from the usual overnight billionaires, the likely benefactors of the tech era; and yes, even internationally-revered banking institutions like Citigroup and Deutsche Bank have joined in . Thus, to date billions of dollars have been marshaled around the globe to fund various microfinance projects from an array of institutions all united under the umbrella of microfinance institutions (MFI).

So, is global poverty on its way to a museum as Mr. Yunus forecasted for Bangladesh?

First, some sobering generalizations before delving into the particulars.

1. Is poverty, whether globally, country-wide, or even community-wide, completely eradicable? The realistic answer would be NO. Even the most prosperous country in the globe, the US, unabashedly declares its own poverty rate at double digits, 10-12% of total population. So imagine how much truly more in countries like China, India, and countries in continental Africa? Did not even our Judeo-Christian master, Jesus Christ, admit that “the poor will always be with you”? Thus, even granting the best of human conditions, poverty will continue to stare mankind in the face in its many ugly manifestations The best that can be done is to “alleviate” it as much as is humanly possible.

2. Microfinance is not the one singular wooden peg that when applied can nail global poverty to its coffin, rather think about it as one of many nails applied to a cage to keep pernicious poverty at bay and not allow it to rampage through entire communities or countries.

3. Somehow like any newly emerging solution Microfinance has to evolve into as many manifestations as may be required by unique sets of circumstances prevailing through the very diverse regions of our geography.

Once our diffused perceptions about Microfinance get grounded on the harsh realities detailed above, then maybe we can view and use it in manners befitting our reasonable expectations of it.

But first, the escalating and stark presence of poverty globally could no longer be ignored in the august chambers of international bodies and even in the ornately-adorned corporate boardrooms. These people knew that some things urgent had to be done to address it, or even the promised equalizing benefits of globalization will fall to naught.

And the microfinance movement was germinated to address that huge chasm that forever alienated the poor from having access to credit and resources that would allow them to alleviate their dire conditions. The movement gathered steam and now was become a world-wide movement, supported and participated by a myriad of organizations most with the clout to gather and generate billions of dollars of resources.

And microfinance, or microcredit, or micro loans, have become household names empowering countless numbers of the poor to get control of their miserable lives and help themselves with the resources now available to them.

But our No. 1 assumption above tutors us that the “poor will always be with us”, we can only alleviate conditions from among their numbers. Thus, we are now shown that by and large microfinance has helped those primarily above the poverty line, rather than those in the lowest rungs. And we can find the easy answer within our very own human nature. Unfortunately, not many of us are born or were designed to be entrepreneurs, to use tools (resources and skills) to catapult ourselves way beyond subsistence levels. Many of us are simply good at being good industrious employees or followers. Enterprising capitalists will have to show us how to optimize our earning capabilities and productivity. And also, with very meager resources, the poor’s capabilities to take risks are severely restricted, inherent business risks in economic activities that could bring better results.

In its earnest efforts to operate microfinance as a “market-based” business, we are finding out that at times interest rates charges are higher than what other more informal sources like moneylenders charge. Thus, in effect those microcredit clients are not getting optimum impact from productive endeavors they are engaged in. Thus, many continue to wallow in the mire of subsistence levels.

Therefore standing alone microfinance cannot hope to tackle the formidable task of property alleviation, regardless of the ardor and/or resources ploughed to it.

A three-pronged approach is recommended, adding big business and the government into the mix.

We have learned that markets alone, however free and equitable, cannot stand the rigid tests required for an effective solution to global poverty. Labor-intensive Big Business with its acquired capabilities to generate good-paying jobs, their being able to avail of economies of large scale, their deep pockets to afford them to use new and leading technologies, and very importantly, their abilities to improve individual workers’ productivity opening the avenue for them to earn more from their labors and thus improve their collective lives, are a good instrument for poverty alleviation. Entrepreneurs should be goaded and/or encouraged to spread their reaches to those areas in dire need. And in an imperfect world of finite resources, many instances may require that elusive capital be devoted to endeavors generating more jobs rather than to nobler endeavors such as microfinance activities

And for their part, governments should undergrid free markets with serious and earnest support, so as to become vibrant and effective participants in bringing about change. For there are certain common-good activities that governments are tasked to perform as primary responsibilities for their very existence, monopolistic public services that should form the basic infrastructure from whose level property alleviation should start from. Such basic services as public water, farm-to-market roads, public power and energy, public waste disposal, and yes, public health care.

Right now situations abound where even if the poor have considerably improved their lot and yet they still are unable to avail of some of the most basic of public services such as good potable water and sanitary waste disposal systems.

Thus, this irony. Where one capital city in South Asia boasts of an astronomical increase in the number of cell phones owned by the residents, and yet, 50% of them defecate in public because they have no toilets.

How sad, indeed.

Related reading

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Evolution Of The Affordable Computer

In the not too distant past, I had prided myself in having built my own PCs (desktops, specifically) at prices considerably lower than prevailing market prices for similarly-built units.

After building, tweaking, and upgrading countless PCs both at home and work, I finally ended the personally-commissioned project, capping it with a PC that had a total cash outlay of $140.

I had proudly thought then that it would be a while before commercial versions of PCs could top that record. Granted that some parts used by me were salvaged from some junked PCs.

My unheeding pride came crashing down when Nicholas Negroponte of MIT came out with his $100 laptop project some years back. This commendable project, primarily intended for distressed countries which suffer from affordability problems, continues to this day and one can follow its successes and grandiose plans on its wiki site.

Now, comes this latest news from Popular Science:

The $72 PC

Click to read more.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Voice(s) Of Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley has always been a phenomenon, both in life and in death. But more so in death, when we measure it in terms of financial successes, and even in popularity and longevity. His songs and other iconic items about him continue to tap into new areas of the globe, ably assisted by a mini-industry that was spawned by his enduring image and popularity, the Elvis impersonators, or as now nicely referred to, the Elvis tribute artists.

I had often wondered whether this personal but enduring child-like adulation of his singing that I treasure was a unique aberration, but still a local limited aberration. However, the continued world-wide and unflagging responses to his songs to this day would seem to belie this.

This brings one to wonder what exactly was in his singing that has made it so durable, in spite of all the equally gifted artists that have come and gone after him and the varying ways that songs are now both composed and delivered to ever-changing fickle audiences.

Why indeed should his old-style singing endure above the deluge of singing artists that now colonize the colossal entertainment firmament? After all, Elvis and the ensuing rock and roll phenomenon broke loose more than 50 years ago.

But rock and roll has undeniably prevailed, and Elvis continues to reign as its undisputed King, which title by no means just implies an empty and hollow attribution.

Click to read more.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Dual Citizenship: Boon Or Bane?

This loaded question is obviously directed at the USA, which traditionally has been regarded as “a nation of immigrants”. And which continues to be so to this day. Currently, as many as 10% of the present US population are foreign-born, that translates to almost 30 million residents.

There are presently 93 countries in the world that allow some form of dual citizenship or multiple citizenship. This includes the US, and such countries as Canada, France, and Switzerland.

Of the top countries sending immigrants to the US, most of them allow dual or multiple citizenship; and very prominent of this would be the southern next-door neighbor Mexico, which also accounts for the large numbers of illegal immigrants, which numbers have been extrapolated from a low of 12 million to a high of 20 million.

So what?

Nothing, if not for a score of troubling developments that are now menacingly staring at and threatening the very identity of the nation.

Maybe never in its short but colorful history has the US been faced with very complex and divisive issues that are challenging the very fabric that has been holding together this very diverse amalgamation of people from all over the world. Thorny issues that strike at the polity’s core psychological, cultural, social, and political traits that taken together identify one as an American.

The very large issue of illegal immigration is one such issue that appears to have no short-term resolution that will placate enough of the populace. The present proposal being hotly discussed does not even merit the unanimous approval of those groups representing the illegals, yet clearly it favors this huge group; and some even speak about disguised amnesty being earmarked somewhere.

And there are other equally loud signals that to a thinking person demand some attention and analysis. We can discern them from the daily news. One comes to mind which is the pervasive anti-America feelings and attitudes espouse by those we voluntarily came searching for a better life which they had determined to be elusive in their home countries. And in a country that has been so tolerantly embracing of diversity in its many manifestations, it comes as a great surprise to learn of such negative and ungrateful attitudes.

Yet the particular issue of dual citizenship or multiple citizenship as a probable or possible exacerbating factor in the current cultural and political problems has I believe not been openly and publicly discussed. Even the political hierarchy in the US may be judged to be complicit.

Thus, there is no US provision formally recognizing dual citizenship among its own, but neither is there any prohibition of it, much less any penalties imposed for acquiring dual citizenship. An American will not lose his citizenship if he acquires additional citizenship, like from his old home country. And even if that country may be looked upon as a hostile one, or one harboring inimical positions against the US. The very tolerant attitude of the US is I believe key to this. One senses that the reason may be because collectively the US has guilt feelings not only about what it has done in the past, but also it finds itself required to be sufficiently sensitized about how the rest of the world regard it. This behemoth of a superpower, the lone one at that, instead of flexing its ample muscles appears to favor the “kid’s gloves” treatment, including on its publicly avowed enemies.

But much like the burgeoning illegal immigration problem, coupled with the myriad of global issues the US is invariably entangled, the default position appears to be that it is best that the US assumes more passive and reactive stances so as not to antagonize further the already simmering ill-will many parts of the world have already shown.

Just the same, the issues highlighted above and many more related ones need to be publicly aired and resolved if we are to assure that Americans, both native-born and new immigrants, may be able to distinctly know and define what it means to be American.

Because it appears that at present most everybody is conflicted, not really able to translate to plausible realities what the stratospheric abstract ideas about being American really mean.

One senses for example that in the current milieu citizenship appears to be some kind of undeserved and string-less gift, rather than as panoply of rights and responsibilities that each recipient should be made to know, understand, and practice. Mostly take and no give.

From an article written by a first-generation immigrant from Hungary, Mr. Peter W. Schramm.
Because America is more than just a place, being an American citizen is different than being the citizen of any other country on earth. We Americans do not look to the ties of common blood and history for connection as people the way the citizens of other countries do. Rather, our common bond is a shared principle. This is what Lincoln meant when he referred to the "electric cord" in the Declaration of Independence that links all of us together, as though we were "blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration."

BTW, Hungary is one of the 93 countries that recognizes dual citizenship.

Read the entire article.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Wrapping Up Dual Citizenship

After 140 miles for a total of 210 miles, I was finally done with the chore of acquiring dual citizenship. Yesterday, I took the last leg of the trek that allowed me to be both American and Filipino citizen.

Performed in a social hall attended by over 30 FilAms eager to acquire back lost citizenship, the oath taking was initiated by a consulate official. A light amiable atmosphere enlivened the short proceedings, peppered by some questions from the soon-to-be Filipinos again regarding the ramifications of acquiring back citizenship.

Not lost in the little lecture obligingly given by a consulate official was this little known fact: Renewal of passports in the consulate is done in one day. Applied in the morning and received in the afternoon.

Oh, how many wished transacting with government offices in the old homeland were as efficient and expeditious.

Then it was over. And for our troubles, we received the following documents: A numbered Identification Certificate to be shown upon entry to any Philippine international airport, an Order of Approval signed by the consul general, and last but not least, a written testament of the Oath of Allegiance that we just took.

The last document sent a flash of fearful shivers down my spine, making one feel a little treasonous (or to put it mildly, maybe just a bit unfaithful) knowing that allegiance has already been promised to the adopted country, and which promised commitment has not been renounced.

These cumbersome fears have extracted a personal commitment to blog about the ramifications of maintaining dual or multiple citizenships. So till then.

The little Prince

He wonderfully intrudes in our lives, most times on visits unannounced and barkingly noisy.

(Click on pictures to enlarge.)

Then upon entry to the house, frenziedly races like crazy through the carpeted areas of the house, liked he owned the house. And worse, like the entire house was one labyrinthine dog track that he can practice on, weaving, zigzagging, and jumping through furniture, corners, and what have you. Fervently hoping that you catch on to his game.

But most times, this all-white hairy fur ball is quiet, still, and stays close to any human in the house, preferring to lie motionless close to the feet. Or if allowed, to sit on laps, always ready and available for the obligatory coddling and fondling. And yes, including tickling his underside. And he is known to jump into one end of your bed when it's time for you, including him, to go night-night.

And his all-whiteness is interrupted only by the dark spots under his eyes, caused by dried tears. He is continually tearing and once dried, it discolors the fur underneath his eyes.

I know I have been told what kind of pedigreed dog he is.

But for us, he is simply the little Prince.

And yes, Prince is his real given name.

Prince is a Bichon Frise (pronounced, BEE-shon Free-ZAY).

This breed is typically colored white, but cream, gray or apricot hairs can sometimes be found.


Prince may actually be a Maltese, which breed is related to the Bichon Frise. But Maltese are also called Bichon Maltaise. So there you go.

If Walls Could Speak

It is often queried, what if walls could speak what would they reveal?

And yes, they do speak, and most oft-times most eloquently. Because as a species we are wont to profusely flesh out the many walls of our homes, and those of our lives. We adorn them with a myriad of disparate things, limited only by our boundless imagination and the abysmal depths of our interests and idiosyncrasies.

So what do your walls speak to you, and those who chance upon them?

I looked around and some of my walls appear to speak of the following:

It speaks of a longed-for quiet brook, which with its entire landscape is mono-colored by the fading orangish light of twilight or dusk.

It also harkens of the majestic outdoors splashed into our consciousness by the blunt light of our day sun.

It tutors that even in the clutter of city life, solitude and serenity can be had under the fading shadows cast by a dying sun.

And it also forcefully shouts and cautions of the unleashed forces of nature, here expressed in the white-heat color of a cascading waterfalls.

Look around and tell us what yours speak of.