Friday, March 30, 2007

You, Too, Can Be a Banker to the Poor

My friend Maureen DeCindis forwarded this. It reminded me of the project where a cell phone is financed for a member of a poor village and that person rents minutes to other village members. This has become a profitable operation for the villages as a whole. It truly is the little things.

Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times
Published: March 27, 2007
KABUL, Afghanistan
For those readers who ask me what they can do to help fight poverty, one option is to sit down at your computer and become a microfinancier.

That’s what I did recently. From my laptop in New York, I lent $25 each to the owner of a TV repair shop in Afghanistan, a baker in Afghanistan, and a single mother running a clothing shop in the Dominican Republic. I did this through, a Web site that provides information about entrepreneurs in poor countries — their photos, loan proposals and credit history — and allows people to make direct loans to them.

So on my arrival here in Afghanistan, I visited my new business partners to see how they were doing.
On a muddy street in Kabul, Abdul Satar, a bushy-bearded man of 64, was sitting in the window of his bakery selling loaves for 12 cents each. He was astonished when I introduced myself as his banker, but he allowed me to analyze his business plan by sampling his bread: It was delicious.

Mr. Abdul Satar had borrowed a total of $425 from a variety of lenders on, who besides me included Nathan in San Francisco, David in Rochester, N.Y., Sarah in Waltham, Mass., Nate in Fort Collins, Colo.; Cindy in Houston, and “Emily’s family” in Santa Barbara, Calif.

With the loan, Mr. Abdul Satar opened a second bakery nearby, with four employees, and he now benefits from economies of scale when he buys flour and firewood for his oven. “If you come back in 10 years, maybe I will have six more bakeries,” he said.

Mr. Abdul Satar said he didn’t know what the Internet was, and he had certainly never been online. But Kiva works with a local lender affiliated with Mercy Corps, and that group finds borrowers and vets them.

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The local group, Ariana Financial Services, has only Afghan employees and is run by Storai Sadat, a dynamic young woman who was in her second year of medical school when the Taliban came to power and ended education for women. She ended up working for Mercy Corps and becoming a first-rate financier; some day she may take over Citigroup.

“Being a finance person is better than being a doctor,” Ms. Sadat said. “You can cure the whole family, not just one person. And it’s good medicine — you can see them get better day by day.”

Small loans to entrepreneurs are now widely recognized as an important tool against poverty. Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his pioneering work with microfinance in Bangladesh.

In poor countries, commercial money lenders routinely charge interest rates of several hundred percent per year. Thus people tend to borrow for health emergencies rather than to finance a new business. And partly because poor people tend to have no access to banks, they also often can’t save money securely.

Microfinance institutions typically focusing on lending to women, to give them more status and more opportunities. Ms. Sadat’s group does lend mostly to women, but it’s been difficult to connect some female borrowers with donors on Kiva — because many Afghans would be horrified at the thought of taking a woman’s photograph, let alone posting on the Internet.

My other partner in Kabul is Abdul Saboor, who runs a small TV repair business. He used the loan to open a second shop, employing two people, and to increase his inventory of spare parts. “I used to have to go to the market every day to buy parts,” he said, adding that it was a two-and-a-half-hour round trip. “Now I go once every two weeks.”

Web sites like Kiva are useful partly because they connect the donor directly to the beneficiary, without going through a bureaucratic and expensive layer of aid groups in between. Another terrific Web site in this area is, which connects donors to would-be recipients. The main difference is that GlobalGiving is for donations, while Kiva is for loans.

A young American couple, Matthew and Jessica Flannery, founded Kiva after they worked in Africa and realized that a major impediment to economic development was the unavailability of credit at any reasonable cost.

“I believe the real solutions to poverty alleviation hinge on bringing capitalism and business to areas where there wasn’t business or where it wasn’t efficient,” Mr. Flannery said. He added: “This doesn’t have to be charity. You can partner with someone who’s halfway around the world.”

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog,

Friday, March 23, 2007

Items of note

Here are some things you might find interesting. I did.

*If you missed Grey’s Anatomy last night (as I did because I was at yoga finding my nirvana) you can watch it on If you have a laptop you can take a bubble bath and watch it at the same time.

* For a counterpoint to Al Gore, this is a compelling documentary of a group of scientists (fancy that!) with an interesting take on the global warming issue. Despite the use of facts and graphs I did not find it boring at all. I have studied this stuff and even taught an environmental science course (which is kind of like Al Gore teaching a global warming course when you think about it) and I must say I am more convinced by the scientists.

*While working at your computer you can listen to the most wonderful streaming music is Rock and Roll, nonstop and it streams right to your computer. Bookmark this spot.

*My (second) favorite columnist is back! Camille Paglia is once again writing for on the second Tuesday of each month. Her razor intellect, wit and Teflon coating make her the best reading this side of Doug MacEachern!

* For a compelling novelization of the horrific experiences of the Lost Boys of Sudan as seen through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, read Dave Egger’s “What is the What”. I could not put it down. Eggers himself has an interesting story and is the editor of the Best American NonRequired Reading. Wiki them for more info.

* Here is a perfect recipe for a rainy spring dinner. It uses my favorite all time small kitchen appliance: the stick blender with food processor attachment. If you don’t have one it is worth putting on your birthday present list; better than perfume, as the aroma of the cooking food is the best perfume you could want.

Asian Split Pea Soup

1 cup dried split peas
4 cups water
½ tsp salt
Combine and cook over medium heat or in a pressure cooker until the peas are tender.

Meanwhile, in a food processor combine:

1 onion, chopped
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp dried red chile flakes
1 T coriander seeds, ground
2 tsp cumin seed, ground
½ tsp ground tumeric
¼ cup fish sauce
2 tsp light brown sugar

In the bottom of a heavy bottom soup pot heat 2 T oil until very hot. Add the above mixture and cook until the color deepens and it becomes very aromatic, about 8 minutes.

Add: 4 cups chicken broth.

Cook about 20 minutes at a slow simmer. Add the cooked peas and continue to cook for several more minutes.

Puree with an immersible blender or in batches in a regular blender.

Serve topped with a dollop of plain yogurt, chopped cilantro, mint and cucumber.

Makes 4 servings.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I'll be the judge of that

March, 2007
Welcome to my blog. Never being a diarist, I don't expect to fill this with day to day musings. But this is a wonderful way for me to purge all these things that are constantly popping into my brain. Love it or hate it, I don't mind. As Doug says, "there are no bad experiences, just good copy." If you want to comment please do. But try and refrain from doing what I see in most comment posts to articles and that is just calling people names. I would love a substantive discussion though, but as you might glean from my first post, beware, as I might get bored and move on. My only gripe about this format is that I cannot serve you an appetizer while you are reading it.
If I really get rolling, though, I might do something with recipes. Who knows! The google is the limit!

Oh my aching A.D.D.

Phoenix, AZ

I was reading a short story one day and discovered, at the age of 50, that I am ADD. The story contained a very concise description of Attention Deficit Disorder-sufferers lack the ability to concentrate on anything that bores them. Putting it that way, I totally identify. The story went on to point out that those who had the condition prior to its identification and subsequent pharmacological treatment regimens developed ways to compensate on their own. As I was sharing this revelation with my somewhat skeptical husband–are you bored? Always. Always?–I had the epiphany that I too had developed a compensatory behavior, to wit, I experience OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). To that disclosure my husband’s eyes widened and he muttered his own epiphanic “yes.”

I love reading essays and short stories. They are just long enough that they do not bore me. I despise fiction as a reading medium. I fail to see the point of investing that much of my precious lifetime in someone else’s fantasy. I stick to non-fiction and even then usually make it only about 3/4 of the way through a book before boredom looms. But I never lack for structure in my reading list. I discovered that in 1915 The Best American Short Stories series appeared for the first time and has been appearing every year since. So I have made it my business to read every single edition. The other artificial rule I concocted in order to increase the interest level in the project is that I forbid myself from reading stories in current publications. The rationale behind this is why waste my time when I can just wait until someone else has culled out all the best and compiled them for me. If that isn’t OCD, well.....

While thinking about this, as a lawyer of course the first thing I sought to do was find an apt analogy to support my analysis. Somehow it makes a theory more convincing if you can match it up to something totally unrelated. I was never that great at coming up with analogies, realizing now that it must be too boring. But it was a matter of minutes when I realized I am merely a microcosm of the state of the businesses of the mass media in modern America.

My husband, a journalist, has been schlepping home of late with tales from the news battlefield’s business side. It seems newspapers are all in a panic about how to remain profitable in a digital world. They are trying to find a way to stay relevant to the young people even while they are trying to stay loyal to the old guard who have a nostalgic, if not practical, attachment to their product. While it is true that coverage of the news has changed dramatically-becoming like me ADD and OCD–as a somewhat informed but uninvolved observer, it seems to me that the mass media has made the youth this way. This puts the entire country in peril-sort of like what is happening in my own professional career.

Take for example the coverage of any story. News breaks, whether it is Anna Nichol sneezing or President Bush misarticulating. Someone seizes on it and runs an item on the TV scrawl line. Everyone else in the entire journalism universe, who are presumably sitting at their desks completely bored with their beat assignments, grabs on to this new story and in an effort to maintain their own interest in it makes it their project to analyze ever other word written on it and rearrange the letters of each sentence in a sort of anagrammatic story of their own. Clearly ADD with compensating OCD. Meanwhile the rest of us are just sort of stuck in the muck.

The first quarter of 2007 Bush Administration news provides ample evidence that this ADD/OCD may in fact be an epidemic in our society. Nearly every week a story breaks that spreads like wildfire and generates untold inches of pontification and opining by nearly every citizen with a computer and any inclination to use the internet to conduct their own “research” and impart their wisdom via blogs and newspapers and TV and radio talk shows. In short, they beat the horse well after it is dead with sheer volume. But soon they become bored again and move on to the next thing. The Iraq surge strategy, the Libby trial, immigration, Anna Nicole (oops, how did that get in the BA list?), the US Attorney purge, the Libby conviction, you get the picture. The ADD journalists grab on to the next big thing, but it quickly becomes boring because everyone is doing it so they obsess about their own contribution churning out ever more clever ways to say the same thing without doing any real thinking or fact finding because they know there will be no time as the impending boredom will drive them right on to the next big thing.

For the average member of the public this constant churning of the same stories over and over creates boredom. That boredom is compensated for by giving in and becoming absorbed with the selected details we are fed. Because political issues are necessarily filled with minutiae and nuance, the average person just latches on to the Anna Nicole news as they are not about to invest the time it takes to understand a complex issue. Doing so would run the risk of missing out on the next big thing. Like the fictional lemmings they are dragging us right off the cliff into a world where no one knows how to really pay attention.

The front page of today’s paper includes a story of how scientists are working to find ways to help students concentrate on one thing at a time. I remember being appalled at back to school night at my daughter’s prestigious catholic prep school that watching TV while studying is a norm and should not be viewed as a problem; these kids are used to it, that is what they do. This from the same nuns who send you to detention for asking why you got a B in textiles-a class where it is almost impossible not to get an A. I am pretty darn good at multitasking but find it hard to believe I could grasp those physics theories while watching the Gilmore Girls. Who knows, maybe evolution has sped up and my child’s brain has divided like a paramecium with one for fun and one for school. But I kind of doubt it.

So, why does any of this matter? As we become more and more addicted to the next big thing, we are failing miserably at solving the problems that are rehashed in this concentrated period and abandoned when replaced by the next issue. No one has a clue how to solve the Iraq conundrum, no one has a clue how to solve the public education problem (except those nuns), no one has a clue how to solve the immigration problem, if it is indeed one; the list is endless. We hear ample criticism of these messes but never any recommended solutions. When the time comes for that we have already moved on to the next big thing. Somehow we need to compensate for this ADD by refocusing the concommitant OCD on solutions rather than horse beating.

Oh, yeah, and in the process maybe we would stop obsessing over word choice and concentrate on the important part-the bigger picture. I know McCain used the phrase “tar baby” last week but I’ll be dogged if I can recall what the context was. I guess I was not bored enough to obsess over finding out.