Thursday, November 18, 2010

never posted this!

Thank you for loaning on Kiva, and for loaning to CREDIT MFI clients. My name is Jeff Zira, and I recently finished a four month volunteer post as a Kiva Fellow in Cambodia. I worked for CREDIT (, one of Kiva’s earliest MFI partners. You are receiving this email because you have lent to an entrepreneur who has taken a loan through CREDIT.

CREDIT has been posting borrowers to Kiva since May 2006, and has disbursed loans to over 4,000 Kiva borrowers. CREDIT is a medium-sized Cambodian MFI, with $19M of loans in its portfolio. It was founded in 1993 by World Relief, a US-based Christian relief and development agency. CREDIT focuses primarily on providing tailored individual loans, and does not typically provide other services.

During my time at CREDIT, I learned it is filled with a warm and fun-loving staff from the top all the way down. I was fortunate enough to have a chance to participate in a company-wide retreat, study Cambodian with the night guard, and attend a few CREDIT staff weddings. I won’t soon forget their warmth and welcoming attitude.

One of my most important tasks as a Kiva Fellow was to help CREDIT interview “entrepreneurs” and post their information to the Kiva website. I met with about 150 clients and asked them various questions about their lives and living conditions. As I have recently taken a strong interest in the relationship between development and happiness, I asked many questions to elicit responses that would reveal what made the borrower feel best, and what roadblocks to happiness could be removed by escaping poverty.

In general, I found that borrowers tended to require some or all of the following to be happy:

Stability: a steady income stream, and protection from income “shocks”

Health: a healthy family and the assurance that treatment is available when necessary

Improvement compared to the past: difficulty in the past made many appreciate the present (even if the current situation seemed dire to an outsider)

Good relative standing: feeling as though they were about on par with neighbors

Food: a good variety of tasty, high-quality food (more important than I thought!)

Hope: the credible possibility that education will help their children live better lives, that their living conditions will improve, and that life will be stable in the future

Good family: father present and good relationships between family members

As a specific example, one of my most moving and revealing client visits was to a village in Dangkao, a suburb of Phnom Penh located near the single-runway international airport. There I met borrowers living in some of the worst conditions I had seen during my time in Cambodia. Most had been former slum dwellers in the city who were forcibly moved to the outskirts of the city by the government to make way for development projects. Two borrowers’ stories in particular remain strongly imprinted in my mind.

Sous Saran ( is a single mother living with her four children in a shoddy bamboo house above a stagnant body of water. During my visit, I watched the children in the house, and I was brought to tears when I imagined myself in their place, experiencing the same conditions as everyday “reality.” Sous told me that she was probably only 10% happy with life because she can barely support her family, and because she is unsure that she will be able to fully educate her children. Taking out a loan through CREDIT helped her start a new business, but she still has a long way to go until she has a stable income. (Please view the full journal update and video here: )

Ke Sang Va ( )lives next door to Sous. She and her family contrasted sharply with their neighbor – despite their obviously impoverished condition, they reported they were 100% happy with their lives. Ke said it was because the family’s condition had improved so much in recent years. I could hardly believe that their condition had been so much worse in the past that they considered their current condition to be “good,” and was awed that a family could be so happy with so little. (Please view the full journal update and video here: )

By offering loans to borrowers like Sous and Ke, CREDIT is providing a valuable opportunity for people who would have never had a chance make investments in their families otherwise. Thank you for loaning on Kiva, and for supporting CREDIT borrowers. Keep spreading the word!
(Please click here to find more CREDIT borrowers: &_te=mj )

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Goal: better listening

My "goal of the week" is to improve my listening skills. By really focusing on what the person talking is trying to say, I think I'll be able to better understand what they're getting at. Anyways, if you catch me sort of "half-listening" to you any time in the next month (or anytime, really), give me a little reminder to pay attention. Thanks!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Single-axis achievement

After a deep and thoughtful conversation with Ben (which lasted a few hours and made us forget about lunch plans), I came up with a few realizations about myself and the life path I'm currently following. For one, I was relieved to hear that Ben also feels a strong pressure to achieve, and that he often feels that when he is not actively contributing his energy towards either furthering his goals or building his ability to achieve them, he feels anxious -- as though he is not performing to the maximum of his abilities. I feel exactly the same way. When he described the anxiety as possibly the greatest barrier to his individual happiness, I was so happy to realize that someone thinks the same way I do.

We discussed the topic for some time, and a few points came up that really helped me dispel some of my anxiety. I pointed out that I'm not very good at understanding the exact actions that will lead me to optimizing my ability to achieve my goals, yet I act and work as though I do. For example, I force myself to read things about my "industry," study intensely, work hard on reducing my interest in "distractions" and entertainment, etc. In reality, I have no idea whether my current mix of effort is actually the maximal way to achieve -- maybe by engaging myself in a broader set of social activities, my ability to achieve will be enhanced in ways I can't even imagine (like making connections, etc.). Still, because the timescale for feedback on a "life method" is so large, I'm unable to make any rapid adjustments, so I cling to the arbitrarily defined mix of activities I just described. Worse, -- and this relates to Ben's concern -- when I take time away from that mix, I feel an anxiety that I'm not doing the most I can to achieve, which is definitely not conducive to my feeling of equanimity.

But perhaps I'm making a more fundamental mistake. All of my achievement-based efforts are directed towards accomplishing a single measurable goal. Because "helping people be happy" is so broad, I am forced to narrow my goals to something more easily measured, like "helping create a company that delivers badly needed services to those in need" (just an example). This is much more measurable (and thus conducive to competition/achievement), since I can say "we delivered X units to Y people." As Ben and I discussed, we're well aware that the way to achieve such goals is the 'traditional' method of diligence, study, and hard work. In that sense, the anxiety I described previously is a valuable asset, because it urges me to build myself into a high-achiever. However, my fatal flaw is that I'm only measuring and maximizing my success on a single axis (# of units delivered to the poor), when in reality, I affect the world in countless ways, particularly through my daily actions and my apparent happiness.

Through our discussion, I was reassured that we have an even more valuable contribution to make by showing others that we can accomplish our goals (perhaps to a slightly lesser degree) and be happy. We agreed that we could much more effectively maximize our contributions by showing others, through our personal philosophies and everyday lives, that working hard doesn't have to mean unhappy/tiring/empty. Otherwise, if we focus too narrowly on our arbitrarily defined single axis of achievement, we might act in a way that would hurt people and spread unhappiness. I'm sure you can think of at least a few people who are extreme achievers yet are unpleasant to be around: power-grabbers, ambitious "jerks," sycophants, etc. Even if it didn't go that far, people would not want to learn from our working/living philosophies because it would seem as though we weren't enjoying life because we didn't develop ourselves in other ways.

I'm very happy to think that I can work on improving myself in several dimensions at once without worrying too much about the loss in accomplishment towards the primary goal. In fact, I feel a lot more confident now that I can make an even greater overall contribution by developing my happiness and sharing my methods and ideas with others. All things are interconnected, after all.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Some pre-reading for MIT on power, by Pfeffer (sort of irrelevant for this blog, but whatever). Basically, he's defending the idea that one should build a network of "allies" through unsolicited favors, regardless of how it may appear to outsiders.

It is easy to see the building of a network of support, either through the appointment and promotion process or through personal favors, as activities that are somehow illegitimate or inappropriate. Such a view would be incomplete at best. The development and exercise of power in organizations is about getting things accomplished. The very nature of organizations--interdependent, complex systems with many actors and many points of view-- means that taking action is often problematic. Failures in implementation are almost invariable failures to build successful coalitions. Although networks of allies can obviously be misused, they are nevertheless essential in order to get things done. And, allies must be put in place through whatever practical means are at hand.

Wow. Pretty bold.... I'm shocked he just outright said that

Friday, July 10, 2009


I'm definitely a bit behind on posting, and I'm not sure that I'll catch up, but I'll at least try to tell you a bit about my travels at the end of my trip.

Before I left Cambodia, I made a quick side trip to Malaysia (to visit my girlfriend, who came from Shenzhen).

From the airplane, the dark olive-green oil palm fields looked a bit like an old computer monitor (where the pixels were still visible). It was an odd mixture of artificiality and nature. I didn't really know what to think, but it was definitely beautiful. I then arrived at the very modern airport, and met Julia. When we headed into town in a taxi, we rode over clean, well-paved highways and watched as more and more glassy, tall buildings came into view. For me, it was a big shock -- after unconsciously accepting Cambodia's level of development as the norm, seeing such well built infrastructure and buildings made me realize how underdeveloped Cambodia is.

The mall was particularly shocking. We went in search of late night food (since nothing else was open after we arrived), and ended up heading to the mall food court. Going inside that building and feeling the cold AC, seeing the seemingly endless glass and excessively pure white lights, and realizing that most of the colorful products being sold served "wants" instead of "needs" sent me down a spiral of negative thinking. Is this what it's all for? Is this why we're all trying? Using the cost of building as a measure of relative importance, it's easy to see that the mall is an important part of people's lives in developed countries. But it doesn't fulfill lives, it just satisfies a want while simultaneously nurturing it so it arises again. Why was it all necessary when the Cambodian people were so happy? Will it really help the people of Cambodia to develop their country into a consumption-centered America-clone? When does development stop being necessary and start becoming frivolous?

The rest of the night was filled with that sort of internal thinking. But I noticed that as I spent time there, the thoughts quickly faded and turned to optimizing my enjoyment of the situation. It's so easy to let those thoughts slide.

Malaysia was a beautiful country with wonderful people, but it left me with a lot of questions...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Reflections on the Jungle

A few weeks ago, my brother and a friend (Ulara) came to visit me in Cambodia. The morning after they arrived, we took a bus to a small town at the base of the Cardamom Mountains near the Cambodian coast. There is very little development in the region, which makes it a prime location for ecotourism. I chose Chi Phat (the town) because I saw it in a brochure when I visited a different town in the area, and the project seemed interesting.

The organization operating the tours was set up by a Dutch NGO, and was designed to help the poor village shift away from environmentally destructive ways of life like poaching and logging to providing services to tourists interested in the relatively untouched jungle that surrounds it. It’s a very interesting program, and it only just started, so it will be very interesting to see how it turns out.

After we got off the bus in the sleepy river town called Andoung Teuk, we looked for possible transportation to Chi Phat, which is about 15-20km up the river. The town used to have decent business activity until the Thai government funded and built a new bridge, removing the need for travelers to stop and cross the river in a ferry. After briefly wondering how we would make it up the river, a middle-aged man pulled up and asked if we wanted a moto (motorcycle taxi) up to the town. The cost would be five dollars. He called a couple more of his buddies, and each of us hopped on with our drivers.

The drive itself was an amazing experience. My driver was probably the best and most fearless moto-driver I’ve ever ridden with. We swiftly made our way over some pretty hairy dirt roads with potholes and mud, passing by verdant fields of sugarcane against a backdrop of pure, deep blue post-rain sky. Then he surprised me by leaving the other two motos and driving on to a tiny path into what seemed like the woods. The road was sandy and filled with puddles. I kept thinking we would slip and fall out, but each time he just stepped on the gas aggressively and took control back from the elements. We flew through terrain I wouldn’t dare try on my own, fording rivers and riding on loose sand, all without getting the least bit dirty. This guy was amazing.

We then merged with the main road again, and the others were nowhere in sight, although there were a couple of soldiers with AK-47s on a moto in front of us. We got to an area so muddy it was physically impossible to ride, so I got off and waited for the others. I waited almost 10 minutes for the others to catch up, which gives you an idea of how crazy my driver was. We walked through the mud along with some young Cambodian guys, a couple of whom were singing an old-time Cambodian song. Eventually we got to the river, saying goodbye to the moto drivers, one of whom kept proudly telling us that he’s ethnically Chinese, and one of whom kept shouting “Cambodia is happy, Cambodia is happy!” and then laughing heartily. We hopped on a small ferry powered by what seemed like a souped-up lawnmower engine. We were very much on a jungle river. Deep green palms and nameless jungle plants lined the river up to the water’s edge.

The town was small and very “underdeveloped.” It reminded me a lot of the villages I visit when I do client interviews, but maybe even a little poorer because it lacked a direct land route, and the nearest decent-sized city is a couple hours away. We arrived at the main office for the ecotourism organization, which was a small wooden house very similar to the houses that surrounded it. They helped us choose a tour, called over some guides to accompany us, and sent us on our way with our bikes and gear. We chose to bike because it was already late in the day, and we thought we might not make it to the campsite before dark if we walked. My pack was very heavy (I had about 18 water bottles in it) and was extremely uncomfortable when I rode because it put so much pressure on my “seat” when I sat on the bike. I knew I wasn’t in this trip for comfort though, so I stopped thinking about it, especially when I found out that our guide’s pack was probably 1.5 to 2 times heavier than mine. How he rode up that mountain with that pack wearing flip-flops…

Two minutes after we started riding, the sky opened up and it started pouring. We put on our ponchos, but they weren’t much use. Five minutes after starting, Ulara fell into a huge muddy puddle. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the ride. We climbed through what initially “didn’t feel like the jungle,” mostly farms and low, sloping hills. It alternated between rainy and stiflingly hot (especially with the ponchos on), and we took breaks often. It felt good to be back on a bike, but I realized how much strength I lost while in Cambodia.

Eventually, we entered the “real jungle.” Riding through the jungle wasn’t a very visual experience. There wasn’t much to see, just green-everything and one narrow, muddy track that comprised the trail. The sounds were incredible though. Bugs made sounds that reminded me of science fiction movies, birds sang with voices that made pure, piercing tones, and rain that sounded like eternity. We also used our sense of touch – we needed to constantly check for leeches, which seemed to find the smallest unprotected patch of skin to bite into. A little itchy and painful, but not as bad as I imagined. I do remember one visual experience vividly, though – passing through a “cloud” of 10 or 12 brilliant yellow butterflies bouncing sharply through the air. It sort of felt like a computer generated color show.

After a few hours of riding (I’m not sure, maybe only 3), we arrived exhausted, wet, and smelly at the campsite, which was at the edge of a natural clearing in the jungle. My first impression was “National Geographic African Savanna” (even though I’m not sure what a savanna is). It felt so unreal to look at something so untouched by human development, and to know that there would be no other people passing through the area while we were there. We saved exploration for the morning though, because we needed to set up the tent.

The night was pleasant with frequent showers, and we had a filling meal of rice and vegetable-egg stir fry. I ate so much, but still felt like I could eat more. Or so my legs told me. We slept in hammocks with mosquito-nets built in. We agreed it was the most comfortably we slept the entire time Aaron and Ulara visited. We slept so early I got up at 3:30 and wandered around, assisted by the full moon. At around 5 or 5:30, we walked out to the “pond” in one edge of the large (1km square?) clearing. The feeling was incredible. The purity of the light, the clarity of the air, and the absolute silence -- save the beautiful calls of exotic birds -- put me in a state of wonder. As the sky lightened and the full moon set, I told my brother that I’ve probably only seen one other place in the world as beautiful as this: Crater Lake at sunrise. With my poor writing abilities, describing it would only cheapen the mental image I want to create in your mind, so I’ll just leave it at a couple of adjectives: silent, verdant, blue, white, wet, pure.

After spending an hour in almost meditative contemplation listening to sounds, watching wild birds, looking at insects and spiders, and observing plants, we headed back, barely speaking except to remark on the beauty and awe of the place.

After breakfast, we got on our bikes again. We were still tired from the previous day, but our loads were lighter because we had eaten so much rice and drank so much water. Fortunately, even though the road was narrower and steeper than the previous day, it was generally downhill. We had to get off and walk several times because the path was dangerously steep and muddy (Aaron "endo-d" once). I started getting the hang of things after a while, though. After an hour or so, we suddenly emerged into a brilliant grassy clearing. It was a bit of a relief after struggling to make progress through the jungle.

We eventually came to a village, where we snacked, climbed trees to get local fruits, and talked to a crazy lady. She was definitely a bit crazy. Our guide said she was drunk, but I think it was more than that. Whenever she talked, she would suddenly switch into a high-pitched, slightly annoyed-sounding yelp mid sentence. I couldn’t tell if she was mad or just getting excited.
We went to a pleasant, rocky waterfall, where Ulara took a nap and Aaron and I swam in the comfortably cool water. Crazy lady followed us for a bit, but then walked back to her house via the river. We ate lunch and then headed back to the village.

We stopped at another waterfall, but at this point everyone was exhausted and just wanted to get back and take a shower. We found our guesthouse, and were invited to a dance party where Aaron and Ulara got to experience some genuine Khmer dancing – the type with the hand-movements and the dance steps and walking around the centerpiece slowly in a circle. The local manager of the ecotourism group was drunk and made sure we had a good time.

In the morning, we took bucket showers and had breakfast made by a very nice, skinny old lady. She made very good food, and seemed to enjoy hanging out with us, even if we couldn’t communicate so well. We then said bye to our friends, and promised we’d write (since we weren’t sure if we’d come back). We made it back to Andoung Teuk with enough time to drink some sugar cane juice with our moto-driving friend and chat about his Chinese heritage before we got on the bus back to Phnom Penh.

(Aaron and I enjoyed a durian on the bus on the way back. Hope that didn't bother anyone...)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Moto of the day

The coveted chicken-moto photograph. Well, actually, not quite. It's the even-rarer baby chicken moto! These chicks were tied at their feet in clusters and hung from a wooden contraption designed to carry them. As we drove by, all I could hear was a steady chorus of "peep-peep-peep"