Saturday, March 28, 2009

Company-wide retreat

I’m now sitting in on the 3rd day meetings at CREDIT’s company-wide retreat in Sihanoukville, a resort town on the coast of Cambodia. My (highly subjective) impressions so far are mixed: it’s great to be at a beach and spend time relaxing with my workmates, but sitting through hours of meetings on the world’s most uncomfortable chairs in a hot, overcrowded hall listening to people drone on in a language I don’t understand is probably a mild form of torture. At the very least, it’s difficult to stay awake. Good thing I was smart enough to bring my laptop and sit near an outlet.

The format so far has been a half day of meetings and lectures followed by lunch, then free time. Interestingly, CREDIT was founded by a Christian organization called World Relief, so there is a significant amount of prayer incorporated into the proceedings. There are also songs (with only the cheesiest of MIDI tracks in the background), and even a sermon in the mornings. The sermon is particularly difficult, only because the speaker enjoys changing his pitch and loudness at regular intervals, which makes it really tough concentrate on whatever else I’m trying to do. It’s hard to gauge the interest level of a crowd from a completely different culture, but I would venture to guess they are relatively uninterested, judging by the constant murmur from the audience (which, I think tends to be typical here, even if the topic is somewhat serious and the audience should be paying attention).

There have been talks on goals, the mission, strategies for dealing with the economic downturn, and this year’s accomplishments. In the afternoons, the main event has been the highly anticipated all-branch volleyball tournament. There was some suggestion that I would play for the head office team, but once they saw how terrible I am, they decided against it. As an aside, Cambodians seem to be particularly strong at volleyball, soccer, and badminton. There’s a makeshift court where locals play for money in an abandoned lot across the street from our office.

Last night there was a singing contest, which you should check out here. Really amusing. They really are conservative here; the CD jackets (and the clothes they wear when they dance!) look like they’re straight out of the 1940s US pop scene.

(you can see it around the middle of the video below)

Besides the organized activities, the general theme has been “bonding,” which takes the form of drinking and acting stupid on the beach (amongst colleagues my age). Lots of silliness (and attempts to get me to drink), but nothing worthy of mention other than the “dinner” incident. On the first evening, the guys from the head office (where I work) spent the afternoon drinking and acting silly on the beach. I had lots of fun just messing around with them, even without drinking. They all decided to jump in the water, but several of them were unprepared, and went in wearing their underwear. Sothea happened to be wearing “tighty-whities” which are fairly see-through when wet. He was the butt of many playful jokes, and had to tie a shirt around his waist for the sake of decency. After a bit, we rode back to the hotel in one of the company pickups (7 riding inside, 12 in the back). When we pulled up (shouting and blasting the crazy techno), all 350 members of CREDIT had already taken their seats for dinner at the tables set up outside. All attention was on us. A couple of us realized how improperly dressed Sothea was for the occasion, and someone removed his shirt-skirt and ran off. As everyone jumped out of the back of the pickup, poor Sothea was left alone and shouting for his clothes, drawing even more attention to himself. As a participant, it was one of the most hilarious episodes I’ve experienced in a long time. I sort of wish I had a video, but I don’t think anything short of a full-production movie could do that scene justice.

Hopefully we’ll get the chance to get out to an island today instead of just sitting on the beach (I’m never one for just relaxing – always have to keep moving!). Well, 45 more minutes of unintelligible lectures, and then it’s lunch time!

Here's a summary video of the whole retreat.

For those who didn’t get a chance to see them, please check out these videos of borrowers I visited, as well as their profiles (if you have the time). I think the first two or three videos are the most interesting, so definitely check them out (or just browse the videos in the lower-right section once you’re on youtube)

(to see more videos, please click here)

Updates about borrowers:

broom maker
fruit seller
grocery store owner
broom maker #2

Saturday, March 21, 2009

To Bangkok

Yesterday I got on a plane to Bangkok in preparation for a business school interview. I had spent about one month in Cambodia, and had gotten fairly used to the weather, lifestyle, and general atmosphere there. When I got to the airport, I was surprised by the relative cleanliness and sophistication of the facilities. I didn't realize the magnitude of the surprises that awaited me in Bangkok...

I stared out the window intently as we rose and headed west to Thailand. My general impressions were: dry, brown, and flat, dotted with intermittent solitary palm trees. Rising higher, there was little evidence of human development on the ground. As we passed above the Cardomom mountains, the scenery below changed to the deep green of unspoiled forest, shaded by surreal, towering clouds illuminated by the setting sun (I'll never cease to be amazed by the views afforded by a window seat in an airplane).

As we began the descent of our one hour flight, the clouds cleared and I looked down on the Thai countryside with amazement; the landscape was a deep green, and was neatly divided into long, rectangular plots. A closer look revealed that these fields were productive, despite having to combat the same dry climate that Cambodia faces during this period. What was different?


(Or so I suspect.) Without massive irrigation projects, none of the farms could have been producing anything in this weather. Case and point are the rice plots that lay idle to the east of the Cambodian-Thai border. The contrast was so dramatic, it forced me to think seriously about what it takes to get people out of poverty.

Given my recent infatuation with social entrepreneurship, I think I have enshrined the idea that one person can make a huge difference by creating innovative, scalable solutions to specific problems facing the poor. Kiva, a website recognized by many as one of "the best" in terms of social impact, only strengthened the thought that the best path for me would be to emulate other successful social entrepreneurs and form my own organization to address an unseen problem, or to approach an old one using new tools. But the contrast of the vast expanses of green and brown made me think -- would it really make a difference without a supportive infrastructure? Is old-fashioned economic development the most effective way to help? Especially considering the recent thoughtful conversation among the Kiva fellows through email about the ineffectiveness of microfinance at solving poverty, the argument for development has taken a strong hold in my mind. To make any real, sustainable progress, the people of Cambodia need clean water, irrigation, roads, freedom from preventable disease, and education -- the same things we take for granted every day in America.

Would it be more effective for me to work on development than to become a social entrepreneur? I'm not really sure. But I know that without the support of basic infrastructure, the poor will take a long time to work their way out of poverty if they depend solely on access to credit as a solution to their myriad problems.

So, what should I do?

(This is a bit of a tangent, but I always wonder about the balance between the environment and development -- if development allows the poor to escape the suffering imposed by poverty, but destroys the greater environment in the process, is it worth it? Is there even an answer to the question? Am I completely devoid of compassion for asking? Furthermore, is blindly pushing for economic development ignoring the importance of a happy life? Poor Cambodians don't seem terribly unhappy, despite their poor health and material poverty. Is there really a need to force development on people if they don't ask for it? Does anybody know the answers?? Please tell me...)

Check out this video of one of the borrowers we visited recently. The inside of the "kitchen" reminded me that poverty is very real. And still, the family smiled a lot and didn't seem unhappy... hmmm

Monday, March 2, 2009

A weak stomach

It seems that my stomach is not prepared for food in Cambodia. To make a very rough (and probably wildly incorrect) estimate, I’d say that I’ve had stomach issues for about half of the days that I’ve been here. The issues have varied a lot, but the end result is that I can’t operate at full capacity. It’d be nice not to have to think about the normal operation of my GI tract, which I guess is just one more thing I take for granted when living in incredibly developed America.

The latest illness involved diarrhea, followed by abdominal pain, followed by a fever in the evening. I decided that I didn’t want it to progress any further, so I let myself take some antibiotics (azithromycin) before going to bed (I learned that it’s OK to take a single dose of an antibiotic when dealing with stomach issues that involve fever. There’s no need to complete the course because the majority of the pathogens are still in the GI tract, and thus are eliminated in one dose). When I woke up in the morning, the fever was gone, and I felt good enough to go on a short run. I tried to eat afterwards, but it still hurts a bit. Hopefully things will get better after this.

Oh yeah, I picked up a bike yesterday for $35. It was a sweet deal. Apparently they import used bikes from Japan, fix them up (usually just involves removing anything that’s broken and then spray painting it so it looks new), and then sell them. My bike is from Saitama, probably from the late 90s. The guy at the bike shop put some sweet decals on it for me, including a rose and something that looks like a computer graphic made around 1989. My housemate Julie also bought a bike, but her brake cable broke about 10 minutes after we left the shop. Fortunately, the guy at the bike shop felt bad and replaced it for free. Other than that, I’ve been trying to study, but it’s tough when it’s hot and dark in the apartment. There’s just not enough light in there.

I also picked up a durian, which cost about 2.5 dollars per kilo. That’s still not a great price (I was offered $2 before), but better than the $3 I got when I bought one a week or two ago. I think the season is coming…

Work is slow because my Kiva coordinator is out today. Apparently he injured himself playing soccer on the weekend. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to put off my visit to borrowers for some later time.

Sorry for the lazy post. I don’t have too much energy today.

I leave you with a video of an interesting snack I bought off the street.