Monday, May 25, 2009

Moto of the day

Using transportation to move transportation vehicles.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Thoughts on microloans

For all the debate that rages about whether or not microloans help the poor escape poverty, and whether they actually do more harm than good by over-indebting borrowers, I think the benefits of "forced trying" are often overlooked. When a poor person takes out a loan (or any person for that matter), they know that they must make repayments on time. This means that they must come up with a predetermined amount of money by a certain date. For a poor borrower, this "financial discipline" isn't something they've really had the chance to experience before. Furthermore, in the case of the poorest clients, loan repayments are often comparable to the entire family's monthly savings. This means that they must make a significant effort to earn more and spend less while repaying the loan, or "forced trying."

After spending a few months here and visiting dozens of microloan clients, I've begun to notice some larger themes in their attitudes. Perhaps they only pertain to Cambodian clients, but I think some hold true more universally. For one, although their situation often seems dire from our perspective, the poor are generally unfazed about their condition. Although they must deal with problems like complete lack of health care or wretched sanitation standards, they've lived like this their entire lives. Humans have an incredible ability to adapt to and then accept the circumstances in which they live. Nobody really feels outraged that they can't get running water or electricity, so they end up not making a big effort to get those things by working creatively. In essence they're satisfied with the status quo.

Furthermore, they live in an environment where effort is not always repaid with a commensurate reward. They are more susceptible to severe weather and disease. Even if they increase the amount of rice they plant, or buy more pigs to raise and sell, the rice could be ruined by an untimely rain, and the pigs could all die from a disease. The end result is that through repeated experience, they learn that effort should only be made in moderation, and that risks should be avoided.

However, when a poor person takes out a loan whose repayments are on par with her family's monthly savings, changes in lifestyle and work habits must be made. In order to continue with the current standard of living and make repayments for the loan, the borrower must find other ways to make and save money (particularly if the loan did not go towards an income-producing asset or investment). The borrower learns that she and her family are capable of saving more money by working harder and thinking creatively. By making repayments on time, the borrower is rewarded with permission to take out more loans, and avoids the loss of collateral. Essentially, the loan is providing a rare opportunity for the borrower to experience a formal, structured, rule-based environment that we in the developed world take completely for granted, one in which effort is consistently rewarded.

I think that the positive experience of being rewarded for their work helps poor borrowers believe that they indeed have some control over their situation, and that if they want to change it, they can -- if they make an effort.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Moto of the day

Serious stacking.

This moto has a 2-wheeled trailer attached, and was spotted on the ride back from Vietnam. It exemplifies the visually-boggling ability of moto drivers to pack their motos with poofy items that look like they should fall off.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

busy with vacation

It's been rather hectic lately, so there's really too much to talk about. Aaron and Ulara came, we went to the jungle, had an amazing adventure, met great people, came back and went to Siem Reap in the same day, and are now going around the temples. So many experiences. It's difficult to make a coherent summary on what's happened so far. I guess the biggest things I've noticed are that traveling with great people is more important than traveling to great places, and that learning a language, even if you only plan to be somewhere for a short time, is easy and makes things so much more enjoyable. Anyways, we need to sleep soon so we can get up in time for some early morning temple ruins.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ruminations from the back of a moto

In the past 3 days, I've spent 24 hours rolling over rough terrain on the back of a moto, talking to clients, and just generally being very hot. Each time we moved from client to client, I had a bit of time in between ruts and potholes to think about poverty, development, and life in general. Unfortunately I didn't manage to write it all down each day, so here's my best shot at a brain dump for all three days.

  • roads
Roads are just so important when it comes to convincing people that it's worth it to make a trip to the "outside" world. They're key in helping motivate people to step outside of their comfort zone. They're critical in determining the rate that a community can grow at. And they are so bad in the countryside in Cambodia. There were so many potholes and trenches that riding on the back of a moto required my full attention, as well as considerable muscle usage. From what little I saw of "muddy roads," I honestly have no idea how anything gets done during the rainy season. Pavement is truly magical
  • savings
Savings are critical when it comes to dealing with family emergencies. It was really surprising how many families I met that told me they had no savings whatsoever. When people in these families get ill, the have the following options: try to borrow from someone else, sell something like a cow (a productive asset!) to get money, or just don't treat it and hope it turns out OK. Amazingly, I think the last option seemed to be the most common amongst families without savings that I met, but I didn't get a very large sample size.
  • illness
I've started to become obsessed with food-borne illness after having a few of my own. I think the most amazing part is that some people have problems but don't even realize that their condition is abnormal. Interestingly, Siem Reap seems to have a ton of donated wells, even in the villages. Very few people reported problems with FBIs among those with wells. Definitely seems like something that works.
  • sad faces
The face-processing center in my brain noticed a lot of blank/bored/irritated faces as we whizzed by on the moto. Maybe this implications for the happiness levels of poor people.
  • slow people
I saw the way a lot of parents of multiple children handled the young ones. Usually the tactic was to distract the child or put it to sleep. I saw some that had bag-like mittens on their hands so they wouldn't do anything. I wonder if that's a good way to raise a child to be curious and always looking for solutions to problems (instead of just accepting them with a blank stare)
  • local economies
There was one village where some of the residents owned land that was bought out to create a golf course. The people who owned the land had somewhat serious-looking businesses with machinery and storage places and workers. That was a big contrast with the palm-frond house of the borrower I was visiting next door. Interestingly, the whole village seemed to have more activity compared to villages that didn't have a big influx of cash from the outside. It made me think about the self catalyzing nature of development, and that capital is so critical in "making it happen"
  • corruption
I talked with my Kiva helper about corruption. It's such a tricky subject because even if people have some idea about the extent of corruption in their government, they don't realize how much it stifles their country's development (and by proxy, their own). Without rules to disconnect the rulemakers from access to the nation's funds, the magic of that self catalyzing cycle will never start. Cambodia could be doing so much better....
  • NGOs
Back to the talk of donated pumps. I saw an unbelievable number of signs that said "this person from this country donated this pump through this organization" in the middle-of-nowhere countryside. It was great because most of the people that had the pumps didn't have stomach problems. However, I wonder how much it's related to the fact that they live less than 30km from Siem Reap, the tourist capital of Cambodia. (I think it has A LOT to do with it)
  • water
Clean water is so important! I think a big part of it is making sure that the people understand how important it is. If I were a poor rural farmer, I don't think I'd realize that the reason I was always getting diarrhea was because my water source was too close to someone else's bathroom. I'd probably blame it on spirits or something.
  • self-perception
I asked a lot of borrowers where they thought they ranked on the poverty scale among members in the village. People's first answer was pretty much invariably "we're pretty average." I found it really surprising considering some were obviously much better off than their neigbors, and some were much worse. It's an interesting bit of psychology that I'd like to know more about.
  • naked babies
There are always naked babies (or children) at the borrowers' houses. I realized that I didn't really know what a baby's genitals look like. Now I'm pretty familiar with it. It's just amazing how much we try to hide the fact we have genitalia in America. It's just kinda strange...
  • relativity
Poverty is such a relative term. It makes it that much harder to understand who needs the most help, and where energy would be most usefully applied. So many people seemed "comfortable" or at least "accepting" of their situations. It probably slows the pace of development when everyone is at about the same level (purely based on psychological reasons)
  • fruits
The fruits here are crazy. So many different kinds of amazing jungle fruits. I think we have the monkeys and elephants to thank for them.
  • other things
there are about 1000 other things on my mind, but I've already lost them. I'll make an effort to post more of my thoughts right after I think them. I'll probably put a part two to this post

Moto of the day

The coconut moto (props to Nate for the photo). I am incapable of expressing the feeling I get -- a mixture of profound respect for his balancing skills, and profound befuddlement as to why he doesn't buy a cart-- when I look at this picture. I never saw this phenomenon before I came to Siem Reap, and now I've seen it twice in a week. Maybe it's a "Northerner" thing.

(here's another I nabbed today)

Monday, May 4, 2009

Moto of the day

I've been remiss in my posting, so two posts in one for today. Here's a typical Cambodian moto-taxi driver calling you and asking "hello sir, moto?"

Actually, I'm lying. This is me pretending to be a moto-taxi guy. There are several flaws with my performance:
  • First, and most importantly, I'm wearing running shoes. Not only does the concept of running not exist in Cambodia (it's just too hot...), but the shoes don't either. A true "moto-dup" would be wearing old flip-flops.
  • I have stuff in my basket. No moto driver would ever actually use his basket (and most don't even have one)
  • I'm driving a CREDIT company moto.
  • I have one hand on the handlebars. I should be in a much lazier-looking position, and shouldn't look so ready to go anywhere
  • Just noticed this, but the 2nd-from-the-top button is buttoned! Fatal flaw. That and possibly one more button should be open, exposing my brown Cambodian chest
other than that, I think I did a decent job, especially with the single finger in the air, which instantly communicates "hey you foreigner, get on my moto so I can try to charge you more than the ride is worth!"

Well, they're not all out to rip us off (that much anyways), but the finger in the air is crucial to a moto-taxi driver's success.

Moto of the day

The classic pig-cage moto, a fairly common occurrence in the countryside. This one was spotted on the ferry crossing the Mekong river.

In this case, there were only two small pigs. I've seen up to 3 full grown pigs, both alive and dead (or just looking rather dead after being hog-tied).