Sunday, July 05, 2015

Harris - International Bank of Bob

Bob Harris was a travel and tourism writer, traveling the world as if he could afford to stay at the luxurious hotels and eat at the fancy restaurants he would visit and then review. All that came to an end when he encountered Dubai. The extreme wealth and privilege, contrasted with the desperate lives of those who built and served the city shocked him into wondering what matters in life. Then it caused him to take a journey to understand the KIVA organization, an organization dedicated to providing opportunity to those who seek economic opportunity but whose prosperity was cut short by the cross-generational and cross-national birth lottery.

Some within the U.S.A. and many outside its borders turn to risky strategies to improve their lives because they love their families. Those who serve as common laborers in places like Dubai sacrifice the most. They are compelled by images of financial gain and they risk everything they have for that chance, often going into great debt to do it and many times risking their health and safety just in the hopes of a better life. They always leave their loved ones back home and end up living away for many years and perhaps an entire adulthood. Although places like Dubai allow for the exploitation of these desperate seekers, Dubai isn’t where the problem started. The root of the problem is the level of poverty and lack of opportunity back in India, Nepal, the Philippines, or elsewhere. That’s why KIVA’s focus has been on providing resources for husbands, wives, and family to stay home and to have access to low-interest loans to create their own businesses.

While other strategies are available to help those in perpetual poverty to have a better life, many (certainly not all) of them are wrapped in a veneer of pity that mostly makes the donors feel good about themselves. The KIVA approach is one that views those who lack economic opportunity as creative, smart, strong, resourceful, and resilient – it recognizes their dignity and worth which is one of the major preconditions to self-sufficiency. KIVA not only provides funding but requires coaching of those who receive loans to help them be successful and it reinforces that every success results in funds returning to the pool to be reallocated to help others. The International Bank of Bob is packed with examples of success from around the world and reflecting the many cultures and religions where poverty has struck. The book also provides honest examples of failure or “over-reach” where some have been too ambitious; it is realistic and does not claim any special truth or cure.

I identified a lot with Harris’ stories, particularly since his journey started in a place with which I am so very familiar, it traversed other places I’ve been, and it ended in Chicago (ACCION) where I now live. It’s strange how a book can so closely mirror your own experience, bringing both greater insight and gravity to your own lived experience. The extremes of wealth found in some places in the world go beyond “any sane human comfort and starts touching lunacy,” as Harris noted early in his book. Is KIVA a way for those who have relative wealth to share their prosperity and alleviate the poverty found in so many, many places? And if it worked, it wouldn’t cost a dollar – only a simple loan that would regenerate itself and eventually be available to others to pursue their own dreams of crossing from poverty to dignity.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

4th of July in America!

On the 4th of July in 2007 I was on a plane most of the day, returning to Dulles International on a Qatar Airways flight after having taken the first step in considering a move to Qatar. I still needed to explore the possibilities with family but it was very clear that the Qatar Foundation opportunity was pretty extraordinary, so extraordinary that I was already leaning toward trying to find a way to make it happen if given an offer. It was kind of crazy because in 2007 all that existed was a handful of staff who had been invited to come on board, a temporary office area, and lots of amazing vision for what student affairs might look like for Education City in Doha, Qatar.

It was a bit surreal returning to the U.S.A. on the 4th of July, especially in a year when the Presidential election was very inflammatory, when bipartisanship was pushing toward a fever pitch, and when (unbeknownst to most) the economy was slipping toward a dangerous cliff. Things were comfortable at Miami and it looked as if I was going to be there for the long haul but, as the months between July and November unfolded, it became infinitely clear that Qatar was the right choice – and it was!

As I reflect on being out of the U.S.A. for 7 years and now being back for the quintessential day that celebrates the principles of America, I hope I’m a better citizen than when I left. Being outside of the U.S.A. exposed me to a level of complexity in the world that I had never grasped before. It exposed me to both the shortcomings and strengths of the U.S.A. and it helped me to understand that acknowledging where we fall short is one of America’s greatest strengths. Many other countries are unable to have spirited debate and maintain tensions that serve many complicated and competing stakeholders. While the contentiousness of American politics can be troubling, we make progress despite the roadblocks.

We went to a pre-4th celebration on the shores of Lake Michigan last night and witnessed thousands reveling in food, music, sports, and friendship. The response to hearing a community symphonic band play patriotic American standards demonstrated a real appreciation for what the 4th means. And the bus we road back to our neighborhood was driven by a delightful driver who engaged those on board in our own songfest. However, the interesting thing was that it was a little harder to find songs that everyone knew than when I was a kid growing up in Boulder, CO, attending the community songfest and fireworks at the Colorado University stadium. In those days, it appeared that everyone knew the words and the sound of thousands singing together is something I’ll never forget.

What’s different about the 4th in the 1950s and 1960s in Boulder and the 4th in 2015 in Chicago? Those with whom we shared the 4th last night were far more diverse than those of years ago, so diverse that sometimes it ‘s hard to find elements of a common culture. My belief is that the greater diversity that is now obvious in America is a strength and, even though somewhat harder to negotiate, it is a strength that will serve America going forward in the 21st century. The key is recognizing and welcoming many voices with different songs, customs, and perspectives, all embracing and striving for an America that not only stands on important democratic principles but lives them as well.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Revisiting expatriate life in Qatar

It has now been over six months since I left Qatar. I thought that I might blog more often to reflect my thoughts as the months unfolded but I’ve reentered relatively easily and have waited for something of significance to blog about. I received a message this morning with a link to a very interesting article by Dane Wisher, an expatriate from the U.S.A. who worked in Qatar for three years and recently repatriated.

Dane’s reflections took me back to many of the thoughts and feelings I had about being in Qatar. Since returning to the U.S.A., I've not really talked to that many people about what I'd done for the last 7 years. Most people don't ask and I don't volunteer. I don't volunteer at least partially because I'm ambivalent about the experience. All the time I was in Qatar I held hopes and dreams that I would be able to contribute something that would be lasting and that would fundamentally change many of the conditions with which I was so uncomfortable.

The author of this article, Dane, was in Qatar in her early career while I was there in late career. The timing of expatriate work makes a lot of difference in what you experience. The most provocative section of the article for me was the following:
Expat employees generally get used to the dissonance between the rhetorical fanfare of the higher-ups and the actual administrative fickleness that plagues local management structures and cripples the abilities of employees to do their jobs. But more than than, as a human being you get used to passing emaciated workers on construction sites on the walk to the Kempinsky or the Four Seasons. You get used to seeing Qatari men browbeat—and sometimes actually beat—South Asian drivers on the side of the road. You grow accustomed to watching workers on break line up in the shade of a single palm tree as the dirt sizzles around them in August. You stop registering the busses with no air-conditioning carrying the laborers to and from their cramped quarters. You stop noting the way the men press their dusty faces out the open windows for air.
The reality of this segment is that the first sentence so clearly and sadly captures my experience. Unfortunately, I fear some might say I was part of "rhetorical fanfare of the higher ups." I actually believed that we were making a difference and I believed that drawing others into seeing the possibilities was better than cursing the darkness. However, I depart from the author on the rest of the paragraph. I never got used to the chasm between the privileged Qatari/expats and the Southeast Asian workers. Reading the words even now brings back deep emotional connections - I see the faces and the yearning of those trying to build a better life. What the article does not address is that at least some proportion of these workers (I suggest significant) have a better life because they went to Qatar; the fact is that the U.S.A. and other Western countries are certainly not opening their doors to help those who are desperate for economic opportunity. The problem of inequality is vast and the worst in the world today is the U.S.A. If you look at the U.S.A. in comparison to the rest of the world, it gets even worse. Because I saw the difference and experienced the tolerance of inequality so profoundly in Qatar, I now see it much more clearly in the U.S.A. Something has to be done and I pray that the shifting political environment in the U.S.A. will result in our being a better country and in the U.S.A. and its citizens understanding our role in the world in different ways. The faces of others will never leave my memory and it is for them that my work is now about trying to bring substantive internationalization to U.S. higher education.

I have written, and continue to write, about the Qatar days. I don't go into the details of the things that made me ambivalent, primarily because I still hold hope that change will eventually come. Becoming cynical about the experience doesn't work for me nor does voicing it help Qatari leaders in their quest to change. The good Qatari who I knew deeply and still admire greatly are attempting to serve their country and bring modernity to its people. The thing that Westerners generally don't get is that being a Qatari leader is extremely volatile, challenging, and potentially dangerous. The pace of change has to be at a rate that the mainstream Qatari citizen will endorse, not as Qatari leaders or Western expats would hope. It is a long, slow and difficult path.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Diamond - Collapse

The good news of Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2011) is that no generation in human history has had more information available to it about how other societies and cultures failed to meet the crises of their days. The bad news is that leaders in societies across time and culture have often sought only to make sure that their elites or family were the last to survive while the broader society faltered and ultimately collapsed. Daimond’s hope, and I assume ours as well, is that contemporary societies will recognize the challenges we face and deal with them in ways that protect us all.

Diamond identified eight factors that placed societies at risk over history; deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people. The weight of each of these variables has varied across the cultures he analyzed but the pattern of past collapses has generally involved population growth that led to intensified focus on food production, expanded farming that became increasingly unproductive, and continuing pursuit of unsustainable practices that ultimately destroyed the living conditions required to support the population. Some societies dwindled and died where they were while others moved on to another place to begin the cycle all over.

To these eight natural conditions, Diamond added several new factors that he asserts are impacting current societies – human caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of all the photosynthetic capacity of the planet. The human complicators include the presence of hostile neighbors, decreased support from previously friendly neighbors, and the response of the society to the problems it has encountered. Diamond noted both societies that have negotiated difficult circumstances and survived as well as other societies that did not.

At the core of most of the societal failures there has been a conflict in values – either conflict among sub-groups within a society or conflict between what was valued and the reality that those values did not work. The latter dynamic has been particularly interesting in the examples of European societies that failed because they did not heed and respect native cultures they encountered as they expanded their reach throughout the world. The ability to recognize the value tension, and adjust as necessary was the key to success. The challenge that has never loomed so ominously before is that previous societies could fail and only their populations suffered the consequence. In today’s world, the potential for failure has moved to a much grander scale – even when one society attempts to shift its own failures to another society, the shifts are only temporary solutions that eventually wreak havoc for all. The other crushing reality is that first-world economies have already overutilized resources and damaged the natural environment and now are trying to push more austere consumption off on developing economies; those in these other places see the hypocrisy of encouraging restraint when they, themselves, were unwilling to change their ways to reduce the negative impact on our shared eco-system.

The bottom line is that the complications we face around the globe require leadership – and a particularly courageous kind. The leadership required to negotiate the conditions that have caused other societies over history to collapse will anticipate growing problems and will take bold steps to address the problems before they reach catastrophic levels. As Diamond says, “Such leaders expose themselves to criticism or ridicule for acting before it becomes obvious to everyone that some action is necessary.” This kind of leadership is essential if we are to avoid the reality that conflicts across contemporary societies may well result in very unpleasant outcomes “such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies.”

Friday, May 22, 2015

OECD report confirms world-wide economic inequality

Confirming the sentiment of my previous posts about economic inequality primarily in the U.S.A., OECD's new report on world-wide economic inequality is sobering. This report, coupled with the analyses of economists who have already rung the alarm bell, identifies the countries where inequality has grown most dramatically even in the face of the 2008+ world recession. The richest have only grown richer and this poses a significant threat to the world's economies. Economies stagnate from those with the greatest wealth holding and growing their own net worth while middle class citizens would stimulate economic vitality by actively using their resources to purchase products and services.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Stiglitz - The Price of Inequality

Joseph Stiglizt paints a picture that many do not want to see, particularly those in the U.S.A. In The Price of Inequality (2013) he admits that it was hard to acknowledge “that the United States was no longer the land of opportunity portrayed by Horatio Alger stories of ‘rags to riches.’” One of the most important points of his book was that the blaming and framing for individual advantage that has become so much a part of the American debate has to stop. In its place we need a substantive conversations informed by “self-interest properly understood” (Alexis de Tocqueville) that has the potential to return U.S. economic policy to one that serves many, rather than the few. Before offering some reflections, no personal indictment is intended to anyone – I’m a humanist trying to understand economics and, more importantly, attempting to find ways to devise an economy that can serve all people more equitably.

The parallels between the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th century and what is now occurring at the beginning of the 21st century is striking. The statement, “America’s concentration of wealth at the top was a result of rent seeking – including monopoly profits and the excessive compensation of some CEOs and, especially, that of the financial sector” is applicable across both times. Think of the names of the Gilded Age – Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Frick, Morgan, Rockefeller – and now those of the 21st century – Buffet, Walton, Gates, Trump… Using one example, the Waltons who are heirs to the Walmart empire control 69.7 billion dollars of wealth, equivalent to the total wealth of the bottom 30% of the entire U.S. economy. And what does Walmart do? It purchases and moves products made by others and makes them widely available at below market prices (sometimes) because of economy of scale. Walmart adds nothing to the general welfare of society and creates no innovation or advancement – it’s only a broker of the sweat and effort of others.

Rent seeking is extracting a natural resource or controlling access to a service or product that shifts wealth simply by taking it away from others. No contribution is made through innovation or the provision of any product or service. Countries that have abundant natural resources have classic rent seeking economies that gain access to their resources at prices and with terms that are lower than fair market value. The question about the rent-seeking economies is who owns these resources, especially when their extraction creates other impacts that create costs that are then laid at the feet of the public.
What happens among some of those with extreme wealth is that they credit their success to themselves, not recognizing the free gift of generations ahead of them, the opportunities of education and work they were accorded, and the infrastructure of a government and society that makes innovation and commerce possible. When this generational and public gift remains unrecognized, it becomes a sort of corporate welfare that no one acknowledges. “When the oil industry pushes for more offshore drilling and simultaneously pushes for laws that free companies from the full consequences of an oil spill, it is, in effect, asking for a public subsidy.” Beyond the financial costs associated with rent seeking, the greatest cost may be the “erosion of our sense of identity in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important.”

Ronald Reagan started the repositioning of the U.S. economy when he reduced taxation at the highest levels from 70% to 28% under the premise that the benefit to the rich would trickle down to the lower economic strata of citizens. The extreme inequality that is derived from the Reagan era, contradicting the trickle-down idea, has created a parallel and dysfunctional divide in the politics of the current generation. Those who have obtained great wealth are now able to more easily buy politician’s votes through campaign support, a dynamic that creates misinformation campaigns to manipulate the middle and lower class into thinking that maintaining an unrestricted economy that benefits the wealthy is in the interest of common citizens.

The solution that Stiglitz recommends is dramatic – focus “on community rather than simply on self-interest – both community as a means to prosperity and as a goal in its own right.” Return to an achievement model of income determination, one based on rewarding in income those who make the greatest contribution to society. Then reverse the government’s fiscal position by raising taxes at the top to reasonable levels, cut out corporate welfare and subsidies, increase taxes for corporations that don’t invest and create jobs in the U.S., impose taxes/charges on polluters, stop natural resource give aways, cut military waste, don’t overpay through government procurement (whether it’s a drug company or a defense contractor). Then invest in infrastructure, education and technology that will establish the base for growth in the future.

While these measures may seem draconian to some, they are likely in everyone’s best interest – even those with extreme wealth. The growing economic divisions among us all are dangerous because they result in hopelessness for some (resignation to poverty), unrest among others (public protest and violence), and complacency for those who do not recognize that economic disparity is one of the greatest dangers we face in terms of political and military conflicts around the world.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

April 9, 1939 - Marian Anderson's act of conviction

Seventy-six years ago today, Marian Anderson sung before an audience of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial because the Daughter's of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow her to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.  Howard University had invited her to sign; because they didn't have a venue large enough to hold the crowd they anticipated, they asked for the use of Constitution Hall which was denied because of a policy that only allowed whites entry. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt immediately resigned from her DAR membership and helped to move the much-anticipated concert to the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. While Anderson did not see herself as an activist for civil rights, her courage in proceeding with the concert in 1939 turned into what many recognize as the first-ever public protest concert in American history. Acting on principle turned a concert that would have been great into something even greater when both the music and message reached so many hearts. As Jessye Norman noted (in her memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing) in reference to Marion Anderson, "When I think about how, despite the pervasive prejudice she experienced, she did not allow hatred to dampen the song within, I can only be grateful." Those who act on conviction should not allow resistance in any form to dampen the song within.