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These past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to travel all across Punjab. For a rendition of one of these journeys, here’s my latest Kiva blog!

For a sneak peek, in the small town of seven hours from Lahore l I spent an hour and a half talking to Kiva borrowers Rani, and her best friend Rashida. By the end of it Rani was just much too busy picking up her phone, clearly she had things to do!

In the midst of humorous banter, this classic photo was taken.

Call me maybe?

Why development?

Having worked with NGOs in Pakistan before, most things don’t surprise. Yet, every time I go to ‘the field’ as they call it, (another way of saying where the work we’re doing is implemented), I get overwhelmed when I meet our beneficiaries. Their strength to overcome adversity, their resilience and their stories fuel me, leave me elated and remind me why I want to work in development.

For an account of my first field trip with Asasah, through my second blog with Kiva, click here!

For a sneak preview, here are some smiley faces.

Motivation!

In June of this year,I went to San Francisco for my fellowship training with Kiva.

After a heavy week of love, laughter and learning, I was sent off to my home country of Pakistan to work with three Microfinance Institutions (MFIs), to streamline, train and audit their processes.  And this is after spending several months luxuriating as a consultant in Paris!

What a change

Kiva works directly with MFIs in developing countries, who identify and support borrowers who are displayed on the Kiva websites. People like us in turn, the lenders, then can choose whether we would like to lend money to these individuals. This concept is called ‘crowd lending.’ Once you have made the loan, within a few weeks you will start being paid back by the borrower, and our repayment rate of close to 99%!

Kiva does not charge any interest to the MFIs, but the MFIs do charge an interest to the borrowers, mainly to sponsor the costs incurred with providing the loan.

One of the tasks I have placed upon myself is to stir up interest in Pakistan, within microfinance and beyond.

Take a moment to read my first blog for Kiva here.

Placing my picture on the Pakistan map as part of the Kiva Fellowship Graduation!

Another cool thing going on at Kiva at the moment is a concept called a ‘free trial’. In essence, Kiva was donated $1 million by a benevolent individual, to be given out as free trials for people who have not used Kiva yet, to lend out to borrowers. So this means that you can join Kiva and make a loan, without even having to look at your bank account! With free trials, automatically $25 will be provided to the new member when they sign up. Make your first loan here!

Supporting me in this fellowship would mean the world to me, as it would mean you are supporting an entrepreneur in a step towards a brighter future. Making your first loan will be an exhilarating feeling, which I’m sure you will want to pass on, and you should!

Kiva is an excellent organisation that tries to personalize the concept of support and empowerment, giving a community like feel.

I feel so privileged to be a part of it.

Part of my Kiva fellowship application is to share my statement of motivation on my blog. Here it goes!

Having been brought up in Pakistan, from an early age on I was exposed to scenarios no longer tolerated in the developed world. Extreme income disparities, dismal health and educational provisions by the government, corruption, feudalism and lack of justice were hardships the average Pakistani faced on a daily basis. The only way to survive despite the injustice was by building a wall of indifference, an unfortunate technique many have mastered, passing the responsibility on to another. It is with these thoughts that I chose my university degree, that of Economics. Economic empowerment at any level is one of the many prongs that will take to thrust a country such as my own in the direction of remote development. It is for the same reasons that I wish to become a responsible Kiva fellow, for personal, grass-root level, sustainable commitment to a project in development is paramount to succeed.

Being half Pakistani and half Dutch has allowed me to cultivate a unique perspective on solutions within development.  I have completed several internships, notably with the European Union microfinance programme in Pakistan, with the World Bank Child Support programme, a conditional cash transfer programme targeting primary education, with UNESCO, during the 2009 General Assembly, and finally as an intern and then consultant for the Health Insurance Fund, supporting in sub-Saharan Africa through researching health policy and financing. As a student I also participated in a research trip to the Baltic countries, exploring the potential opportunities for foreign investors. In 2010, I worked with Concern in Pakistan supporting both the programme and communications aspect of their emergency response to the floods in Pakistan. I recently returned from Nigeria where I worked for IFC Reports on a publication for Bloomberg Businessweek, producing a socioeconomic report on the country. By working in environments ranging from public to private, international to local, multinational to personal, I have been given a unique insight into each organization’s distinct mind-set, knowledge which I guard closely and can use to foster understanding, for instance, in mediating multilateral donor demands within local NGO capacity. Within my experience in Health, Education and Emergencies, amongst others, I have often played the role of middle-man, bridging gaps in order to work towards a common goal.

It therefore seems a natural step to me to apply for the Kiva fellowship. As a young professional I hold an MSc in Economics, have experience in the international humanitarian context, speak several languages and demonstrate enthusiasm and awareness of the subject.  The characteristics embodied within the Kiva design thoroughly align with my personal mandate of grass-root empowerment.  Targeting vulnerable individuals that sometimes fall between the cracks of clear NGO definitions, allowing for ownership and choice in development, creating personal relationships between lender and borrower and highlighting progress may seem highly logical concepts, yet can be difficult to implement. Furthermore, allowing for the maintenance of one’s own culture and dignity throughout this process cannot be understated. Learning Kiva’s customized approach and in turn being able to contribute to local community empowerment are experiences I thoroughly look forward to.

Cross-cultural experiences

In June of 2010 I returned to Pakistan to work with Irish NGO Concern. Three weeks into my position, devastating floods hit the country, leaving a fifth of the country under water and over 20 million people stranded. As the weeks developed, as relevant as my work was with Concern, I felt a need to connect and engage on a personal level with the victims. Next to my job, I established the informal organization ‘Every Little Helps’ where several campaigns were carried out, with fundraising a constant undertone. Flood-struck villages in the North-West of the country were visited, vulnerable families were targeted, guaranteeing our donors that the right people were supported. Schools were approached to provide clothing, toys and school supplies, individuals were approached for food and hygiene supplies and the media and social networking was used to spread the message. As the campaign grew, we expanded our activities to include bedding, hygiene items and medication, providing support to over 600 families. Under the livelihood phase, seeds, fertilizer and materials were provided to 20 vulnerable farmers, and when the soil was ready we moved to the reconstruction phase, where 15 homes were built, and furniture, books and other equipment bought for a school and orphanage. A severely damaged school is still being re-built, where over 300 children are taught.

Having been brought up in the somewhat privileged, isolated city of Islamabad, having to approach and work in harmony with a very rural part of Pakistan provided to be an experience equipped with extreme learning, despite the fact that it was within the confines of my own country. Through the campaign I interacted with women who never had left their homes due to their very conservative religious views, where I was able to absorb, listen and learn, admitting that even though we may fundamentally differ in our opinions, realized there is always need for sensitivity and understanding. Here is a relevant example where innovation and creativity in approach was required, as a one-size-fits-all policy would not suffice: purchasing plastic tents for the displaced, in temperatures hitting the mid-forties Centigrade, with women unable to leave their ‘homes’, was not an option. Upon consulting with locals we reached the viable alternative of bamboo huts, which we were soon to find out, was the more cost effective solution too!

The opportunity to support these resilient communities during moment of extreme hardship, interacting with traumatized families, fostering relationships built on trust, and designing the campaign based on their needs was demanding to say the least, yet gave me great insight into forming a sustainable strategy. Having raised over $40,000 from private donations, this has been my proudest achievement to date.

Typical Kiva day

The first order of the day would be to have a meet with my liaison at the MFI, and having already established areas of support in the beginning of the fellowship, such as Kiva standards, targeting, monitoring and evaluation, communication, report writing, database skills, we would discuss progress in these areas after the daily training. With the district of work for the week selected, we would go through our databases to see which existing borrowers need to have their progress tracked, where identified candidates are, where verifications need to be carried out and perhaps meet with local NGOs to receive their opinions potential candidates and regions, as well as advice on how to approach certain communities. Taking a local is often necessary to spark trust.

Returning from the field trip would mean updating databases, writing field reports, sending communications material and summarizing lessons learned, observations and suggestions for the following update with HQ. At any moment during the day, following blogs of current fellows, as well as previous fellows working in similar regions, the local and foreign press is necessary in order to keep involved.  The day would conclude with several notations for the fortnightly blog entry.

Reminiscence of Nigeria

On this bleak Parisian day, memories of hot Nigerian beaches flood my mind, brimming my heart with love for the impact this powerful country has left on me. The angst and anticipation during per-departure period dissipated the first night I went out, for a country that produces such exuberant music cannot be one with evil intentions.

Here’s an Oyibo perspective on the Top Ten (very difficult to compile) List of my favourite songs from Naija – enjoy!

10. Naeto C – 10 over 10 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uXSB01Fzac) (a little bit of pun intended..:))

9. Maleke Ewole – The Wedding Song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tg3FG-kQfUM&feature=related)

8. D’Banj – Oliver (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PsEpYG_nAg)

7. Wande Coal ft. D’Banj – You Bad (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eX6m5CrFLyg&feature=related)

6. Mr. Flavour – Nwa Baby (Ashawo Remix) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMSTYtMSbL0&feature=related) / Ukwu (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdlk20EIog0)*

5. Ice Prince – Superstar (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4Zj-_qO2w8&ob=av2e)

4. Dr. Sid – Over the moon (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyMtrUCMTRE&feature=fvst)

3. Wizkid – Wiz Party (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3N6XpKzSGBI) /

Wad up (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdUavJd4QZI) / Love My Baby (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8AvwctqyvI) / Pakurumo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXEj4osQvSU) *

2. P-Square – Chop my money (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZslcTuKYeDk) / Forever (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QijcIH6Yc7Q) *

1. Ice Prince – Oleku (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQoyjrDUCuY&ob=av2e)

*the entire album is good

I miss you, Mygeria and all the friends I made in Lasgiddi. I wish you less wahala during these tumultuous times and I hope we meet again soon. All my love.

The Blind President

Co-written with Tariq Shah and Yalda Mousavinia

A few weeks ago, Belgium created a new world record to become the country to go the longest without a running government.  The successful anarchy operating in the EU capital has officially lasted longer than the power vacuum created in Iraq following the US-lead Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Since June 2010, Belgium has been administered by a lame duck government as a result of the failure in negotiations between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons.

An examination of elections around the world reveals stories of scandals, corruption, and vote-rigging. Even when the election is conducted lawfully, exit polls indicate that voters are often completely ignorant of the policy positions of their candidate.

Additionally, politicians are swayed to the demands of industry via lobbyists who generously shower donations to both sides of the isle, indirectly purchasing future favors.  Campaign funds are predominately spent on media advertising, so it’s no mystery why the news industry is compliant in seducing candidates to amass enormous advertising budgets.  Cable news networks in particular exhibit this in their obsession with fundraising accomplishments of candidates in the early stages of primary elections.

A democratic society’s goal in utilizing a system of popular elections is to select leaders who hold policy opinions representative of the electorate.  It’s a process of paramount importance and fundamental to our natural human right to self determination.

The sacred process of selecting leaders laid out by the founding fathers of the United States has degenerated into a plutocratic propaganda brawl.  Throughout the history of the United States, family powerhouses have dominated the political stage, and have largely misrepresented their middle class electorates.  To accurately select leaders who represent the voting public, a system must be devised that neutralizes techniques of persuasion designed to confuse voters and distract from important issues.

Imagine a system that blindly elects leaders based on the empirical objective accuracy to which the candidate represents his or her electorate.

For the purpose of this thought experiment, consider the case of Belgium, a country with virtually 100% literacy.  Across the country, members of the public would be asked to put forward questions of strategic importance.   The responses would then be dissected and pooled into a confidential questionnaire developed by an impartial commission.

On Election Day, all voters would be required to fill in the questionnaire at polling stations in their respective districts. Furthermore, candidates would also fill in the questionnaire.

Once the answers have been computed, voters would have their answers automatically matched with the candidate having the highest number of similar responses, automatically resulting in one vote. Once the final votes are tallied, the individual profile of each candidate is shared with the public and a blind president is chosen.

Numerous versions of the questionnaire would be provided to different candidates to ensure that no tampering would take place with these multiple choice questionnaires.  David Bismark has co-developed an electronic voting system that contains a simple and reliable method of verification.  In his system, each voter gets a takeaway slip that serves as a record of the vote, and allows elections to be independently verified.

Naturally, once a candidate has been elected, there still is not much the voting public can do but trust their president lives up to his electoral profile.  After the election, the answers provided on the questionnaire may be shared with the media, and any policies that deviate from the politician’s stated positions would be immediately noticeable, and could potentially be grounds for impeachment.

It is about time for voting to be taken seriously and to evolve into a more perfect mechanism to achieve its intended objective of accurate representation. We merely wish to highlight the flaws that exist in the current electoral system that are largely taken for granted, and can only hope the future brings forth greater concern for serious political issues.

http://theproexpress.com/2011/04/08/the-blind-president/

In theory, the purpose of minimum wage is to provide workers with enough per hour so as to be able to support themselves and their family with a minimum standard of living.

Currently however, the basket of goods meant to calculate the average standard of living is heavily out of date, and does not include many relevant expenses for the contemporary American. Increases in the prices of utilities, transportation, insurance and taxes leave the average worker wanting – this, coupled with the fact that minimum wage jobs neither have benefits nor pension schemes leaves the individual in an even more vulnerable position. Let us not even talk of the luxury of saving a little something at the end of the month.

An average person works a minimum of 8 hours a day. The average American family size according to the latest US Census is 3.2. Furthermore, an average of 2.06 children are born per woman.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour; the federal tipped wage is $2.13 (changing the definition of a tip from complimenting the quality of your services received to shouldering the employer’s responsibility of supporting his staff – this however is not the topic of the day).

Simple math, for one working adult, 8 hours of work 5 days a week, at the federal minimum wage: 7.25*8*5 = $290. In one month, this individual will make: $1,160. In one year, this individual will make $13,920. Currently, in 48 states the poverty threshold measures at $18,310 for a family unit of 3 individuals. Thus, a single mother for instance, working full time at minimum wage will still come nowhere near to reaching the poverty threshold.

Increasing the minimum wage holds the argument of promoting illegal workers who are willing to accept lower wages, thereby not paying taxes and resulting in a loss of revenue for the government. Illegal activities also perpetuate the poverty trap as social protection will be non-existent, resulting in the the exploitation of workers under every spectrum.

The argument of scrapping the minimum wage on the other hand, still holds no justification. In fact, the opposite should be done. Not only should the minimum wage be increased to meet the minimum poverty level, vocational training should be provided to allow those working to improve their skill set, bumping them up the ladder. Tax breaks and income support are always welcome, but the true goal in an American economy – is self-sufficiency.

The purpose of the minimum wage is to protect our labor and allow them a decent standard of living. The concept is fair, however, it is incomplete. Considering those in the minimum wage bracket often are less educated, have little awareness with regard to their opportunities, and suffer from job insecurity, the least that can be regulated by the government with regard to protection, is the paycheck they receive at the end of the month.

In the long term however, the minimum wage should be nothing more than a stepping stone for teenagers and those entering the job market. You’ve done the math – could you survive?

Published in the Los Angeles Professional Express on the 7th of March 2011

http://theproexpress.com/2011/03/07/could-you-survive-on-minimum-wage/

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