Social Entrepreneurship in Peru

My friend, managing director of I-Dev International, forwarded me the details regarding a winter break 10 day immersion program for students and young professionals interested in social entrepreneurship, microfinance and corporate social responsibility. Some details are below, but you can read all about the opportunity here.

I’m familiar with their work in Cajamarca, and they’re a great, young and dynamic organization with an awesome team.  I really encourage you to check them out.

I-DEV International’s Doing Development In… (DDI) program was created to give young professionals & students from top graduate programs a realistic, first hand view of how grassroots development, microfinance, corporate social responsibility and social venture capital programs are making a difference on the ground, in communities at the base of the pyramid.

This 10 day immersion program, offered in 2 sessions over the winter holidays, provides participants with a unique opportunity to:

  • Meet & Engage with senior management at top international development organizations
  • Learn the on-the-ground challenges of managing corporate social responsibility programs in developing countries
  • Gain an authentic, first hand view into the daily lives and challenges faced by communities at the base of the pyramid
  • Have a truly unforgettable vacation
  • Also, Cajamarca is not a half-bad place to spend some time over winter break:

    Better or Worse

    Via @willtownes, this interesting graphic (click for enlarged view)

    Well, yes, sure there are signs of improvement globally: reduction in child mortality, improvements in water and sanitation, etc. But I’m not sure that the good balances the bad here. While I find their graph for conflicts a little simplistic (define “conflict” please?), the not-so-great record on the environment, displacement and conflict is pretty worrying. What’s the point of decreasing child mortality if we’re headed in a potentially catastrophic direction with these other  issues?

    Climate change, environmental destruction, conflict, displacement – trends that affect us globally and will most definitely have consequences on people in the developing and the developed world. Child survival, maternal mortality, and hunger won’t matter if we don’t have a planet to live on.

    [ end of your apocalyptic interlude ]

    Paradigm shift, maybe

    In spite of what David Rothkopf has to say on the subject, I am really hopeful that the crisis that has been shaking the world economy since last fall will not have been in vain. Given all that has happened, and the intense amount of media scrutiny and public debate on the outcomes of the “Crash of 2008” (however you want to call it – does it even have a proper capitalized name yet?), you would think that this would have created some space for a healthy discussion regarding the future of our civilization… We live in a world of gross overconsumption, excess and waste. While I’ll be the first to admit that I’m firmly part of this system, I see the need to adopt a system that doesn’t promise to drive us straight into the wall as an urgent one (Lula said it best.)

    Yesterday, I came across a TED talk by Ray Anderson, the CEO of a carpet company. Now you might think – as I did – that hearing Mr. Anderson’s take on the “business logic of sustainability” would probably not be the most enlightening and thought provoking experience (again: carpet company.) Well, that is a misguided impression, dear reader, and I invite you to check out his 15 min talk in the video below. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the Environmental Impact Equation (min 4:40), and particularly of his re-writing of it (min 11:18). 
    Obviously, developing a “new civilization” is no easy feat, and you can’t draw a fancy road map for completing this task. Nonetheless, the notion that Anderson introduces in his speech, that we must decrease the importance of “Affluence”, and increase the importance of “Happiness” in our calculation of the impact of production really appeals to me (watch the video, really). Sure, it’s a pipe dream – and for working with (and not for) the private sector on a daily basis, I know that the notion of the triple bottom line is far from being a central tenet of modern business.
    However, stories like these instill a little bit of hope:

    The video [The Story of Stuff] is a cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans waste, and it has its detractors. But it has been embraced by teachers eager to supplement textbooks that lag behind scientific findings on climate change and pollution. And many children who watch it take it to heart: riding in the car one day with his parents in Tacoma, Wash., Rafael de la Torre Batker, 9, was worried about whether it would be bad for the planet if he got a new set of Legos.

    Of course, no one wants their kids (or other people’s kids, even worse) becoming staunch and unwavering advocates of the environment at home – I can already picture children across America going through their mothers’ cosmetics and hiding/throwing away (I mean, recycle) all of the products that don’t meet their high standards. Regardless – and seriously – I do believe that tackling the question of how to adapt our modes of production/consumption to current realities (more people, more pollution, less resources) will require some efforts on the educational front. Leaders of tomorrow (it’s apparently too late for today’s leaders) will need to view the world through the filter of sustainability – and that can only happen if we educate and shape our young generation to respond appropriately to the challenges of their time. 

    The Story of Stuff is an amazing video, which I highly recommend you watch – similarly to the Anderson TED talk, it shows how modern means of production are outdated. I’m not surprised that it’s being used in classrooms across the US to teach students about the environment and climate change. Living in Vancouver, I sometimes feel like I live “in the future”: few people still use plastic water bottles, taxis are almost all hybrid, buses are electric, electricity comes mostly from hydropower… etc… There are so many signs that we are turning a corner in terms of how we approach consumption/waste – but not nearly enough, in my view. And I suppose it will take time. And that, to a large extent, it’s the millions of small, everyday paradigm shifts that really make a difference (recall Rafael de la Torre Batker who was worried about the effect of a new set of Legos on the planet). 

    The Economist published a story about money growing on trees. Wait. What? 

    When forests vanish, people suffer. That is why many believe that there is an urgent need to bring forests onto the global financial balance sheet. Last year Pavan Sukhdev, an economist at Deutsche Bank, reported that the world was losing natural capital worth between $2 trillion and $5 trillion every year as a result of deforestation alone. If money could be made by selling these ecosystem services, then the financial equation for forests would change.

    So a London-based firm, Canopy Capital, is taking up the challenge with Iwokrama International Center (Iwokrama is 370,000 hectare forest in Guyana). They are creating an entirely new class of asset management, by analyzing all of the “services” the forest offers and putting a price tag on it: carbon sequetration, soil regulation, oxygen production… Possibilities are endless, seemingly. I think the conclusion of The Economist piece captures it: “For a few bright sparks out there, financial innovation and engineering combined with science will let them generate wealth in a whole new way.”

    Brilliant! I’m already imagining the answers we’ll hear when we ask a child, ten years from now, what he or she wants to be when they grow up: “I want to be a financial scientist!” 

    Understanding the poor?

    I’ve been neglecting my little corner of the internet these past couple of weeks… Blogging can be a serious “monkey on your back” situation, and the more I put it off, the less motivated I become to write. Also, the fact that I’ve been doing a lot of writing and editing at work every day probably compounds this… Anyway, poor excuses. There is a lot I want to share, like for example (and in no particular order), my impressions of Peru, the value of a trillion dollars, Obama’s greying hair and the ICC indictment of President Bashir (great article by Alex de Waal, who is The Authority on Darfur).

    But I won’t… Not today, at least (although chances are I will never write about Obama’s hair). One of my colleagues forwarded an article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review a few weeks back, noting that the last couple paragraphs completely jive with our organization’s mission (hurray! I agree with the conclusions of the article, and it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling that I spend my days working for an organization that embraces those principles) 

    The author, Aneel Karnani, makes a lot of good points in this article called “Romanticizing the Poor”. He lays to rest a lot of misconceptions about the business opportunities that exist at the bottom of the pyramid – his main thesis is that poor people are not necessarily aspiring entrepreneurs (as many advocates of microfinance see it), nor are they particularly discerning consumers (as corporations like to portray). Excerpt:

    Beneath these beliefs in the market readiness of poor people lies a more basic assumption: people in dire straits are well-informed and rational economic actors. Yet this view denies the fact that poor people often act against their own self-interest. Of course, wealthier people sometimes do so, too. But poor people face far worse consequences for their bad choices than do more affluent people. And so romanticized views of BOP people as value-conscious consumers and resilient entrepreneurs are not only false, but also harmful. These views lead states to build too few legal, regulatory, and social mechanisms to protect the poor, as well as to rely too heavily on market solutions to poverty.

    To support his views, he makes a number of compelling (and honest) arguments that deconstruct a “romanticized” vision of the poor, which rests on the assumption that they are rational economic actors. Of course, because he’s talking about billions of people in a general way, these are clearly sweeping generalizations – but like all generalizations, there is a lot of truth to what he’s saying. 

    He notes, for example, that people who live in poverty tend to spend inordinate amounts of money on celebrations, festivals and what I will call, broadly speaking, escapism (he cites a recent field study in Sri Lanka which reveals that more than 10% of poor male respondents regularly spend their entire incomes on alcohol). This really resonates with me – I am still unable to understand why Liberian refugees in Ghana needed to have a costly “Miss Liberia” pageant, or make t-shirts for every last occasion of the year (you essentially cannot be a “real” organization or club until you have a t-shirt with your motto and logo on it). That always struck me as an immense waste of resources, particularly in a context of complete and utter need – you wouldn’t be pressed to find someone telling you about their t-shirt order and in the same breath asking you for money to buy food/water/go to the clinic.

    I remember trying to organize a half day workshop on nutrition for the staff of the school I was volunteering at – I drew up a budget, and discussed it with my local colleague. He pointed out that my food/refreshment line item was quite small – indeed, I had only accounted for the purchase of water and some basic snacks. He explained that “no one would show up” unless I had the event catered and everyone got a “soft drink”. Yes – catered. In the end, most of the costs of the workshop were food related. I thought this was because I was white and therefore incredibly rich, of course, that people expected this. But time after time, I heard about these “catered workshops” during my time in the refugee camp.

    Another trend which Karnani points to is how corporations take advantage of the lack of regulations in order to market products that are detrimental to a person’s health – such as liquor in very small (and therefore very affordable) packages. This brings up another memory: small sachets of rum that would litter the ground of the refugee camp. Except they weren’t being made by large foreign corporations but by smart local entrepreneurs – these are the guys who are really taking advantage of business opportunities at the bottom of the pyramid. This is a point I disagree on slightly – Karnani says: “It is not only tobacco and alcohol companies that exploit the weaknesses of the poor: Even Unilever, a consumer products company, preys on the anxieties of disadvantaged people” Umm… wait: it’s not only tobacco and alcohol companies marketing to the poor that exploit weaknesses – that’s what every single company that markets a non-essential product does!! Everyone on the planet is subject to shameless marketing, not just the poor. The difference is, though, is that I know I don’t “need” a blanket with arm holes (even though I know a lot of people who would fight me on this, but bear with me). At the bottom of the pyramid, as Karnani writes,

    ” …yet these advocates do not acknowledge that the poor lack the education, information, and other economic, cultural, and social capital that would allow them to take advantage of—and shield themselves against—the vagaries of the free market.”

    I think he nails it with that sentence.

    I really think that it ultimately boils down to education – what I’m talking about though, goes much beyond the Millenium Development Goal of providing primary education to all the world’s children by 2015 (that ain’t happening, by the way). In my mind, “education” comprises formal education at all levels, including the promotion of university or technical degrees, as well as skills and knowledge transfer. For micro, small and medium size enterprises, good leadership and sound management are essential for success – neither of these skills is born out of thin air, and individuals need to somehow acquire them. A direct result of this is the increased premium places on capacity building and technical assistance as crucial complements of financing for any informal organization or business in the developing world.

    As Karnani accurately notes, for individuals to “take advantage of and shield themselves from the vagaries of the free market”, a strong regulatory framework is imperative. Consumers need to be protected and industries promoted, controlled and appropriately incentivized – isn’t that what we ask from our own governments? (well, perhaps Rush Limbaugh disagrees…) 

    An interesting and rather intense debate took place over at regarding this piece – one of the scholars that Karnani criticizes in his piece, Al Hammond, responds to Karnani in no uncertain terms. I highly recommend checking out the vitriolic back and forth. Here‘s a softer response to Karnani’s article.

    Karnani’s article is a must-read – as my good friend CPL said, “that’s one of the best most honest pieces I have read in a long time.”

    Oh, and here are a couple of photos from my trip to Peru

    From 2009 pics

    This man owns and runs a cheese factory/shop in the mountain town of Cajamarca, Peru. He started his business about 10 years ago, and now sells cheese in different regions of the country – his marketing strategy was developed with the help of a local economic development organization. He told us his story and showed us around his facilities, describing which challenges he faced as a small business owner – very enlightening. I’ll admit the cheese wasn’t really all that great (I’m from France… I have discerning taste in cheese), but on the other hand the dulce de leche (displayed in the center of the photo), was amazingly good. 

    From 2009 pics

    And this is “Lima-by-Night”, viewed from the neighborhood of Barranco (I want to live there). Yes, it’s a ginormous illuminated crucifix. 

    Thinking Back

    I miss thisI DO NOT miss this

    I’m having some serious computer issues these days, and as I was cleaning up my hard drive, I stumbled upon something I wrote nearly two years ago, after my stint as a volunteer in Buduburam. At the time, I had no idea that CG and I were going to create The Niapele Project and that I would return there soon afterwards.

    It’s interesting to see how my perception and understanding of the Liberian community has evolved – my little spiel on religion still holds true, although I’ve come to realize that while religious faith is essential to their “social contract”, it can also act as a hindrance… It’s very complicated to explain without sounding condescending – I’m not sure I can sound anything but – however, I really do believe that blind faith makes people hope and believe in unreal and unsustainable ideas. For instance, relying on God to “provide” sometimes leads to situations where individuals will not proactively seek to better their circumstances, leaving their fate in the hands of a merciful God… who, in the end, may or may not provide.

    Karrus Hayes, the founder of Vision Awake Africa for Development, asked me to write this. I’m not sure if he ever ended up using it for anything… Anyway, here are some unfiltered thoughts about the Buduburam refugee camp and its community, from Feb 07:

    Simply put, I am humbled by my experience at the Buduburam refugee camp. I have always cared about the fate of those less privileged than myself – that is why, throughout my life, I have tried to give back, share my knowledge and help, as best I could, people less fortunate than I am. My academic studies have been focused on international affairs, and African issues and the fate of that continent have always grabbed my attention. In 2003, I did spend 6 months studying, living and working with the disenfranchised in Cape Town, South Africa. I have also traveled extensively in the developing world, and thought I was mentally, emotionally and intellectually prepared to face the realities of a refugee settlement in Ghana. But none of my experiences prepared me for my time at Buduburam.

    The first few days were dizzying. First of all, the Harmattan season was in full swing, and it made it all the more difficult to situate myself, in the physical sense, in this foreign world. Situating myself on the metaphysical level was also incredibly difficult – all of my usual socio-cultural markers were obsolete in this new world, and, in order to be able to fulfill my mission at the school, I was under pressure to quickly adapt. On so many levels, I felt challenged by my surroundings, by the people. Trying to communicate with friends and family at home was difficult, and even when I did manage to speak with them, I knew that they could hardly understand, let alone relate to, the situation at Buduburam. Quickly, I realized that the best way to integrate, or at least to feel more at ease, was to strip away all the layers of difference between me “me” and “them”, and to simply relate on a very basic human level. As difficult as it was, I found that it was only by going beyond the differences that separated us, and focus on our common humanity, that I could create a space for myself in the community. Deep down, we all share the same basic aspirations, the same fears and desires – it is only the way we lead our life which is different. And it is so not by choice, but because of circumstances.

    One of the most striking dimensions of the Liberian refugee community is their unwavering, genuine faith in God. Had I been through the traumatic experiences they had been through, I would have found it very difficult to reconcile the horror that the world imposed on me and a belief in an Almighty, profoundly good, God. It was truly an intellectual conundrum for me, as well as the other international volunteers I discussed this with. In my life, I rarely use religious explanations for what is happening to me, or around me. Everything seems mechanistic, guided purely by human desires, whether good or evil. Still now, I find it incredibly difficult to understand this type of religious fervor, but I do respect it. I suppose that, in many cases, it is precisely this religious fervor that allowed people to move on, to carry on with their lives, to look beyond the past and into the future, with hope. Had I been exposed to such trauma, I don’t know if I could have continued on with my life – I would not have had the motivation, the desire or the strength. So while the religiousness of the Liberian community was – and still is – baffling, it commends admiration. The strength and hope that people have acquired through their faith is essential to their survival, to their happiness and to their well – being. For me, a jaded Westerner, understanding this is very difficult – the world we live in is a godless one, and I have always believed in the importance of separating the religious, spiritual realm of life from the political, social realm. But living among Liberian refugees showed me the crucial importance that faith and God can have in human life, and I while I do not always understand it, I respect it.

    While my work at the Carolyn A. Miller School was certainly one of my most fulfilling professional and personal experiences, it was the personal relationships I forged at Buduburam which really captured my heart and soul. I met men, women and children, who had suffered trauma beyond anything I can imagine. Torture, death, loss and separation is common experience for them, and the pain which they had endured is something most of us can barely understand. Yet, so many of the people I met were generous and kind, with open hearts and minds. This is not to say that every person I encountered had a heart of gold and pure intentions – there were plenty of stories about parents beating or torturing their children, men raping girls, as well as accounts of petty crime, jealousy and gratuitous violence. However, some people I met there really showed me what it means to be a genuinely GOOD person. Mr. Karrus Hayes, whose kindness, generosity and emotional intelligence cannot be captured with mere words, was – and will remain – somebody who I look up to. This man’s compassion and true desire to better the lives of others is poignant. There are few people I have met in my life who give themselves so wholly to their causes. His dedication is an inspiration, and while I will not have the arrogance of saying that I hope to emulate him in my own life, he certainly sets the bar very high for the rest of us who wish to do some good in this world.

    There are so many people whose exemplary humanity I could discuss – Regina Krangar, mother of 3 biological children and 9 adopted ones – is devoting her entire life to raising these children. Besides the admiration I have for her, she also taught me the true meaning of Love, and how this concept, which we all think to have figured out, is in fact so much more than we think. She does not raise these children simply out of moral obligation, but because she truly cares and Loves them, and strongly believes that it is her duty to bring up these children that nobody wanted. I have met so many people whose outlook on life, whose attitude and whose work really humbled me, made me begin to understand the meaning of the word “sacrifice.” From the teachers of Carolyn A. Miller who devote themselves to educating the future generation for little or no money, to the admirable work performed by the staff of the UNHCR – subsidized Catholic clinic, the people of Buduburam had a huge impact on me. I left feeling inspired and strong, re-energized, with a desire – stronger than ever – to work as hard as I can to help those who need it.

    Upon saying good bye to my friend Regina, she left me with these profound and heartfelt words, which I hope you will find as beautiful as I did at the time: “A life without sacrifice is meaningless. True sacrifice requires courage and strength, it is not easy. But it is the only way to truly understand and penetrate human nature.”