Travel and Culture

Bacolod Living

[caption id="attachment_209" align="alignleft" width="204" caption="Bacolod is in Negros Occidental, in the middle of the Philippines"][/caption] I’ve now been here in Southeast Asia for 6 weeks and have yet to write about where I live.  Faithful readers of this blog (mainly immediate family - my father comments on each article using a different pseudonym from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged) and others (everyone else) have heard about a range of topics, mainly microfinance, tourism, and my beard (the two-month update is only one short week away).  I get a lot of questions, however, about where I actually am living in the Philippines.  Beyond the fact that it is an archipelago with some active volcanoes and something dangerous happening in the south (Mindanao), people I talk to do not know much about the country, much less my adopted city of Bacolod.  I am far from any active volcanoes, and I am not going to be kidnapped.   In fact, more than once Bacolod has been described to me as a town that is too laid back to attract terrorists - they'd just get bored here.  These are only a few of the many things I'd like to clear up here.  This post is about the town I am calling home for the next few months. (more…)


"The Women of Microfinance"

In my directorial debut, I’ve created a short film about three women with different roles in the microfinance community.  All are part of the same system, and all are working toward their goals in their own way.   Hope you enjoy. [youtube=]


A Day in the Life

[caption id="attachment_221" align="alignleft" width="250" caption="The Ceres bus from Bacolod to Escalante"][/caption] Today I woke up at 5:30 in order to make the 1.5-hour trip to Cadiz City before the first center meeting.  The bus passes by 100 or so kilometers of sugar cane farms and fields.  The loan officers arrive at the branch around 8 AM.   There will be 14 center meetings led by 7 loan officers.  Each loan officer is in charge of 1-3 meetings per day, depending on the proximity and size of the centers, which range from 6 to 85 members.  This morning, all the loan officers are heads-down, calculating the day’s payments from the clients.  It is important that this work is done ahead of time, as promptness and efficiency are a virtue when you are trying to meet with upwards of 100 clients per day. (more…)

Development Economics

Who is Poor? Defining Poverty

This was written for the Kiva Fellows blog.  Read the original here. How do you define poverty?   A basic needs index looks at whether (and to what extent) fundamental needs are fulfilled – food, water, shelter, clothing – and whether people have access to critical services – education, information (newspapers, etc.), sanitation facilities, healthcare, financial services.  This is an absolute poverty calculation, which uses a standard threshold that can be compared across countries and continents.  Another method is to use a national poverty line, usually a percentage of median income.  For example, if the median income is $10,000 USD, and the poverty line is 60% of that, any family making below $6,000 is technically below the poverty line.  This is a relative poverty calculation, because it is country-specific.  Using this method, it doesn’t make sense to compare across countries, since the poverty line in wealthier countries with higher median incomes will allow for greater purchasing power than in much poorer countries.  In microfinance (and development in general), you often hear about the percentage of the population that lives on less than $1/day – the definition of extreme poverty – or $2/day, or some other defining statistic of poverty. Statistics are important for microfinance institutions (MFIs).  When you know what you are dealing with, you can more effectively target the population with programs that are proven to work.  It is important for an MFI to understand its clients and where they exist on the spectrum of poverty.  This is actually more difficult to assess than you’d think.  It is not feasible to ask clients how many dollars a day they spend, or even try to determine their income relative to the rest of the population.   Instead, MFIs use social performance metrics – simple tools to help them to define exactly what they are as an organization and whom they are serving.  They are basically proxies, which, when examined in aggregate, give the MFIs a profile of the poverty level of their clients. (more…)

Travel and Culture

Thoughts on Mass Tourism

"To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing." - David Foster Wallace Tourism in Cambodia has taken off over the last decade.  From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, a radical Maoist political party, controlled the country.  During the four-year reign, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into an agrarian socialist state where everyone lived as peasants.  Over two million people – a quarter of the population – were either murdered or died from disease or starvation before the Vietnamese invaded and took control of the country for the next decade.  Only in 1998 with the death of Pol Pot did the civil war end, which is precisely when Cambodia became a hotspot for tourists. In 1998, the country had 217,000 visitors; in 2007, it had about 2.1 million.  By 2010, the tourism minister expects about 3 million.  It’s not surprising, given that the country is stunningly beautiful.  The historical-minded traveler could spend days in Angkor.  Over the last decade, Siem Reap, the provincial capital 10 miles away, has been turned into a traveler’s paradise, with high-end restaurants, massage parlors, and shops across the city.  It is very popular among the French, Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese, all of whom have invested huge amounts of money in building up the infrastructure around Angkor Wat, including an international airport a few kilometers away that can handle wide-bodied jets. (more…)

Travel and Culture

Fixing a Tire at Angkor Wat

[caption id="attachment_167" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="In front of the Bayon, a temple at Angkor Thom."][/caption] Last week I spent three days visiting Angkor Wat and the nearby city of Siem Reap.  I'd arrived two nights before and, in the span of 48 hours, had already become cynical and jaded about the entire experience.  I'd spent the last three days getting ripped off by street vendors, restaurants, and taxi drivers, and was ready to snap.  Feeling downtrodden by the constant scams and suffocating hordes of tour groups, I opted for a more natural, pure means of transportation the second day: a bicycle.  For $1.50, I rented a fixed-gear Chinese bike for the day, threw on the muscle-tee I bought that morning, and started off for the Angkor temples north of Siem Reap. The city of Angkor contains over 1,000 ancient stone temples, dating back over ten centuries.  Built using stones dragged by elephants from mountains miles away, it is both the biggest pre-industrial city in history, spanning 1,000 km in its heyday, and home to the largest religious structure in the world - Angkor Wat, the famous temple depicted on the Cambodian flag.  Once the capital of the great Khmer empire, Angkor was home to over a million people - an impressive feat in 1,200 AD.   Despite it's shortcomings (to which I am an active contributor), it's an amazing sight to see. (more…)