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Archive for the ‘IDLO’ Category

The two months since my last post — and really, the past four months — have been intense, rewarding and at times I’d even have to say extraordinary.  Four continents, 12 countries (8 for work + 4 for layovers), 40+ flights (no comment on carbon footprints please — I’m trying to help the 2.6 billion people without water and sanitation) and more meetings with MFIs and watsan organizations than I can count.  Whew!

Here’s the big-picture overview — think maps, pins and where-in-the-world:

  • Trip 1 (July – August): Kenya – Uganda – Ethiopia – Sweden – Netherlands
  • Trip 2 (September): Singapore – Hong Kong – India (8 cities, north to south and east to west) – South Korea
  • Trip 3 (October): London, England – Frankfurt, Germany
  • Bonus Trips: Kansas City, Los Angeles and Washington DC
  • Trip 4 (now):  Italy (Rome, Bergamo, Cinque Terre)
  • Trip 5 (forthcoming at end November): Berlin, Germany

There are too many highlights to note here; hopefully my Twitterstream has done some justice to these over time.  In addition to my personal observations, I have a WaterCredit Twitterstream that’s focused specifically on water, sanitation and microfinance.  I talk a lot about toilets, poo and municipal water authorities these days… hmmm.  Well, given that we’ve got 2.6 billion people without appropriate WSH (that means Water, Sanitiation & Hygiene) today and — despite significant resources, time, money and efforts being expended globally — we’ll have 4 billion people like this by 2025, I’d say more people need to join these conversations.

But back to the travel theme…

Such awesome trips, all of them.  Professionally, MFI interest in WaterCredit is broad and sincere; I couldn’t be more pleased with how outreach meetings went.  The Water.org/WaterCredit team has a lot of follow-up work to do — hurray!

It was interesting and great fun to return to several places I’d visited in the past, but this time with additional work responsibilities and insights about “doing business” there.  My in-country Water.org colleagues were amazing hosts and enabled us to do, learn and experience things that I never could have done solo.  For example I will never forget the 11-course meal (including 4 rice dishes alone — with everything from coconut to cracked pepper, pomegranates and cardamom) warmly prepared by the Water.org India country director’s wife at their home in Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu, and then playing shuttlecock (aka badminton) with his daughters afterwards.  And not least, the tumble I took in the street trying to return a volley.

Alongside familiar places were several new ones too.  Among them:  Uganda; Bahir Dar, northern Ethiopia; and Frankfurt, Germany.  Uganda was a trip — navigating through slums to MFI headquarters, roaming Kampala‘s first 24-hour Nakumatt superstore, and eating my first matoke (yes, it tastes like wet socks).  Visiting Bahir Dar was like a step back in time, to a bucolic verdant community removed from the frenzy of Addis.  I did have to remind myself however that we were there during the short wet season, when the land is eye-poppingly green; for most of the year it suffers from drought (hence Water.org’s program there).  By the way, if you’re curious about the kinds of water-works Water.org does in Ethiopia, here‘s one example.  And Frankfurt = what an unexpected treat!  I’d only been there in transit before; this time I attended a “Financing Sanitation” conference hosted by KfW.  Alongside that, we had opportunities to explore the delightful city center and ride in a bona fide Paternoster elevator.

Now checking in from Rome, it’s as lovely as ever — especially with the crisp autumn air and thinner tourist crowds — though also surprisingly expensive.  (Notwithstanding the awful $:euro rate, what’s happened to the local economy in the past 3 years?!?)  I made the delicious mistake of ordering gnocchi al tartufo bianco at a local trattoria (simple family-run locale) and got nailed $40. The cafe’ next to my hotel charges 9 euro ($13.50) for a double espresso (“only” 5 euro ($7.50) for a single). The metro is still a steal at 1 euro ($1.50) per ride, but trains are dear (80 euro ($120) for a 3-hour journey up north) and it’s better to walk around town and enjoy the sights anyway…

Which I’ve been doing whenever possible.  Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Forum, St. Peter’s, Campo dei Fiori, all my favorite places already ticked off.  Especially enjoyed wandering the backstreets of Trastevere (stumbling upon a hole-in-the-wall forno with steaming-hot fresh bread, gawking once more at the stunning mosaics of Santa Maria in Trastevere), quaffing my first in-country cappuccino at Caffe’ Sant’Eustachio, and doing a handstand in front of the Colosseum.  That makes handstands at 6 of the 8 Modern Wonders of the World (Great Wall of China, Pyramids of Giza, Petra, Macchu Picchu, Taj Mahal and Colosseum) — Chichen Itza and the Giant Jesus in Rio, here I come!  Flickr photos up shortly.

Of course the most important reason I’m here is the IDLO law-and-microfinance “grand finale” gathering.  It’s like a family reunion with participants from 30+ developing courses whom I’ve been fortunate to meet and teach over the past 3 years.  We’ve come together to discuss lessons learned and the way forward; it’s truly a humbling experience, and as usual (it feels like) I’m learning far more than contributing.  Simultaneous tracks in English, Spanish and French covering topics ranging from regulatory structures to consumer protection and branchless banking.  Wow… and makes me very excited for what could be next up for IDLO’s microfinance team.

On that note, back to microfinance credit ratings and (shortly) another espresso… Ciao for now, a presto!

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June was full of wonderful changes:  new professional chapters and travel adventures.

On the former front, I’ve begun my new role as Director of WaterCredit for Water.org.  What is WaterCredit, you ask?  It’s an innovative initiative that applies microfinance tools — small loans, group-based lending models, etc. — to the water and sanitation (watsan) sector.  WaterCredit has been underway since 2003, though it’s now reaching an inflection point that demands greater outreach and strategic development; hence where I come in.  Expect to see more about water + microfinance issues (“H2O+MF” as I like to call it) in future posts, along with more travelogues.  The travel demands will be intense and fun — India, Bangladesh, east Africa, west Africa, Europe… I’m not complaining!

No sooner did I dive deep into WaterCredit for a few weeks, than it was time to hit the road for IDLO.  Destination: Jordan, for the MENA regional microfinance course.  Jerry and I packed up — still proud of the fact that the two of us can fit everything for 3 weeks into one bag together — and headed east.  En route we stopped over in England, for the wedding of a dear friend in the English countryside outside Malvern (Worcestershire).  Perfect weather, copious Pimm’s and fancy hats, and some day-after ambling through hillsides that would make Beatrix Potter and Leonardo Da Vinci both proud.  Stunning and memorable!  A few ramble pictures here.

The IDLO course was held smack on the Dead Sea, with the West Bank directy across; at night we could see the lights of Jerusalem twinkling in the distance.  As usual the IDLO participants were a lively, diverse group coming from 12 countries/territories including Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait (yes, there is microfinance in Kuwait).  Days were spent talking about MFI investment, Islamic finance and the impact of the global financial crisis on microfinance (as the temperature soared above 115 degrees F outside), while evenings were spent staying cool in the multiple pools on hand.  And of course, a dip in the salty Dead Sea for good measure — so fun to just bob and flop around in the buoyancy!

Post-IDLO we took some extra time to explore the rest of the country, easily falling in love with its uber-friendly people and marveling at its diverse and magical geography.  (No comment on the searing heat though.) The first leg was by public transport, a hot dusty 6-hour bus ride south to Petra (and the funky tourist town of Wadi Musa right beside it — it means “Valley of Moses” in Arabic).  Petra did not disappoint, and by all means earns its claim to fame as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.  It’s especially magical at the crack of dawn, when you can have the Siq all to yourself, or late at night when the entire Milky Way opens itself up to you amidst thousands of candlelights and Arabian music wafting beyond.  What’s more, I’ve now done handstands at the majority of these destinations; Petra handstand is #4, and #5 (Colosseum of Rome) is slated for later this year.  Hurray!

In Petra we rented a car from a guy named Said — should we be worried about driving in the Middle East? — and headed down the King’s Highway towards the fabled Wadi Rum desert, aka Lawrence of Arabia’s backyard.  It was hot, hotter than I could have imagined, but apparently not as hot as it can get (we saw 117F, but “that’s nothing” compared to 135F in July I was told).  There were multiple camel traffic jams which were fun to photograph and partake of.  We nearly ran out of gas and that felt really scary.  The landscape is like nothing I’d ever seen — the best I can describe is a surreal combination of the moon, Grand Canyon, Moab (Utah) and the Sahara.  But even that’s not quite right; you’ve got to see it in person to understand its unique immensity.

We baked in Wadi Rum, saw an amazing sunset and feasted on spit-roasted meats grilled over a zerb (Bedouin pit fire). Ah yes, Bedouins — and ah yes again, food!  The Bedouin culture pervades much of Jordan, and their nomadic-tent lifestyle and extraordinary generosity are present at every turn. I found it difficult to determine what is uniquely Bedouin, but anyone from the tribe will promptly let you know.  The diet consists of staples like camel meat, dates and goat’s milk, none of which I got to try (even though I tried hard to find them).  Nevertheless Jordanian cuisine leaves little to be desired — delicious at every turn.  In addition to staples like baba ghanouj and shwarma, favorite dishes include fuul medames (fava beans with chillies and olive oil), shanklish (a cross between chevre and bleu cheese, doused generously with thyme and cracked pepper) and the divine fattoush (salad of tomatoes and cucumber with deep-fried pitta-like croutons and sumac spice).  It was also a cause of much amusement to ask for pitta and get a quizzical look in reply; there it’s not pitta, just khobz (bread).

From Wadi Rum we shot due north along the King’s Highway again (and beyond).  We visited the Crusader castles and ruins at Shobek and Karak, along with the Dana Nature Reserve (and dilapidated village of the same name, clinging precariously to the side of a cliff).  It truly felt like no-person’s land in the middle of the country — so windswept, even if you whistled it blew away — though at the same time close and connected to the entire history of humankind.

We rolled into Madaba late at night, and the next day explored the city’s renowned Roman mosaics (good enough to rival those of Sicily and France), souq and hidden alleyways.  This was followed by an excursion along the Dead Sea Parkway, taking in the Ma’in hot springs, Dead Sea Panorama, Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan (where Jesus was baptized) and Mount Nebo (where Moses saw the Promised Land) en route.  It also brought us full circle, back to where we had taught not long before.  The next morning we were homeward bound (almost — still had several days in NYC first).  What a great trip.

So if you’ve made it this far, thanks — and here’s the link to my full Flickr album from the trip.  Enjoy, and stay tuned for more H2O+MF plus travel adventures; for starters I’m headed back to east Africa  at the end of this month.

And yes, Twitter remains the best way to follow my whereabouts and goings-on more frequently…

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Happy (belated) new year — and then some!

Incredible how time has flown by.  African adventures, holidays, Obama administration and more positive changes on the horizon…

The best way to track me these days (including all of  my African travelogues, which now seem like a long time ago) is still on my Tweetstream.  However I do plan to write a longer, more ‘robust’ narrative in the coming weeks.  No promises as to when it’ll be ready, but whenever it is you’ll be able to find it here.

Quick recap since my last post.  Africa trip highlights are too numerous to list, but here’s a snapshot:

  • Meeting Obama’s grandmother Sarah in the very rural ‘village’ (read: dirt road, mud huts, smiling kids and scrappy dogs) of Kogelo, western Kenya
  • Bicycling down the escarpments of the Great Rift Valley, through banana plantations and ending up on the shores of Lake Nakuru with zebras to my right, wildebeests to my left and a rainbow overhead
  • Feeding giraffes by hand, cruising by a fabled white rhinoceros and viewing lions less than 5 meters away
  • Hiking through a Zanzibari “spice farm” and plucking fresh nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, peppercorns (5 colors), ginger, cacao, annatto, lemongrass, cardamom, tumeric, cinnamon, curry leaf and more from the branches and vines, then eating a simple meal with a village family that used the spices we’d brought
  • Celebrating Jerry’s birthday with spit-roasted goat, green bananas and new Maasai and Chagga friends
  • An impromptu morning concert with about 40 local schoolkids dancing and grooving to their hearts’ delight, with spontaneous portraits captured happily afterward
  • Crossing the equator 4 times in one day — and doing a handstand on it, of course
  • And last but definitely not least, spending several wonderful days teaching at the IDLO law-and-microfinance course in Tanzania with participants from everywhere from Malawi to Madagascar to Nigeria to Uganda and beyond… an amazing, fun, inspirational group and I learned so much too!

Flickr photo albums can be found here:

Returning to San Francisco after a marathon 37-hour journey (which included taxis, boats, buses and planes) was like entering another, faster, chillier, almost surreal world.  Cars went way too fast, there were no large animals grazing at the roadside, and shops were so large and brightly-lit… strange!

Happily it was also the holiday season, so enjoyed that to the fullest.  Then the new year, lovely family visits, some microfinance speeches… and here I am, here we are, so blessed and lucky and thrilled to be alive at this amazing time.  We donned our matching Obama kangas, purchased from a roadside stall in rural Tanzania, proudly throughout the inauguration celebrations — then saw the exact same one greeting Obama in the White House!

On that note, get ready for some hopefully exciting, positive changes on the horizon — in Washington DC, and also closer to home here in San Francisco.  Kwaheri for now!

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I arrived in Bucharest last weekend and spent the week there. The last time I’d been in Romania was 11 years ago, when I traveled for several weeks and saw the country top-to-bottom, from painted monasteries in the northern reaches of Bukovina to castles in Transylvania to dodging stray dogs in Bucharest. So much has changed that in many ways Romania seems like an entirely new country. Yet at the same time, though the revolution and downfall of Ceaucescu occurred almost 20 years ago now, many things seem eerily the same…

We flew down on TAROM airlines (Transport Authority of ROMania). The plane was pretty dilapidated, but we were served a meal that – though nothing spectacular – was far superior to what we would have received on a domestic US flight.

Approaching Bucharest was similar to flying into Tuscany; rolling green hills, lots of greenery, tiny roads weaving their course every which way with no clear sense of direction (at least from above). Customs official was gruff but competent. We retrieved our bags, hopped in a car with a driver named George, and began our 20 km journey into town. Given all the growth in recent years, the trip normally takes 2 hours… en route we passed ginormous Ikea and Carrefour complexes before reaching tree-lined Sol Kiseloff (which reminded me much of promenades in Provence, complete with wide, dedicated bike lanes) and the historic quarter around Calea Victoria. The same plazas and huge communist buildings were still there and apparently in use, though in pretty rough shape, meanwhile sharing space with fancy new all-glass hotels and shopping boutiques galore.

Arriving at the new Rin Grand Hotel was downright surreal. It claims to be the largest hotel in all of Europe; at 1,436 rooms this may well be true, and it is definitely the largest hotel I have ever stayed in. As much as size however was the oddity of the Rin Grand’s location – in the outskirts of town right next to where the city’s open-air used car exchange takes place every weekend. The area is as large as a neighborhood, with scrappy (and probably often stolen and on the black market) cars lining every sidewalk, parking lot and square centimeter of free space available. Just clearing one intersection to go downtown by taxi took upwards of 20 minutes. And for the final touch of surreality, at the same time as accommodating the IDLO course the Rin Grand was also hosting both the East European Junior Men’s Handball Tournament and the European Deaf Tennis Tournament. So we were constantly surrounded by super-fit people speaking sign language and groups of huge 20-something-year-old guys laying claim to public spaces and devouring more food than one would think humanly possible at mealtimes. My favorite memory of the handballers was getting off the elevator and having to pass under 15+ sets of armpits just to reach the lobby.

As usual the IDLO course went well, and I learned a great deal about the differences between “micro” finance and small-and-medium-enterprise (SME) finance and rural finance initiatives in the region generally. As for Romania it seems that while some things are working, many others are not – at least not yet – and that a more complete and successful transition to capitalism and a service-oriented economy will still take some time. A few of my most memorable (and frustrating) experiences of this:

  • The hotel could provide room bookings only on a per-day basis. For example, I could get Sunday’s schedule only on Sunday. The idea that I might want to know Monday’s schedule a day in advance was incomprehensible, so I had to check in with reception the same day at 8am to know what was taking place an hour later.
  • We arrived at the main Piata Unirii (Unity Square) smack in the middle of town. Hungry, we looked around for a café to get a simple bit to eat. After several minutes of searching we found a café with tables outside, asked for the menu and sat down to peruse it. After several more minutes – in which it was clear what we were doing and ready to eat – a young woman came to ask us what we’d like. We made our request for a salad and traditional meat dish to split, only to be told that the kitchen was closed and no food was available. Okay, I get that restaurants are not open 24 hours a day, but why were we given menus to begin with — or at least informed that they were useless — when we arrived?
  • Another’ frustrating food-inspired experience occurred when several members of the IDLO group went out for a late supper one evening. We arrived at a delightful Italo-Romanian trattoria next to the Athenaeum, chock-a-block with signed Italian soccer shirts on the walls, and sat down to enjoy a good meal and each other’s company together. The four of us who ordered pizzas got our food about 20 minutes later. However, the six others who ordered anything else – salads, pasta, meat – had to wait another 1 hour and 20 minutes to be fed. There was no apology, no explanation other than that the kitchen was busy (though we learned later there had been a small flood there), no offer of bread or anything else to stave off our hunger or mitigate the effects of the carafes of wine drunk, and an absolute expectation that we would not only pay for the full meals but also give a tip! Those of us in the group from the US and western Europe were appalled and angry; those from eastern Europe just sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, “well, what else do you expect?” Indeed, there remains much to be learned about customer service around the world…

There was relatively little time outside of the course to explore much of Bucharest other than the used auto lot next door and a few parks (Cismigiu Park was my favorite – complete with paddleboats and a section with free wi-fi!). The Museum of the Romanian Peasant was as endearing as I’d been told, complete with hand-written descriptions and things my grandmother would love.

One afternoon I was able to go on a tour of the Presidential Palace (aka Palace of the People, a rather inappropriate and unfair reference to make), perhaps the most poignant relic of Ceaucescu’s megalomaniacal rule. This monstrosity required 700 architects and 20,000 laborers to work 24 hours per day for 5 years (from 1984 – 1989) and still remained incomplete at the time of Ceaucescu’s fall. It has 3,100 rooms and is the second largest building in the world in terms of surface area, just after the Pentagon; its volume is greater than the largest pyramid at Giza. We were told stories about how the palace once used up Bucharest’s entire power supply in 4 hours, while the rest of the population was in the dark, and how Ceaucescu required the marble stairs to be demolished and rebuilt when he felt that they did not adequately match his personal gait. This, along actions like exporting food (“to show Romania’s success and standing in the world”) while domestic rationing was in effect and much of the population was living in poverty, for over 35 years – and it is not difficult to understand why the reaction against him and his corrupt regime was so strong. Even today people speak of him in the worst of ways, or are simply silent when words are not sufficient to express their feelings.

And yes, of course I got a handstand shot in front of the Palace. The security guards thought I was a bit wacky, which actually made me like doing it even more.

Although we enjoyed Bucharest for all that it revealed itself to be – fast-changing, quirky, with beautiful decaying Art Nouveau architecture and taxi drivers that almost invariably overcharge – we were also eager to have a mini-getaway to (what we hoped would be) the quieter, mellower, greener reaches of northern Bulgaria. Our plan was to take the once-daily public bus to Ruse, just over the Bulgarian border, and connect onwards to the fabled town of Veliko Tarnovo. We had confirmed our travel plans and bus schedule with a travel agent in Bucharest and showed up at the designated bus stop 15 minutes in advance. We waited, and waited and waited… and got a bad feeling that we’d missed our ride. We contacted the agent again, only to be told that the bus company “was not very helpful” and that the bus had passed by 10 minutes before. Um, we begged to differ… But it was pointless to disagree at that point. We started exploring alternative options. Private car and driver to the border for 80 euros? Hitchhike? Ditch the whole Bulgarian idea and go somewhere else within Romania by train instead? We hopped in a cab and went over to the travel agency to get more information. As we’re sitting there, exasperated and hoping-to-goodness that we wouldn’t end up back at the Rin Grand, we were asked “How about renting a car?”

Never having given much thought to the idea of car rental in eastern Europe – not least because it’s among the highest-risk regions in the world for car theft – our eyes now perked up. But how were we ever going to find a car in Bucharest on short notice, other than going back to the auto lot and buying a dilapidated one from the black market? (Although that could be fun too…) As luck would have it, there was an Avis office literally around the corner, and – even luckier – they had a nearly-new Opel Corsa that could be ours in about 10 minutes and for a surprisingly good price. We could hardly believe it! So that day turned into one full of fun surprises, and our exit from the country turned into a true adventure (note to self: never trust Romanian street maps). More on the crossing into Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo’s charms and hidden monasteries in my next post…

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Next month sees a couple of interesting events in the microfinance space. First there is the inaugural microfinance investors conference in San Francisco. I’m thrilled to see this finally happening out west given the robust microfinance community that’s been here for some time already. More on the conference, agenda etc. can be found here.

The next day I’ll be Europe-bound for the upcoming IDLO law-and-microfinance course in Bucharest, Romania. It’s slated to focus on MFIs in Eastern Europe and CIS. I’m looking forward not only to teaching and learning more about microfinance in this region, but also apparently the hotel venue appears to be as large as a small city (indeed, it’s right next to Ceaucescu’s Presidential Palace and I wonder if it gives the latter a run for its money!). Surely there will be ample opportunity for more travel stories and photos as well… all in due course.

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