Tuesday, December 10, 2013

TED Talks: Poverty, Money, and Love


This is a really good Ted Talk that talks about microfinance and talks about our perceptions of poverty in a very insightful way

Monday, December 2, 2013

Only 27 days to go and over $2000 raised!

So thankful to the many people who have supported me thus far to reach this milestone!

Actively fundraising has had me think a lot more about money and its role in our daily lives.

As a college student on a negative income, I get how hard it is to live on a budget. Ask my parents, it's a struggle. Money is a major stress inducer, yet when I look at how I spend my money I find I waste it on a lot of silly things that don't bring about any good. On average, I spend about $5 a day on coffee or a snack alone. Over 50%of the people in Ghana live on under $2 US per day. If I took the time to calculate how much all my meals and silly expenses in a day cost, I can guarantee it is well over $2/day.

So from now on, I am going to challenge myself to try something differently. I am going to cut $5 of spending a week, and donate $5 to some sort of charity that is needing donations. This is the University of Texas, where everyone is always trying to raise money for various great causes. $5 a week may not seem like much, but think about it. That's $260 a year that is not going to transient selfish things now going to help someone.

If anyone reads this, think about what a big difference small actions on your part can play.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Welcome Link

Our Global Brigades contacts in Ghana sent out a welcome link for us to continue preparing ourselves for the big upcoming adventure! If you are interested in watching, here's the link:


Friday, November 29, 2013

Thinking about Poverty Differently: Healthcare

The book I'm reading (Poor Economics) delves into components that make up individual's private lives and analyze the decisions individuals makes and how the help or reinforce the poverty trap. The chapter I just read analyzed the decision making process of impoverished individuals in making health related decisions and then analyzed the underlying reasons for the overarching decision making powers they discovered.

One of the main theories of poverty is that health problems can keep individuals, families, and communities trapped in poverty. For example, workers living in an unhealthy and unsanitary environment could miss many workdays due to illness, children could be too sick to attend school or be sick too often to do well in school, and mothers living in these environments could give birth to sickly babies. Each of these instances could result in future poverty.

With this framework of poverty, it seems relatively easy to fix impoverished communities: a push to turn these environments into healthy environments is all that's needed to break out of the poverty trap. Many of the main illness that keep communities trapped in poverty are malaria and diarrhea, which could easily be prevented in communities through bed nets, chlorinated water, and ORS (a mixture of salt, sugar, potassium chloride, and an antacid to be mixed in water and drunk in order to prevent diarrhea). Many of these things are provided to and available to impoverished communities, yet not used. This leads us to ask deeper questions of why these easily fixed health ailments continue to persist and keep families trapped in poverty.

Since the poor don't seem to be willing to sacrifice much money or time to pursue these effective and relatively easy accessible preventative health measures despite their potentially large health benefits, you begin to wonder if the poor simply do not care about their health and the health of their families. Studies show that this is not the case, and that health is actually one of the primary concerns of most poor families and communities. In fact, these studies shoes that poor countries feel more worry, tension, and anxiety about their healthcare than is seen in the US. The average extremely poor household spends up to 6% of its monthly budget on health, and more than 1/4 of these households visit a health practitioner about once a month. When faced with a serious health issue, poor households cut spending, sell assets, or borrow from local moneylenders at extremely high rates.

The issue is therefore not how much the poor care about their health, or how much they are spending on their health, but on what they are spending their health on. Usually the poor's money is spent on expensive cures rather than cheap prevention. Most people also choose to not go to the free public health centers for preventative measures or for treatments for simple remedies, but opt for more expensive private doctors.

One of the issues is that many of these private doctors have no official health qualifications. Not having a degree doesn't necessarily means these private doctors are incompetent, as they could very well be very well versed in the practice of medicine. The issue is that health care audits by the World Bank have shown that many of these doctors aren't following recommended medical practice in asking appropriate questions about symptoms and giving appropriate treatments for diseases. There was also a clear pattern that doctors tended to under-diagnose and over-medicate.

Another issue is that most of the poor feel the medication has to be injected to be beneficial. This leads to more health issues of unsterilized needles, the increased likelihood of the emergence of drug-resistant strains of bacteria, and damage from overused steroids. This brings us back to the crucial question: why do the poor not exercise their right to obtain cheap and easy preventative health measures in favor of spending a lot of money on things that don't help and actually hurt?

Some blame governments and health employee absenteeism for the lack of use of preventative measures. If people are not there to distribute these preventative measures, how can they be used?

Or, do people not favor these preventative methods because they are too cheap? Rational economics tells us that sunk costs don;t matter, but we all know as irrational human beings that sunk costs do create biases in how much we value and use products we purchase. Maybe if these measures were priced higher, people would value them more and be more willing to use them.

The authors summarize the chapter in what I feel a very effective way. The poor seem to be trapped by the same kinds of problems that afflict the rest of us: lack of information, weak beliefs, and procrastination to name a few. It is true that we are privileged in that we are somewhat better educated and informed than the poor, but the difference is much smaller than you think because in the end we know much less than we imagine.

Our real advantage in not letting health issues trap us into poverty comes from the many things we take as a given. We live in houses where clean water gets piped in and we don't have to remember to add Chlorin to the water supply every morning. Our houses take care of disposing the sewage without us knowing how. Our doctors's qualifications are regulated so we can generally trust them to do the best they can. We have a mostly trustworthy government-regulated public health system that also does the best it can to guide our health decisions. We have no choice but to have children immunized, for without recommended immunizations they cannot enter schools. Most importantly, we do not wonder where our next meal is coming from, so we rarely need to draw upon our limited capabilities of self-control and decisiveness, while the poor are constantly required to do so to stave off potentially deadly disease. We should recognize no one, neither us in rich countries or those in poor countries, could possibly contain the wisdom, patience, or knowledge to be fully responsible to make the right decisions about something as complicated as healthcare.

Once again, fixing poverty is not as simple as it seems. Asking someone to make the proactive commitments of preventive healthcare decisions is equivalent to asking all of us to fully honor our new years resolutions year after year without fail, or to exercise every day in order to prevent heart disease down the road. As humans we tend to let the present rule, and put off costs until tomorrow. Poverty cannot be solved with the mere provision of preventative health measures of infusion of money.

Flight is Booked!

No one else may be excited about this, but I am! Currently leaving out of Houston on Saturday, December 28, at 3:35 p.m., and arriving in Accra, Ghana on Sunday, Dec 29, 7:55 p.m. (with a pit stop in Amsterdam)

I leave Accra to come back on Tuesday, Jan 7, at 9:50 p.m., and get back to Houston on Wednesday, January 8, 1:35 p.m. I then go to Key West to go and celebrate my parent's 25th wedding anniversary :)

So much excitement in one winter break!

What am I going to be doing again?

I only know a small percentage of the experience I am going to be getting and the work I'm going to be doing on my microfinance brigade, but I'm going to take this moment to do my best to describe the work I'm going to be doing. 

To begin with, brigades are defined as passionate groups of volunteers mobilizing toward positive social change. 

From a big picture perspective, the microfinance brigade I am going on is one of the ten brigades Global Brigades provides undeveloped communities as part of its holistic model.

Global Brigades practices holistic development, which is the system of collectively implementing health, economic, and education initiatives to strategically meet a group's development goals. For Global Brigades, it includes the preparation, delivery, and follow-up of it's ten unique programs conducted in collaboration with community members, student volunteers, and local technicians. Only 6 programs are currently working in Ghana, and they include:
  • Medical brigades- work with licensed medical professionals and community health volunteers to provide comprehensive health services in rural communities with limited access to healthcare
  • Dental brigades- provide immediate and preventative dental services in rural communities without access to oral care otherwise.
  • Water brigades- empower communities to access sufficient clean water through infrastructural development, water treatment, community leader training, and education.
  • Public Health brigades- empower rural Ghanaian communities to develop sustainable health solutions and establish a standard of health quality with an emphasis on preventative methods and education in rural communities by engaging the efforts of both volunteers and community members.
  • Microfinance brigades- provide rural community members a community banking system, with access to loans, financial literacy programs, and education to increase production and foster a culture of savings and growth
  • Business brigades- empower businesses and entrepreneurs within communities with the tools to make wise decisions to grow their streams of income through financial planning and operations and marketing consulting.
The mission and vision of my microfinance brigade is to provide rural communities with a strong financial system to access loans, savings accounts, and capital to fund community projects and education initiatives, resulting in a culture of community empowerment and financial literacy. 

In rural Ghana, inaccessibility to financial services is a major challenge for community members. Evidence gathered by Global Brigades' programs, combined with previous experience in the communities showed that the most rural farming communities do not have access to affordable financial services, such as savings and loans.

Without these crucial financial resources, community members depend on intermediaries who often take advantage of them by charging high interest rates on loans and offer very low prices for their crops. This pattern traps many community members in a cycle of debt with most farmers only making enough money to feed their families and purchase necessities. Communities are left unable to plan for the future to save for emergencies, education, home reparations, or to reach any other financial goals.

The microfinance program methodology consists of community bank formation, bank support, and financial literacy education for families. My fellow brigaders and I will work with Global Brigades staff and the community to establish community-owned banks and provide follow up on those banks. Brigaders provide financial education and guidance on developing economic solutions to improve income during our time in Ghana.

For even more detail about what I am going to be doing, here is a sample itinerary from other mircofinance brigades:

A Brief Over view of Ghanaian History

So I just got my official pre-departure packet for my trip to Ghana! In it includes all sorts of interesting information I shall share in multiple posts, but I will share the content of what I think is the most important first: The brief history of Ghana they provided us! Enjoy!

"Ghana, a West African nation bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Togo, was formerly a British colony known as the Gold Coast. Like many modern states of West Africa, Ghana is fundamentally a creation of European colonial influence, thus prior to the colonial era, the territory of the Gold Coast was not a cohesive ethnic or political entity. Liile historical record exists of the Gold Coast territory before Portuguese colonists landed in 1470 and began a period of colonization in which European powers controlled most of the coastline. What is now Ghana was the epicenter of European maritime trade out of West Africa and it was the Ashanti Empire that gave political and social cohesion to much of this area. During British control, which began in the 1800s, the colonial government signed a formal agreement with Ashanti chiefs establishing political control and economic trade.

A significant aspect of modern-­‐day Ghana’s history was its role in the global slave trade, which in reality was long in existence prior to the arrival of Europeans to West Africa's coast. Human slaves were traded from the earliest days of the trans-­‐Saharan caravans in the form of captives taken from inter-­‐tribal warfare, and well through the height of the infamous trans-­‐Atlantic slave trade as the most lucrative Colonial export. The human costs of the slave trade are well known, yet similarly devastating were the effects on West African society as a whole as traditional industries, social structures, and political relationships were forced to give way to the unparalleled profitability of trade in human slaves.

In a movement led by Pan-­‐Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana became the first sub-­‐Saharan colony to achieve independence on March 6, 1957, taking its name from its ancestral African empire. On February 24, 1966, the Ghanaian Army and police overthrew Nkrumah's regime. Over the next few years, political instability continued with a series of military coups that led to an increasingly mismanaged and corrupt government system. Mounting economic problems also forced several regimes to undertake drastic currency devaluations and austerity measures under the pressure of foreign debt. The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) led by Lt. Jerry Rawlings defined much of Ghana's political development through the 1980s and 90s. In December 1982, Rawlings announced a plan to decentralize government from Accra to the regions, the districts, and local communities, but maintain overall control by appointing secretaries with executive powers and who would chair regional and district councils. This organizational system still exists today and strongly influences development initiatives and government funding of projects in Ghana.

Ghana's post-­‐independence economic story has been a difficult one, but over the last 20 years, political stability and economic growth has been the long-­‐term trend. Ghana is on track to meet the Millennium Development goal of halving extreme poverty by 2015. Real GDP growth averaged 4% in the mid-­‐1980s and has increased to about 5% over the past decade. Inflation declined after a rapid increase in 2009. The macroeconomy remains under pressure from large fiscal and trade deficits, however the discovery of major offshore oil reserves in June 2007 brought expectations of a major economic boost. Production officially began at the end of 2010, but some analysts expressed concern over the country's ability to manage its new industry and avert the so-­‐called “resource curse”, as laws governing the oil sector had not yet been passed. In July 2009, Ghana secured a 600 million dollar three-­‐year loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), amid concerns about the impact of the global recession on poorer countries. Ghana's national economy has shown resilience and growth in recent years, yet the distribution of these benefits throughout Ghanaian society and particularly in its lower-­‐income, rural communities remains stagnant."

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thinking about poverty differently

World poverty is an issue that is simply overwhelming to look process, let alone try to solve. When faced with intimidating statistics, or the emotional anecdote of an individual or family in need, we tend to resolve that there is nothing we as individuals can do to fight against poverty. Our efforts will always be too small and the problem will always be so big.

In order to mentally prepare for my trip, I have been reading a book called "Poor Economics" which invites readers to re-frame the issue of poverty and an overwhelming issue to one that has emerged from a set of concrete problems that can be solved one at a time once they are properly identified and understood. This is different than the traditional way of trying to solve poverty through the "big issues" such as "What is the ultimate cause of poverty?" and "What role does foreign aid play in the battle against poverty?"

The ways people frame the issue of poverty are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Many believe that poor countries are poor because they require large initial investments to deal with endemic problems such as malaria infestations and agricultural infertility. These countries cannot pay for these investments precisely because they are poor, and find themselves in a "poverty trap". Supporters of this theory of poverty believe that foreign aid is the key to ending poverty as foreign aid helps poor countries invest in these critical issues and become more productive.

There is strong opposition to this framing of the issue of poverty. Anti-aid supporters argue that foreign aid does much more harm than good. Foreign aid prevents people from searching for their own solutions, corrupts and undermines local institutions, and creates a self-perpetuating need for aid. To supporters of this theory, they key to ending poverty is to make the markets free and right incentives, as this way people can solve their own problems.

There is no concrete evidence that supports one or the other of these theories of poverty. Both of these theories try to provide sweeping answers to an issue, but these sweeping answers to the issue of poverty might not be as important as we have been led to believe. In fact, foreign aid is only a very small portion of money that is spent on poverty every year. Most programs that are targeted to ease the issue of poverty are funded out of their country's own resources. More importantly than the amount of aid that is given to poor countries, we are often distracted from the real issue of where the money actually goes.

The only uncontested issue when it comes to poverty is the basic premise that we should help the poor when we are able to. As described by Nobel Prize Laureate Amartya Sen: "poverty is not just a lack of money, it is not having the capability to realize one's full potential as a human being.

As I continue reading this book, I hope to obtain a better understanding of the issue of poverty and how people living in poverty make decisions. I will keep posting about my discoveries!

Fundraising link has changed!


Here is my new link for anyone that wants to contribute to my trip!

TED Talks: Invest in Africa's Own Solutions

Throughout the semester, Texas Global Business Brigades have been training my fellow brigaders and I about micro-finance as a way to help global poverty as well as about African culture.

During one of the sessions, we were introduced to Micro-finance through a Ted Talk by Jacqueline Novogratz, a philanthropist who has done micro-finance work in Africa and around the world. The video is about 12 minutes long, but I think it does an excellent job highlighting the importance of micro-finance work in underdeveloped countries and illustrates what my relatively short time abroad hopes to accomplish.



Earlier this year, I made a post in the MPA Student Blog explaining the why I decided to start fundraising to volunteer in Ghana and explain the basics of what I am going to be doing. You can check it out here!