Paung Ku’s Civil Society Strengthening Program

Paung Ku’s first objective (and the one I will focus on) is to build the capacity of civil society organizations.  For the sake of simplicity, we will define civil society as a third sector between the government and private sectors.  Often, one thinks of non-profits and church groups as civil society organizations, but it can be much less formal than that.  For example, a group that forms to protest an environmental issue would be included, even though they are not a formal, registered group and will likely disband after the issue passes. Continue reading

First Five Impressions of Myanmar

First Five Impressions of Myanmar (some of these I knew about)

  1.  The men wear skirts.  Longyi is the traditional dress of the people and over 50 years of isolation means that Western clothing never really gained a foothold, even after British colonization.  The younger generation is starting to wear pants more, but the longyi remains the dominant clothing of the masses.
  2. The steering wheel is on the right hand side (British side), but they also drive on the right hand side (American side).  General Ne Win switched the driving side in 1970 (either because his astrologist told him he should or because he dreamed he should, it’s unclear which it is), but, of course, most of the cars remained the same, built for British roads.
  3. You would never know you were in a country known for its oppressive, military government at first glance.  The last couple of years have really changed things around in terms of economic and other basic (like internet) freedoms.  I was terrified while standing in the immigration line (“am I sure I got the right visa? What if they saw that I was already posting on this blog and think I lied about my past work history, maybe they think I’m an undercover journalist!”), it was actually a very quick, easy process.  Exchanging money was no big deal (as it used to be).  While the country is only beginning to have ATMs and accept credit cards, the scarcity of such conveniences only makes one think of a poor country that doesn’t see many tourists, not an oppressed one.  No one has had any trouble talking to me about their “leader” Aung San Suu Kyi, even though I’ve never asked.  I’m sure I will hear more stories of oppression later (and, of course, the human rights abuses are well documented), but at first glance, it is masked well.
  4. Inflation is going to be a problem (well, it already is).  A guide book I saw from just a few years ago noted prices half of what they are today.  When I was planning this trip a month ago the exchange rate was 850 kyat/ 1$, today it was 972 kyat / 1$.  When I changed money at the airport, I walked away with bricks of kyat in a sack as if I’d just robbed a bank.  I asked a few people how they felt about it and, honestly, besides property prices, they weren’t too concerned (even though food prices have nearly doubled in less than a decade).  While things are still cheap compared to a developed country, they are rapidly reaching prices of neighboring ASEAN countries, even though it remains the poorest ASEAN country.
  5. This place is going to take some getting used to.  Even though the country is seeing a huge influx of foreigners (tourists, INGO workers, and businessmen) from all over the world, this is a recent development.  While it doesn’t feel as much “back in time” to me as I’ve heard from others, there is a distinct otherworldliness about it.  I usually adapt to new places with lightening speed, but I think this country will take more than a few days.

A Tribute to the Adventurous Soul

“If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.” ~ Jim Rohn

About 4 years ago I was giving a presentation to a Rotary Club in Denver about my Peace Corps experience in Romania and world travels. At the end, an older gentleman asked me, “Is it true that once you’re an adventurer, you’re always an adventurer?” I found the question intriguing since I had been living in Colorado for 4 years and didn’t see myself leaving anytime soon. I wondered if it were true for me, that I would soon be on my way again to exploring another part of the world. And it was. Only a year later I was living in Washington, D.C., followed by another move the next year to NYC for graduate school. I suppose he had a great point, but recently I have been questioning myself of whether I finally want to settle down and begin expressing my adventurous spirit in other ways.

I came to Cochabamba, Bolivia to live for 7 weeks not only to learn Spanish and research the country’s educational policy, but because I wanted to know if living in a developing country was something I wanted to do again after graduating from school next year. I’m 35 years old now and have tasted the zest of exploring the world and living overseas on and off for the past 13 years. By the end of this summer I’ll have traveled to 30 U.S. states, 23 countries and 5 continents. My lifetime goal is to visit all 50 states, 35 countries and all 7 continents and I still see that goal being achieved. However, I find myself at a point in life where the things I have given up to explore the world are now enticing me. After spending a semester studying and working in Geneva, Switzerland during my senior year of undergrad, I knew the traditional lifestyle of getting a good job, working my way up the corporate ladder, maxing out my 401(k), getting married and living in suburbia was of little interest to me. The thought of spending my weekends mowing the lawn, washing the car, taking the kiddies to their little league game, and sitting at the same desk day-in and day-out made me nauseous. I sought adventure. I wanted to create a life that suited me and live it on my terms. I wanted to do what I wanted, when I wanted, and wherever I wanted with no one telling me how to do it. I’ve lived quite an extraordinary life, in my opinion, but I’ve also foregone many magical experiences.

I can now look back without worry or regret for my choices in life. Because I’ve learned what it means to be an adventurer. I’ve had my breath taken away in the Sistine Chapel. I’ve marveled at the shooting stars while in the Gobi Desert. I’ve sat in total awe of the moonstruck clouds cascading through the peaks of the Swiss Alps. I’ve hiked the rolling peaks of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, explored majestic caves and ziplined down a canyon in the Julian Alps of Slovenia, climbed to 14,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, and overlooked Bolivia while standing atop the Andes. I’ve sailed the Nile, climbed an Egyptian pyramid, and walked amongst the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. I’ve made friends with Russians while sharing vodka and singing a song about the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’ve almost been stranded in the Ural Mountains of Russia while fetching some Snickers while traveling on the Trans-Siberian Rail. I’ve hyperventilated while swimming in my underwear in the freezing waters of Lake Baikal, Siberia. I’ve meditated in complete wonder with Buddhist monks in a mountain-top temple. I’ve experienced what it means to live with a host family in a foreign country and share deep, cross-cultural communication. I’ve learned what it means to make new friends while riding a subway in Vienna, Austria and end up becoming pals for just one evening, in a transient moment that I’ll never forget. I’ve lain out in the nude under the Black Sea sun while playing Texas Hold ‘Em and putting back cold ones with other butt-naked friends. I’ve gnawed on grilled snake in Beijing and been grossed out by the taste of camel cheese in Mongolia. I’ve wandered and gotten lost amongst the cobblestone streets of Venice. I’ve almost accidently burnt down a bar in Prague because my Absinthe caught fire. I’ve been pick-pocketed by Gypsies in Pisa and seen my life flash before my eyes while nearly being run over by a car in Paris. I’ve saved a girl from being gang-raped in a sleazy club in Romania. I’ve listened to the traditional polka bands in Munich while drinking German beer by the liter and relaxed in the tile-woven, “men only” bathhouses of Budapest.

However, over the past year I’ve begun to notice that I’ve gotten tired of the cold showers, lack of heat when it’s 0 degrees outside, running to the bathroom in the middle of the night because the local food didn’t sit well with my stomach, holding my nose from the stench of an outhouse in 90-degree heat, living out of a suitcase, and moving every 6-12 months. Yet I wouldn’t give up any of my glorious travel and living abroad experiences. They have been incremental in becoming the cultural and distinguished man I am today. A regular job with 2-weeks of vacation per year never would’ve provided the opportunities I sought out.

Lately I’ve been feeling that my lifestyle’s been taking its toll after all these years. And the traditional things I’ve missed out on are now beckoning my attention. I’m finding that I want to channel my adventurous soul in new directions. Although the world is my house I often long to live in a single place that I can call “home”. I’ve found working in the yard on a Saturday afternoon isn’t so bad after all. Until recently, I’ve missed out on having a serious, long-term relationship. I want to have a child and look into their eyes and show them what true love is, and look into my woman’s eyes and have her knock me off my feet. I’ve always wanted to partake in amateur auto racing on summer weekends and learn how to play the guitar. I want to buy a fixer-upper house that I can design to my liking. I have no idea how install lighting, lay tile, or put up drywall, but I think that’ll make for a new challenge. I’m looking forward to establishing myself in a career and becoming an expert in my field. And I intend to find a position that will allow for international travel to quench my occasional travel bug. Maybe it will be with the State Dept. or a development consulting firm or an international investment firm. Only time will tell. All I can say is that I’m excited for my future adventures and live without regret.

I salute my fellow travelers, wanderers, and adventurers, who will never relinquish their own path and their own truth. Those who walk to their own beat and powerfully choose to create a life they love. We may be in this world, but we are not of this world. We are whole and complete. WE ARE.

What about you? What lights you up in life? And how do you express your adventurous spirit?

Almost to Myanmar

While I haven’t yet arrived in Myanmar, I thought I would use this post to introduce my project, explain the topics I hope to cover, and give an update on where everything is at so far.

            As you can read from the “Who We Are” page, I am travelling to Myanmar to research civil society development in the face of sweeping political changes.  Myanmar (formally Burma, I will not get into the politics of the name change here) has recently started to move from a hardliner military government accused of many human rights abuses to a more free, open, and possibly democratic society.  There are so many complex issues in the country stemming from its history, government, and various ethnic groups.  I do not plan to use this platform to discuss each of these, however if I refer to any of them I will attempt to add a link to background information.

            Even though many view the recent changes as superficial, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the possibility of a peaceful transition to a functioning democracy.  Part of a peaceful transition and a functioning democracy will require a healthy, active civil society.  As the previous administrations have cracked down on assembly, civil society must essentially be built from the ground up.  This will require teaching citizens the tools and skills necessary to participate in an active civic group. 

            There are a few INGOs engaged in this work.  I will primarily be working with Paung Ku, an INGO consortium comprised of several well known INGOs and led by Save the Children.  I intend to interview their staff to understand their processes, programs, and preliminary outcomes.  I will submit a blog post dedicated to each of these topics.

            I arrive in Myanmar next week.  In the meantime, I am in Thailand.  I had to come here first in order to get a visa (it is possible to get a visa within the USA, but far easy to get it in Bangkok).  As I had to be here anyway, I have taken advantage and seen much of what Bangkok has to offer, a trip to Ayutthaya, and will make my way to Chiang Mai for a couple days before my flight to Yangon (formally Rangoon) where I will be spending most of my time in Myanmar. 

Fair Trade: Are Your Purchases Doing More Harm Than Good?

I’ve been in Cochabamba, Bolivia for just over 2 weeks now and although my research project isn’t designed around Fair Trade, it has come to mind that Fair Trade impacts Bolivian producers. So I feel this blog post to be of importance. Fair Trade covers a multitude of products grown throughout the developing world, including cocoa, cereals, fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, nuts, tea, and most notably: coffee. Coffee is the second largest traded commodity (by value) in the world, after petroleum.

Fair Trade has been an interest of mine for some time and, as most people would, found the concept of Fair Trade to be noble and important in protecting the rights of farmers in the developing world. The idea that farmers in developing markets could receive enough income to feed their families, be able to send their children to school, have enough income to pay their workers fair wages and be able to stand up for themselves so they are no longer taken advantage of by large, international coffee companies that used to hold more bargaining power.

However, this past spring I was reading a book by renowned economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, who made a negative connotation towards the fair trade practice. And it got me to thinking, why would this free trade promoter, who comes from an emerging country (India), take issue with fair trade? It led me to researching the pros and cons of fair trade, which has ultimately inspired me to question the entire practice.

I believe any compassionate individual would support the idea of fair trade and want to help disadvantaged farmers. I, too, wish to help in any reasonable way to eliminate global poverty and support opportunities for youth education. But upon researching the arguments of those against fair trade, I was disturbed by several facets of fair trade certification. First, Fair Trade USA not only certifies small farmers, but they do the marketing of fair trade products as well. In my opinion, this creates a conflict of interest. Since the certifying organization earns $.10 on every pound of fair trade coffee sold, it is only in its best interest to certify as many small farmers as possible. Remember: non-profit does not mean “no profit.”

However, my biggest issue with the Fair Trade certification process is that it is only for “small farmers”. There are a number of hurdles to jump through to become a designated Fair Trade producer. How it basically works is that the buyers of Fair Trade produced products must also be certified to purchase them. The small farmers can only produce a certain amount of their product each year and employ a certain amount workers. They must also pay fair wages and receive a specific price for their product from the buyers, often above market prices. At least for coffee, the small farmers MUST participate in a large cooperative with other small farmers who make decisions democratically.

This is a great idea, but I ask: What about the medium- and large-size farmers? What about the larger farmers who pay fair wages and follow the guidelines of the Fair Trade regulations? They cannot become Fair Trade certified. What this policy creates is exclusionary practices, not inclusionary. What is happening is that the medium- and large-size farmers are left out of the Fair Trade boom. They, in turn, must sell their products at market prices and are paid considerably less than the small, Fair Trade certified farmers. This certification process is nothing less than discriminatory.

And what about the small-, medium-, and large-size farmers who prefer to make their own independent business decisions not be driven by what other farmers in the cooperative want? Yes, a cooperative of 100 farmers can create more bargaining power when negotiating business deals, but it also binds farmers who want to make their own business decisions. Should the farmer choose to forego the cooperative, they cannot be designated “Fair Trade Certified.”

What I’ve found is that what started off as an honorable idea has come to create substantial problems for farmers in developing countries. I believe farmers deserve an income that affords them the opportunity to put food on the table and send their children to school. And I want to spend my money on products that help them do so. But I do not wish to discriminate against the larger farmers, who employ more workers, also have a family feed, want to send their children to school, and are responsible for their employees putting food on their family’s table and sending their own children to school. I want them, too, to see the fruits of the Fair Trade explosion. Hence, I believe large- and medium-size farmers should be allowed to participate in Fair Trade. I’d like to speak these farmers and see what they think and learn how they’re being impacted, because right now it makes for a difficult decision as a consumer.

What do you think? Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on how Fair Trade can be more inclusive?

You can find more information about Fair Trade and the debate here:

Priorities in Port-au-Prince

I feel surprisingly settled in, even though it is only week number two now. Everyone has been very friendly and welcoming and I’ve met some truly wonderful people, Haitians and foreigners alike. There are definitely more ex-pats here than I originally anticipated, and although this makes me feel a bit more comfortable in a foreign country than I may have been otherwise, it seems to be a controversial phenomenon. I’ve been told that the number has increased drastically following the earthquake and that there are varying levels of untrustworthiness between poor Haitians and the many American and European volunteers, missionaries, UN officers, NGO developers, etc. But discussions of international charity and interventions will be saved for another day.

Despite the fact I have many formal interviews already set up, I still try to ask anyone I can off-the-record about media and technology in Haiti and what their general opinions are. Throughout my first week, I have been amazed at the amount of people that own cell phones despite the overwhelming levels of poverty here. I was even able to walk around a tent camp with a friend from Artists for Peace and Justice and observed that while many residents live in one-room shacks with no running water, simple mobile phones still abound. Some even include SMS-based social media platforms.

I’ve learned that much of this can be attributed to Digicel’s business model in Haiti, where they strive to make communication affordable and available to all, regardless of social class. Last Friday, I was able to spend an afternoon at their offices in Turgeau where I spoke to several executives about Digicel’s history and services in the country and the company’s huge commitment to social responsibility and job creation.

This week, I will also be meeting with various people from TechnoServe, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing technological business solutions to Haiti and other impoverished nations; Soul of Haiti, an NGO aiming to cultivate a national entrepreneurial community; and Port-au-Prince’s Red Cross unit, where I will speak with their communications team. In addition, I look forward to spending Wednesday afternoon at Quisqueya University, touring the facilities and learning more about their educational programs. The university especially focuses on preparing their students for careers in socioeconomic development and the new technological age. I certainly have a busy week ahead!

Other noteworthy things I’ve done here thus far:

-Visited the famed Iron Market where hundreds of Haitians gather to sell their artwork. It is said that Haiti has more artists per capita than any country in the world!

-Enjoyed a traditional dinner with two professional Haitian women with ties to Marymount College of Fordham University. My favorite foods: fried pork and spicy fried conch!

-Spent my Sunday at the beautiful Indigo Beach (about an hour outside of Port-au-Prince) with a few new friends for some much-needed R&R.

Until next time,



Arrival in Bolivia: First Impressions

I arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia exactly one week ago and it’s already been an interesting experience. This city is the third largest in Bolivia, with just under 1 million people and a supposed Mediterranean climate. Every day is sunny and usually reaches 75-80 degrees in the afternoon. Since its winter, the temperature reaches a low of around 40 degrees at night. This makes life quite chilly, given that there is no heating or hot water (except in the shower). Every morning and evening is freezing, including the outdoor classroom where I take Spanish lessons daily from 9-1. Bolivia has surprisingly reminded me of my time in Romania as a Peace Corps Volunteer 10 years ago. Hearing a Latin language being spoken, the stray dogs wandering the streets, observing the large walls and fences lining the streets to protect the privacy of homes, dusty streets and the street vendors hawking fresh food are some of the similarities. However, Bolivia seems to display greater amounts of sunshine and dry climate than Romania. But, the biggest surprise so far has been the lack of heat and hot water.

I’m spending my first 5 weeks in Bolivia in Cochabamba and staying with a host family that has graciously brought me into their home. They have given me a private room in the back of the house with a small private bath and serve 3 meals per day. I’ve chosen to spend these first 5 weeks with a host family because it’s a great way to get immersed in a country’s culture and improve my Spanish skills. Taking Spanish classes 20 hours per week, trying to get to know the city, study Spanish, exercise, get to know my host family and work on my research project is proving to be a difficult balancing act. I was hoping to get in some weekend travel while in Bolivia but I’m starting to sense that meandering up to the sacred Lake Titicaca may be one of only a few excursions while here.

All in all, Bolivians are quite friendly, proud of their country, and share warm smiles. Yet I am finding it is a divisive country, rife with corruption throughout the educational, health and governmental systems, and encountering deep racism between the whites, mestizos (a mix of European and indigenous ethnicity) and the indigenous. While I have not witnessed any of the aforementioned prejudices, it has been through word-of-mouth from Bolivians. I believe this will play an incremental part in my research of the Bolivian government’s educational policies and recent initiatives by the President, Evo Morales, to create greater educational equality for the country.

Next week I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of fair trade, how it ‘unfairly’ discriminates against certain farmers, and present some possible solutions to the inequities of trade. Then, I’ll begin posting definitive information about my preliminary research findings and some of the organizations I’ll be connecting with to get the inside scoop on where Bolivia is steering its educational system and preserving opportunities for future generations.

Thanks in advance for any comments!

Hello from Haiti!

Today was my second day in Port-au-Prince, and already it has been quite a culture shock. The city itself is very busy (not to mention scorching hot) and people and cars travel every which way as soon as the sun rises. I’ve noticed that the vast majority of Haitians work informal jobs in the streets selling food, products, art, or services. The media researcher in me wonders if and how this economic setup would change if there was more access to digital technologies here.

After settling in yesterday, I went about scheduling my interviews and meetings for this week. Within the next few days I will be speaking with people from Inveneo, a non-profit social enterprise dedicated to bringing technology to developing countries; Digicel, Haiti’s number one cell phone company; and Artists for Peace and Justice, an NGO which has built the only free high school for the city’s poor.

Today I actually visited this school on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, called the Academy for Peace and Justice. They have just built a brand new computer lab! I found it interesting that teachers and students alike both have to learn how to use the devices and the Internet itself. Many of them have never touched a mouse or keyboard before. During computer classes, they will use the Microsoft eLearning software which teaches them computer basics, programs and security and also educates them on potential uses and careers associated with the technology.

Educating Haiti’s next generation of working adults in these areas is a huge step towards closing the country’s digital gap. That said, I still have a lot to learn about the nation’s developing media industry. Looking forward to sharing my findings with you all!