Operation Kiva

Operation Kiva

On December 26, 2009 – a day where most Americans were clearing away their Boxing Day holiday debris, Army Spc. Jason M. Johnston, 24, Albion, N.Y died in Arghandab, Afghanistan, when insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device.  Jason had been assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.

To quote his local Albion, NY newspaper, “Johnston lived a heroic life.  He (had) a devilish grin and how he loved to sing, dance and be goofy. ‘To most people, he’s frozen in time as a 6 year old, climbing trees, doing crazy and wacky stuff to make people laugh,’ Brett Irwin said, eulogizing his friend. The congregation laughed, but as Irwin continued, his words became choked by tears.

‘I wish I could stand here and tell you people it was all good, it was all happy, but that wouldn’t be true … he had troubles, and pain.’ The Army was a way for Jason to change his life.  Irwin joked that, when he meets Johnston again in heaven, his lifelong friend will ‘be leaning against the wall, with a Coors in one hand and a Marlboro in the other … and he will say to me, ‘There you are, brother. Why are you so damn late for everything?’

Jason had joined the military to complete his education and to find a purpose that had been missing from his life. On the day of his fatal convoy, he reassured his senior officer that he was ready to meet the challenges of the day’s mission.

As I turned from my computer and allowed myself to drift across a winter landscape of frozen snow, I considered the young men and women being mustered across our nation to follow the courageous steps of Army Spc, Jason Johnston.   I sat restless and irritated, my middle aged suburban life insulated by this gauntlet of youthful brave souls, impotent to keep them out of harm’s way.

On a frozen December morning, 6000 miles away in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Said Pacha Mohammed Ali awoke to a knotted, sore back.  He had been working longer days — stocking the shelves of his retail store where he has recently expanded his business. Said Pacha has operated his retail shop for over ten years. His city, Jalalabad, is the largest urban area in eastern Afghanistan. It spirals from its center, swirling into a spider’s web of suburban countryside fields linked by fragile dirt roads and primitive housing.

Said is an older man who provides for an extended family and like so many, he longs for political reforms, security, peace and stability that might allow him to prosper. Pacha is a rational voice and respected elder in his neighborhood because he has known hard labor and hardship his entire life – – enduring the Russians, Taliban and the unstable Karzai regime.  He is like the rough gypsum rocks that litter the open fields and ancient geology of the jagged mountains. He endures but longs for a broader peace so his business might flourish. Pacha has suffered from the warfare, corruption and danger that has suffocated his country.  Until recently, he had been unsuccessful in expanding his business.  He desired to create jobs for relatives and dreamed of meeting the demands of a growing community. Investment, like peace, had been non-existent. Although he lacks formal education, Pascha clearly understands that a stable economy is the only sovereign capable of taming this harsh tribal land.

On the day, that Army Specialist Jason Johnston was killed, I joined a family from New Zealand, Santa Barbara, Germany and Massachusetts to loan Said Pacha 50000 Afghanis to enlarge his shop and purchase merchandise.

I found Said Pascha Mohammed Ali through KIVA – a non-profit global microfinance organization. Labeled “Barefoot Banking” by some analysts, microfinance is becoming big business for the world’s smallest businesses.  Kiva was founded in October 2005 by Matt and Jessica Flannery.  The couple’s interest in microfinance was influenced by a 2003 lecture given by Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and economist who founded Grameen Bank. Yunus previously was a professor of economics where he developed the concept of microcredit loans given to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans. In 2006, Yunus won the Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to spread micro-financing as an essential thread binding together a wealthy but removed Western society with a frayed network of disenfranchised individuals who subsist on less than $ 1 a day.

I had joined a Kiva loan consortia hoping to create enclaves of small consumer investment.  I labeled my end of year altruistic efforts “Operation Kiva” hoping that I could invest ahead of the next soldiers that would land in Afghanistan.  Perhaps a more stable economy and hope in a brighter future could defuse the dark arguments of those who might try to convince Said Pacha Mohammed Ali to put down his broom and pick up an IED.  Could a $100 loan save a life?

Per a recent web article on micro finance, Kiva had distributed $110,671,610 in loans from 631,345 lenders as of December 25, 2009. Kiva coordinates with established micro finance institutions around the world, called “Field Partners”, to post profiles of qualified local entrepreneurs on its website, http://www.kiva.org. Lenders can search the globe for an entrepreneur that they wish to fund. Kiva aggregates loan capital from individual lenders and transfers it to the appropriate Field Partners to disburse to the entrepreneur chosen by the lender. As the entrepreneurs repay their loans, the Field Partners remit funds back to Kiva. As the loan is repaid, the Kiva lenders can withdraw their principal or re-loan it to another entrepreneur. The average loan size is $401.66 and the repayment rate is 98.13%.  The best part of Kiva is the opportunity to be repaid so one might reinvest those dollars in another underserved community.

Kiva and other institutions like it, have the ability to touch over 3 billion of the world’s poorest individuals, especially women, who are often marginalized in their home societies as a result of life events that prevent them from working or providing for their families.  Kiva empowers, stabilizes and restores self-esteem and most importantly, helps create a consumer economy that can do more to stabilize and sustain a nation than any amount of foreign aid or military intervention.

Consider the case of Maria Guadalupe Licona, of Tulancingo, Mexico who needed to expand her herd. She borrowed $100 for six months from a microlender and purchased additional sheep and pigs. Or perhaps you would like to meet Wafeek,  a 53-year-old Lebanese man who lives in the Bekaa with his wife and their five children. Wafeek has been working as carpenter for over 30 years. Wafeek requested a $ 300 loan from a Kiva partner, Al Majmoua to purchase wood for his work. You could be his fourth loan and he has always repaid on time.

Someone once said, “ give a man a fish, feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, you feed him for life.” Kiva allows anyone willing to make a small loan the ability to reach into pockets of despair and begin to sew seeds of change and economic growth.  In regions of the world where 50% of the population is under 25, unemployed and disaffected, an investment in economic development can diffuse dangerous breeding grounds for fundamentalists or despots who prey on those who feel they have been forsaken.

Microfinance is not a panacea for poverty but it is a message of hope.  It is manna from a temporal heaven -sustaining those who desperately want the same things we want.  Economic vitality is an antidote to the poison of religious ideologues and political charlatanism.  It is a lifeline that may prove more powerful than any sentinel, drone or security force.  One might never know whether their investment saves a life by stabilizing a neighborhood in Yemen, Lebanon , Palestine, or Afghanistan.  However, we do know that a micro-loan could save a family and create a future.  Perhaps, with each future we rekindle, we breathe oxygen into a fire that burns brighter and more powerfully than any military ordinance.  Our generosity can fuel embers of democracy that push back the twilight of bitter ideology – – long shadows that one day crept across a lone road in Afghanistan and took Army Specialist Jason Johnston from us well before he had the opportunity to find his own future.

The Power Of One

The Power of One ?

“A society should be ultimately judged by how it treats the least fortunate among them.” Anon.

In the movie, “City Slickers”, Jack Palance ( Curly) and Billy Crystal ( Mitch) are alone trying to find a stray calf.  Mitch has gone on this cattle drive trying to fill the void that has left him feeling so empty in middle age.  Curly sagely confirms to Mitch that the secret of life is indeed “one thing” and proceeds to hold up a finger.  As Mitch begs the grizzled cowboy to share his secret to happiness, Curly smiles and tells Mitch, “it’s up to you to find out what that one thing is”.

We all have certain friends whose disgusting altruism and innate sense of service to others puts us all to shame.  As you get older you realize that life isn’t really about you, it’s about everyone else.  If a person is lucky, they discover that by losing themselves in the service of others, they may end up finding themselves and liking what they find.  These people become the convergence of good intentions and genuine action. As they refine these skills, they develop finely tuned eyes and ears that recognize every day the little opportunities to leave the world a better place.  They have discovered their “one thing”.

I am pretty certain from watching children and adults that selfishness is a learned trait.  I seem to have developed a healthy dose of self absorption from an early age.  It has always been my natural default position to look out for old number one first.  If I were to deconstruct situations where I was caught doing the right thing, I might discover a subtle self interest in each gesture, perhaps the need for praise, recognition, friendship, acceptance or forgiveness.  The concept of actually giving unconditionally seems a very unnatural act.  I mean what’s the point of doing something nice unless there is some sort of recognition? A parade would be nice….My close friend, Lloyd constantly referred to me as a massive work in progress and would always tell me that the ultimate act of selflessness was to give anonymously.  “If you give and someone finds out, it doesn’t count.  Try to do three nice things a day and not have anyone discover that you did them”. It just did not make sense that one would work so hard to do anything and not receive some sort of compensation.

My apprenticeship to joining the human race escalated in 1995 when I was introduced to a woman named Dianne Easton, Executive Director of a non profit program called Leadership San Francisco ( LSF).  LSF brought together 24 for profit and 24 non profit executives for one year.  LSF would meet once a month for all day sessions that were planned and coordinated by the delegates themselves.  You attended an initial retreat where you chose the topics for the year. The issues were intentionally challenging: homelessness, education, health care, crime, AIDS, domestic violence, economic growth etc.  Each team of four worked closely throughout the year with their partners to plan their one day event.  The city and county of San Francisco opened its doors to the teams offering use of facilities, access to public officials and enabled special “homework assignments“ for attendees.  The program served to educate members to issues that challenged the city as well as facilitated the critical public/private partnerships that were essential to bring lasting solutions to difficult problems.  My most challenging homework assignment included a six hour ride along from midnight until 6am with the SFPD in the Tenderloin district.  I saw first hand how law enforcement had to deal with issues around drug addiction, prostitution, property crime and domestic violence.  It was a bit like the TV show “Cops” with me as the guy running behind the police as they worked the streets.  There were sessions designed to shock, educate and motivate people to action.

In the AIDS/HIV day, I witnessed how a single woman, Ruth Brinker, started Project Open Hand – – making meals in the basement of an Episcopal church and delivering them to AIDS/HIV and critically ill shut-ins and seniors who could not care for themselves.  The program just celebrated its 20th year and serves thousands throughout the city and country.  I spent part of the Homeless day at shelters and at Glide Memorial church, meeting the dynamic Reverend Cecil Williams who built a fortress to combat poverty, crime and hopelessness – – a church that turns away no person and that understands that unconditional love can change lives and warm the corners of a cold, indifferent city.

What we all learned and witnessed over that year opened our eyes to the inequity and imbalance that exists in a society that has the means to provide for so many but does not seem to be able to often reach the most at risk.  We learned that those seeking shelter often need to be present when shelters open their doors for beds and in needing to be present, find it hard to hold the jobs they might need to break their cycle of homelessness.  Social services were not integrated and those in need with mental and physical conditions were often caught in between the seams of an overwhelmed system.   We learned how difficult it is for a convicted felon to truly assimilate back into society.  We saw the ravages of drug addiction and domestic violence.  We also witnessed incredible acts of personal sacrifice and courage as individuals dedicated their lives to helping others and advocated for those who were too weak, disabled or incapable of speaking for themselves.

With each session, I found it increasingly hard to hide behind my age old rationalizations about giving to non profits and community based organizations.  On the contrary, I met people who could take a few dollars and like biblical messiahs, feed masses with a few loaves of bread.  I felt my my radius of responsibility that had once only extended to my family and my small suburban town change and broaden to a city, county, state and global community.  It changed my life and now, instead of looking away, I now noticed the crushing need that existed right underneath my nose.  A friend who ran a health center serving the Latino community told me that Mother Teresa once told someone who came to Calcutta that they did not need to come half way around the world to serve those in need.  “Grow where you are planted” was all she said to the altruistic pilgrim.

When I think of LSF and the relationship I developed with incredible leaders of non profits and social services, I realize these people helped me discover my “one thing “.     In the end, every human being longs to find that source of inspiration – – a calling larger than themselves that gives their life a sense of meaning and purpose.

So, what’s your “one thing “?