08 December 2007

Talks Given by Dr. Muhammad Yunus

The other day I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Muhammad Yunus speak twice. In the afternoon I attended a semi-intimate gathering with him and then in the evening I saw him speak in a large auditorium along with about 3,000 others.

I really enjoyed hearing him speak and I would like to share some highlights and reflections.

On both occasions he emphasized that poverty is imposed upon people and does not come from within them. Difficulty in genuinely understanding this comes from an academic or as he put it, birds-eye view of economics. This vantage point provides some distinct advantages for the economist, especially to decipher production, marketing and consumption patterns. However, the problems that people below are perceived to have cannot be clearly understood and what is not understood is invented to fit into seemingly harmonious theories and formulas. Without gaining a “worm’s-eye” view in which one can clearly understand problems faced, solutions will be misguided at best and damaging at worst. Gaining on the ground vision often leads to solutions which are completely opposite to and even inconceivable for the bird’s-eye economist, of which the Grameen bank is a perfect example. All of the economists and bankers told Mr. Yunus that he would never see the money he loaned to the very poor again because the poor are not creditworthy. Of course the very poor are not creditworthy for sizeable consumption loans, but manageable, productive loans can actually increase their creditworthiness by giving them the means to successfully pay back their loans.

This analysis got my mind wandering from the talk to Dr. Jeffry Sach’s book “The End of Poverty”, which takes a distinctively bird’s-eye view of economics and the history of development. What is most interesting to me is that both Sachs and Yunus aim towards basically the same end goal: eradicating extreme poverty. Sachs has gathered the world’s best minds in the field, galvanized a global Millennium Project and set in motion important initiatives upon which he draws to enrich his analysis. He puts his eggs in the basket of trade based, technology driven growth. However, he recognizes that along with financing humanitarian emergencies and public investments, official development assistance needs to be channeled to finance private small businesses and farm improvements “through microfinance programs and other schemes” (246). This would be aimed at raising household incomes, which seems to concur nicely with the micro-finance model created through the Grameen Bank.

However, the talk I heard the other night leads me to believe that even though they use the same vocabulary to name a key poverty eradication strategy, their visions differ in fundamental ways. The essence of Dr. Yunus’ vision is that typical business strategies aimed at accumulating capital and inserting people into the dominant production model, make them into drones, money mongering drones no less. Making money should be appreciated for just that, and not to be confused with the joy that comes from using our knowledge and talents to serve others. Recognizing that one’s prosperity depends on the prosperity of the rest of the surrounding community requires constantly contributing to that community welfare through actions that are aimed at only that and don’t have hidden agendas.

For a micro-credit program directed at the very poor, this means creating social enterprises in which money is made and communities are benefited. Capital is accumulated for the purpose of benefiting the community although the individual and her family are the most obvious beneficiaries.

Clearly, both visions are valid and complimentary as Dr. Sachs lobbies for creating “a global network of connections that reach from impoverished communities to the very centers of world power and wealth and back again” (242), an important element not present in the vision laid out by Dr. Yunus in these talks.

Wishing to illustrate the point that poverty is imposed upon people in a more colorful way, Dr. Yunus compared poor people to bonsai trees. Bonsai trees don’t use bonsai seeds. They come from full stature trees, but are planted within pots that don’t allow their roots to sustain any further growth. Anybody who has his/her “roots” constantly clipped has no opportunity to reach his/her full potential. Although the effects are permanent in some ways, transferring a bonsai tree to a space in which it can develop its roots will allow it to grow to previously unimagined heights. Micro-credit directed towards creating social enterprises has this very purpose and the testimonies he gave indicate that they fulfill this purpose more frequently than not.

As readers of this blog know, I am on the Board of Directors of a Grameen replica bank in Guayaquil where I live. It is a volunteer position, and as volunteers, all of us on the Board have a hard time finding the time we need to dedicate to the Bank to improve its performance and help achieve its objectives better. I am the only man on the Board and almost all of the other members are clients, very poor women who run subsistent oriented small businesses. The Board has formally asked me to redesign and lead the Bank’s client training efforts, in initiating participation in the Bank, in small business management and in human development. I have been seriously considering accepting this challenge even though I apparently don’t have the time it would require, and these talks have motivated me more than before. This is such a key aspect to micro-credit and to the prosperity of the bank and its clients that I think I need to look for ways to rearrange by schedule and activities to contribute to this noble cause. Well, I will keep you all posted!

25 November 2007

Pathogenic Organisms

I had the fortune of recently running across a great little book that although published in 1999, offers an insightful view of global warming that I haven’t seen in recent literature (not that I have exactly read much of the recent literature, mind you). In chapter one “Crap Happens: something’s about to hit the fan”, Joseph Jenkins waxes thus: “When viewed at the next quantum level of perspective, from which the Earth is seen as an organism and humans are seen as microorganisms, the human species looks like a menace to the planet. In fact, the human race is looking a lot like a disease-causing pathogen, which is an organism excessively multiplying, consuming, and producing harmful waste, with no regard for the health and well-being of its host – in this case, the planet Earth.”

Pathogenic organisms behave like cancerous cells which act on their own behalf to the detriment of even their host, which may sound pretty ridiculous as it seemingly threatens their own survival. However, if we consider just a few of the ridiculous things we do, like steadily replacing real food with “edible food-like substances” that cause our own destruction, then the analogy is not too far fetched.

We all know what a host organism does once it detects pathogenic life forms in its midst: it fights back. Can the earth really defend itself? Well, think about what we do when we become infected. Our body raises its temperature which “not only inhibits the growth of the infecting pathogen, but also greatly enhances the disease fighting capability within the body.” With a raised temperature, many antibodies can be readily deployed to defend against the disease. This is, of course, an emergency response as it cannot be sustained for too long without causing further damage to the body.

Does this ring as eerily familiar to you as it does to me? “Global warming may be the Earth’s way of inducing a fever – as a reaction to human pollution of the atmosphere and human over-consumption of fossil fuels.” Antibodies aren’t too difficult to identify either: “insect population booms, new strains of deadly bacteria, viruses, and algae particularly toxic to humans.” The unbelievable proliferation of all sorts of cancers since our ridiculous behavior began, intimately linked to the production of synthetic organic chemicals, fits into this scheme as well.

However, we are liberating excessive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so how does this fit in? Well, it seems that improper use of any organic material causes chemical imbalances in the soil, water and atmosphere, sending a clear message to the perpetrator that goes something like this: change your behavior or die. This quickly discourages the pathogenic behavior and corrects the balance.

The Earth will not allow us to continue to destroy forests, deplete water reservoirs, collapse fisheries, erode farmland, dry up rivers, fill wetlands and cause species extinction. Nor will it allow us to overpopulate our living spaces or worse carelessly produce and dump toxic chemicals into the environment.

Just reflect on how despicable cancerous cells are: maniacally selfish, pathogenic, multiplying machines bent on total domination. Can that really be us?

Our spiritual heritage opens us to understanding the one conceptual and practical tool we need to combat our own base behavior, and this is the organic unity we experience in moments of emotion, either sorrow or joy, not only with the entire human race, but with every living being. Cultivating this will allow us to see our planet and our neighbors for who they really are, for they are us, and we are they.


All quotes taken from: Jenkins, J. The Humanure Handbook, second edition, Jenkins Publishing, Grove City, PA, 1999, pages 15 – 19.

19 November 2007

Leaves in a Rainforest

In the forest:

“The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, -- master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

We spent this past weekend in the Rio Palenque Science Center. My wife is shooting a promotional video for the foundation that owns this forest so I took the kids to enjoy it in the meanwhile.

We hiked several of the trails that criss-cross the area, leading up hills, through streams, over decaying trunks and over animal dens and tracks. I was especially amazed by the leaves. You can stand in any place and just watch the leaves fall, hundreds of them. Most of them don’t reach the ground immediately as they get caught in the vines and overly lush underbrush. Some of the leaves were literally bigger than me and all of the trees are covered with vines whose leaves get bigger the higher up they go.

One of the biggest trees I have ever seen had recently broken in half because of the weight of the vines. 30 meters had broken off, leaving a whopping 45 meters of massive tree.

This is on the coast of Ecuador, not on the Amazon Basin side of the Andes. There are very few primary forests still standing in this part of the country, so exploring this was a real treat. As you can imagine, there is an amazing wealth of diversity there, both flora and fauna. According to their literature, there are 1,216 species of plants, 360 species of birds, and 350 unique species of butterflies, among others.

Only scientists or people doing scientific tourism can stay at the lodge, although many school children visit the area for field trips. We saw a party of such tourists there and they were birdwatching. There, you can see the Harpy Eagle, Gray-backed Hawk, Rose-faced Parrot, Ecuadorian Trogon, Chocó Toucan, Scarlet-backed and Lita woodpeckers, and Scarlet-browed and Scarlet-and-white tanagers, Gray Hawk, Laughing falcon, Rufous-headed Chachalaca, Ecuadorian Ground dove, Maroon-tailed Parakeet, blue headed parrot, Bronzy, Stripe-throated, and Baron's hermits, Guira tanagers.

Although we didn’t get to see one, several types of “glass frogs” live in the Science Center. This picture gives you a good idea of what they look like. Wouldn’t it be fun if we were “glass people”?

All of the surrounding area is used for plantations such as this one. They plant palm trees, pineapple or papaya but either way, it is all monoculture, heavily dependent on fertilizers and pesticides. The river is quite contaminated from runoff. I couldn’t help but imagine how this area must have looked 50 years ago, completely covered with lush tropical forest.

Walking through a rain forest is one of the most moving experiences a person can have. It is life in its fullest. Life explodes and comes and goes and the noise made by the bugs and birds will deafen anybody. I felt like an outsider, an intruder and at the same time I felt at home like I had been there before and needed to stay there.

18 October 2007

Two Sides of Oil clash in Ecuador

First the bad times. Part of the precious rainforest in Ecuador has been declared one of the 30 most polluted places on the entire earth. Here is an extract from the 2007 Blacksmith Institute Report providing details:

"Oriente, Ecuador
Potentially Affected People: 30,000

Type of Pollutant: Oil and toxic waste
Source of Pollution: Oil exploration

The Problem: From 1964 to 1992, Texaco (now Chevron) built and operated oil exploration and production facilities in the northern region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, known as the
"Oriente". After three decades of activity, the company left behind 600 open waste pits and allegedly dumped 18.5 billion gallons of toxic waste into Ecuador's rainforest. Crude oil dumped in open waterways is allegedly some 30 times worse
than the Exxon Valdez spill.

This toxic dumping is reported to affect not only an indigenous population of 30,000 people but also 2.5 million acres of rain forest.

Health Impacts: Increased cancer incidence, reproductive problems and birth defects are the major health effects. Water used by local residents for drinking and bathing contains nearly 150 times the safe exposure levels to hydrocarbons.

Status of Clean-Up Activity: Texaco is facing a billion dollar legal battle for polluting significant portions of the Ecuadorean Amazon. The company has vehemently denied the accusations and insisted that local authorities have absolved it of any guilt."

The other side of oil reared an unexpected and most welcome head a few days ago when President Rafael Correa made a major announcement about oil exploration in the Yasuni National Park, the most precious and important reserve in the country. Here is a public service announcement narrated by Martin Sheen I recommend watching. Here is an extract of the People & Planet article:

"Ecuador promises to leave biggest oilfield untouched

In an unprecedented initiative, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has told the UN summit on climate change, now meeting in New York, that his country proposes to leave its largest oil reserve untouched and avoid all oil extraction activities in the Yasuni National Park, where it is located.

Though not an entirely new idea, he presented the Yasuní-ITT Initiative to world leaders today as a contribution to the reduction of global greenhouse gases and to initiate Ecuador’s transition toward the world’s first truly sustainable economy.

A key part of this initiative is to avoid oil extraction activities in Yasuni National Park, home to at least two indigenous tribes that live in voluntary isolation and one of the most biodiverse places on earth.

Ecuador proposes to leave the nearly one billion barrel ITT oilfield unexploited in order to preserve Yasuni’s astounding biodiversity, ecosystem services, and the cultural integrity of its indigenous inhabitants.

Ecuador says it is proposing to forgo the revenue from oil production because it believes the value of avoiding climate change and deforestation is of greater value to Ecuador and the planet as a whole.

Ecuador, whose historic carbon dioxide emissions amount to less than 0.5 per cent, has now offered to keep nearly 436 million tons of carbon dioxide permanently sequestered in the ground, as a voluntary contribtiung to global climate change mitigation.

Commentators point out that it is the first time that a country dependent on oil exports for one third of its income has proposed forgoing oil extraction to support global sustainability objectives, and while inviting the world to help Ecuador achieve its goal of transitioning toward a new green economy."

First I really hope Mr. Correa survives what is surely coming his way after such a bold stand against big oil. Second, I would really like to believe that Mr. Correa is sincere in his desire to steward such a vital resource for life. Stewardship normally happens, however, as compensation efforts by transnational corporations or piecemeal agreements to appease affected populations. And it almost never happens at the expense of unexplored oil fields. This kind of sacrifice would put Ecuador on the map, and for good reason this time.


Oil pictures taken from: http://www.chevrontoxico.com/index.php
Pictures of Yasuni National Park taken from: http://www.ecuador-travel.net/biodiversity.parks.yasuni.htm

30 September 2007

iguanajournal interviews Ahmadi-Nejad

“The Government of Iran considers Baha’is to be apostates (apostasy, specifically conversion from Islam, is punishable by death) and defines the Baha’i faith as a political ‘sect.’ The Ministry of Justice states that Baha’is are permitted to enrol in schools only if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is…”*

Regarding Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the country’s president, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times called him a ‘fruitbat’ and a ‘doofus’. I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side! Name-calling aside, there are certain things we all need to know about him and his government’s policies.

Being the media mogul that it is, iguanajournal obtained an exclusive interview with Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the president of Iran. He blocked out an hour in his busy agenda for this interview on the Latin American leg of his tour to meet with Morales and Chavez. However, as you shall see in the following transcript, the interview didn’t last that long. Here is the transcript:

Iguanajournal – It is our pleasure to converse with you and in this way help bridge cultural, political and religious gaps between Westerners and Iranians.

Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad – (silent)

Iguanajournal – Ok, so we would like to get into some thorny issues that are on our reader’s minds. Foremost among them are the accusations coming from some quarters about a “widespread and calculated effort by the government to maintain and gradually intensify the persecution of Iranian Baha’is,” a growing community of between 300,000 and 350,000 members. There are several specific issues related to this, and one of the main concerns regards “incidents of abuse and discrimination directed at Baha’i students and children.” Is it true Mr. President, that these innocent children and youth are denied proper education because of their religious beliefs?

Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad – (silent)

Iguanajournal – I see, um, we have obtained an official government document, a “2 November 2006 letter from the headquarters of Payame Noor University to its regional branches, [which] states that it is government policy that Baha’i students ‘cannot enroll’ in Iranian universities and that if they are already enrolled, ‘they should be expelled.’” This seems to contradict the fact that “Iran claims that it has finally opened the doors to Baha’i students, after some 25 years of keeping them out of public and private universities in Iran,” Would you care to explain this?

Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad – (silent)

Iguanajournal – Sir, this is an interview. We would appreciate hearing your perspective on these important matters. (Waits 45 seconds). Ok, it also seems that the government has ordered a series of arrests and releases on specific groups of Baha’is around the country, demanded large bonds for their release, and ransacked their homes while in prison. Some of these people arrested in Tehran and Sanandaj are still in jail. We are sure you are aware that violating human rights in this way is against international law and is a disgrace to your noble Persian heritage. Could you help us understand this behavior?

Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad – (silent)

Iguanajournal – Well, um, maybe one final question. We have obtained these photographs, let’s see, here they are.

Destroying Baha'i cemeteries is quite … provocative. This is a grave human rights violation, and to be honest with you Mr. President, quite cowardly. We know that in recent months, the Iranian authorities have been “carrying out a widespread crackdown on civil society, targeting academics, women's rights activists, students, and journalists.” Although not alone, the Baha’i community is symbolic of your attitude towards fundamental issues of dignity, freedom and honor. Obviously the Baha’is, as well as other groups, represent some sort of threat to your government, but we can’t figure out what that could be as they have consistently obeyed instructions over the years by their supreme body in words similar to the following: “With an illumined conscience, with a world-embracing vision, with no partisan political agenda, and with due regard for law and order, strive for the regeneration of your country. By your deeds and services, attract the hearts of those around you, even win the esteem of your avowed enemies.”

The international community gazes sternly upon your regime, and although the nuclear development issue has dominated headlines, what goes on behind the scenes is even more newsworthy.

If you haven’t anything to say for yourself, then this interview need continue no further.


I’d like to finish this blog extending my most heartfelt love for the Baha’is of Iran, express my awe at their spiritual strength and loyalty, and offer my best wishes that their situation improves soon.



NYT quotes from: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/26/opinion/26dowd.html?hp

All other quotes taken from: http://news.bahai.org/

14 September 2007

Linfen China

This past week I had one of those jaw-dropping, “no way… come on… it can’t be true” experiences. I was randomly browsing the Internet during my lunch hour when I just happened to see a report about the 10 most polluted places in the world. I clicked on it and flipped through some initial pictures and reports until I stopped dead in my tracks. You see, one of these underprivileged places just happens to be the very city I spent a month in last year: Linfen, China.

Racing through my memories gradually brought back images of darkened noon-time skies, masked faces bustling around town and billowing smoke stacks littering the countryside like post-modern trees. I also recall how an American couple residing there spoke of their plans to move to another city, alarmed at their young daughter’s deteriorating health due to the oppresive air pollution.

Little did I know when I was there that the Blacksmith Institute’s initial report (2006) was being prepared. It states that “when asked to comment on the environmental conditions of Linfen, one environmental expert quipped, ‘If you have a grudge against someone, let this guy become a permanent citizen of Linfen! Why? For punishment!’"

It goes on to say that “Living in a town with serious pollution is like living under a death sentence. If the damage does not come from immediate poisoning, then cancers, lung infections and mental retardation are likely outcomes. Often insidious and unseen, and usually in places with deficient and exhausted health systems, pollution is an unacknowledged burden on the poor and marginalized in the developing world. It is a major factor impairing economic growth, and a significant strain on the lives of already impoverished people.” The 2007 report goes even further: “The World Health Organization, in conjunction with the World Bank, estimates that 20 percent of deaths in the developing world are directly attributed to environmental factors from pollution.”

The Blacksmith Institute “attempts to objectively expose sites that have the most extreme effects on human health … to indicate that there are potential remedies for these sites.” Criteria it uses to identify the worst perpetrators are “toxicity and scale of the pollution sources and … the numbers of people at risk.”

Here is a summary of the section about Linfen.

Linfen, China
Potentially affected people:
Type of pollutant:
Fly-ash, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, PM-2.5, PM-10,
sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, arsenic, lead.

Source of pollution:
Automobile and industrial emissions

The Problem:
Province is at the heart of China’s enormous and expanding coal industry, providing about two thirds of the nation’s energy. Within this highly polluted region, Linfen has been identified as one of its most polluted cities with residents claiming that they literally choke on coal dust in the evenings. … [T]he State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has branded Linfen as having the worst air quality in the country.

Rapid development and unequivocal faith in industry has led to the development of hundreds of unregulated coal mines, steel factories and refineries which have not only polluted indiscriminately but have also diverted agricultural water sources. Water is so tightly rationed that even the provincial capital receives water for only a few hours each day.

Health Impacts:
The high levels of pollution are taking a serious toll on the health of Linfen’s inhabitants. Local clinics are seeing growing cases of bronchitis, pneumonia, and lung cancer. The children of Shanxi Province also have high rates of lead poisoning.

A growing number of local deaths in recent years have been linked to these overwhelming pollution levels. Arsenicosis, a disease caused by drinking elevated concentrations of arsenic found in water is at epidemic levels in the area. Chronic exposure to this toxic chemical results in skin lesions, peripheral vascular disease, hypertension, blackfoot disease, and high cancer incidence rates. A study of Shanxi’s well water published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology found the rate of unsafe well water in the province to be at an alarming 52%.

Status of Clean-Up Activity:
By the end of this year, the city of Linfen plans to shut down 160 of 196 of its iron foundries and 57 of 153 of its coal producing plants. Small, highly polluting plants will be replaced with larger, cleaner, more regulated facilities."

One thing is to read these words on a screen, another is to drink that water and breathe that air. I did that for a month but many of the friends I left behind there have done it all of their lives, and continue to do so.

I can’t end this blog on such a note. You see, I had an incredibly beautiful experience there and I’d like to share some of that with those of you who may be thinking “those poor people” right about now.

I spent a month training English teachers at the invitation of a Baha’i inspired NGO that specializes in education for development. I had lived in Chinese culture as an adolescent, but I hadn’t remembered the warmth and brightness of the people that I experienced during this visit. I made a lot of special friends, very astute and sincere people. As you can imagine, I also experienced a lot of culture shock, especially with the toiletless bathrooms and the general absence of children. Aside from these, most of the culture shock I experienced was the good kind that made me reflect on my own culture, and question it.

For example, I never saw any alcohol during my entire visit there, except in a couple of nice restaurants, and even then in very moderate quantities. Scenes of groups of men that “install” themselves on street corners to drink until dawn, man and wife screaming at each other through alcohol-laden lips, crashes on highways littered with bottles and drunkards sleeping in the streets flashed through my mind as I thought of my beloved Ecuador. The extent of human destruction caused by the culture of alcohol here in which people cannot feel any strong emotion, either joy or sadness, without its help cannot be overstated.

Nor did I witness anything resembling the vast and shocking gulf that separates rich from poor as I do here every day. Only in Beijing did I see opulence, and I never saw squalor or misery. No ubiquitous walls separating those who can get in from those who must stay out, no bars on the windows or sick and helpless dogs running the streets. I felt keenly reminded of my hometown in the United States.

Also, I spent a blissful month away from everything processed. No Coke, food-like substances, corn syrup or deep-fried flour and sugar-based junk food. There were a huge variety of meat products, that is for sure, but alongside the most amazing diversity of nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices imaginable. Everybody drinks real tea with every meal.

My friends also told me that, although it has been on the rise lately especially in the cities, there is still a very low level of sexual promiscuity. Discipline, courage, honor and family loyalty still reign among the youth. Learning science and technology is a high priority for youth as well, even in the most rural areas. The streets were clean and well-taken care of. The doctor we visited to cure my friend’s fairly severe cold treated her with such care with ancient herbal remedies that cleansed her whole organism. Ornate architecture, beautiful decorations, colors everywhere.

All of these memories make it harder for me to swallow that this admirable culture flowers under such oppressive air contamination. The current economic growth imperative, increasingly driven by western influence, needs to be rethought to include and celebrate all of the cultural aspects that make these people so unique and wonderful. Otherwise, they will soon clash, and the growth imperative, at least as it is currently conceived and practiced, doesn’t stand to lose.

26 August 2007

Grameen and Spirituality

Yesterday I went to a fair in which women clients of a local Grameen replica bank offered their goods to the public celebrating the bank’s 5th anniversary. Seeing so many women touched by the reenactments of their own home situations in which their men spend most of their earnings on themselves before arriving home, and contrasting that with the beautiful variety of homemade candles, toys, clothes, wedding decorations, jewelry and food that now give them and their children much more dignity, caused a great impact on many of us there.

About 6 months ago now I was elected to the Board of Directors of this Grameen replica bank in a general assembly of a large number of the client-owners. From this vantage point, I can see first hand how over 2000 women benefit from quite a variety of things starting with small loans to initiate and later build up their own micro-business. They also benefit from valuable training in the Grameen methodology. And although they also receive training in basic accounting, customer service and other business related topics, learning to guarantee loans for themselves and other women in their group through nothing but solidarity is what ultimately makes banking with the poor successful.

I became interested in the Grameen methodology through research into complementary or social currencies and later in community banking methods practiced by the Baha’i international community. I am learning a tremendous amount about economic development through “La Cooperativa DeTodas”, and the concrete results generated in many families are undeniably important.

However, there are many essential issues I have been questioning subconsciously that have slowly bubbled over to the forefront of my mind. Hopefully, I can explore them all through this blog and generate discussion with others interested in these topics.

As I ask and look for answers to many new questions about economic development, I find that many older questions are sprouting up anew. Foremost among them are concerns about focusing a development strategy entirely on humanity’s material nature, relegating our spiritual yearnings to the realm of personal, emotional fulfillment. There is of course, nothing wrong with development strategies that aim at generating material prosperity. In fact if a development strategy didn’t have this aim, it would be guilty of the opposite, and equally imbalanced, offence.

The obvious dangers involved in integrating traditional and dogmatic religious concepts into development strategies have distanced most of those interested in creating and increasing prosperity from discussions about the role of spirituality in development. Rightly so, as traditional religious discourse too often only fans differences and generates discord. It is easier to focus on issues we all agree upon, especially when they are also the most visible and cause the most immediate impact.

Giving up this easily on spirituality, and on the human spirit, however leads us to visualize development within a context that equates prosperity with material well-being. It also equates prosperity with properly conceived and functioning public, private and social structures taking socialism as its model, either consciously, or more likely, unconsciously. It has also led us to a tragically flawed economic order that celebrates material comfort of a few at the expense of monumental suffering of the masses of humanity. Simplistic answers to questions about generating prosperity thus generate hasty and ultimately shallow results.

Even though it implies a more complex planning and execution process, the “powers of the human spirit responsible for some of the greatest accomplishments of humanity’s past such as the power of unity, of humble service, of noble deeds, of love, and the power of truth” can be released only when development efforts are “formulated and carried out in the context of an emerging world civilization.” Indeed, this is a great and complex process that needs carry humanity into the next stage of its evolution defined by “a dual cry … heard everywhere rising from the heart of the great masses of humanity … that demands the extension of the fruits of material progress to all peoples and, at the same time, it calls out for the values of spiritual civilization.”

Defining the hallmark of this civilization occurs when universally shared values are elevated to principle. The overriding principle that contextualizes and provides a practical aspect to this effort is the oneness of humankind. A collective life that foments dignity, justice, participation and joy, as exemplified by the harmonious integration of a huge variety of cells in the human body, happens as a “result of a gradual unfoldment of the potentialities of the human spirit,” as these spiritual notions touch the very depths of human motivation. This evolutionary process “will attain a stage of fulfillment when humanity is at last able to undertake the task of laying foundations for a unified and advanced civilization. Progress towards such a goal demands rapid and organic change in the very structure of society, accompanied by an equally profound change in human consciousness.”

This dual transformation process is what I yearn to see in the Cooperativa DeTodas and in each of its participants. In this sense, I feel responsible for sharing this vision with my fellow members of the Board of Directors, especially because I have been asked to re-conceptualize and execute the training process for the bank’s clients and co-owners. I’d like to explore the implications of training within this framework in another blog because it is the spiritual-material context that primarily concerns me here.

*All quotes taken from “Science, Religion and Development”, pages 83 – 86, Dr. Farzam Arbab, FUNDAEC, 2001.

06 February 2007

The Heart of the World

Several thousand year old trees bulldozed to make room for the West Bank wall.
This photo must be the one that says a thousand words. Israel (not necessarily the State, rather the area in and around Israel) is the heart of the world, the most ancient of lands, the Holy Land. Whatever happens there ripples out to all other areas where it is felt and replicated. Whatever happens in other areas is compounded several times in Israel.

This wall indicates failure of the human spirit to shine forth through the dross of selfishness, shortsightedness, conflict and historical manipulation. Living creatures hundreds of years old rooted up to make way for a symbol of separation, can only cause pain. A people full of pain; land full of pain.

It is the Holy Land because it has registered the footprints and revelation of most of the major representatives of our Creator. It is the most important place, it is the place that symbolizes our present and future. If we believe that people can overcome prejudices, that the human spirit reflects openness, nurturing and caring for others and that larger and larger groups of people are awakening to these possibilities, the world must turn its gaze to Israel. If we believe in these things, Israel must be the stage where these possibilities are to be expressed, to be played out.

Meanwhile I vigorously applaud the valiant souls that chained these ancient trees to this wall. Brilliant. May this be a message to the world that spiritual and ecological destruction shall not be tolerated anymore. I hope the wall decomposes before these trees do.

(Photo taken from
Karl's site)