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December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel, Leader of the Velvet Revolution, Dies at 75

None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events.
– Vaclav Havel

In this quote, Vaclav Havel might have been talking as much about his own life as of his Czech countrymen.  Sometimes it seemed his life mimicked one of his absurdist dramas.  Martin Palouš, one of the leaders of what came to be called the Velvet Revolution, characterized Havel’s life thus:  “Havel was the man who was able to stage this miracle play. The sacrifice was to cast himself in the main role.”

Havel was born in 1936, the son of a rich building contractor.  He was denied a good education after the communists seized power in 1948 and stripped the family of its wealth. He became interested in drama and his first job was as a theater stagehand.


Vaclav Havel, playwright

He soon rose to directing and writing plays, most notably The Garden Party, which was his first international success. His career as a playwright ended abruptly, however, with the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Following that event, his works went underground, read only by a small circle of Czechoslovak dissidents. Havel was frequently arrested, harassed, and imprisoned by the police and soon became the most recognizable symbol of resistance to the Communist regime.  In his works, he denounced the absurdities of totalitarian regimes, but also the apathy of a society which never rebelled against its oppressors.  He helped found the Charter 77 movement for democratic change.

velvet-revolutionIn 1989, the citizens of Czechoslovakia woke from their political torpor and in a few short months, overthrew one of Eastern Europe’s most repressive communist regimes.  Havel, who played a leading role in the Velvet Revolution, was elected President of the newly freed country by the Interim Coalition Cabinet.  But, as Reuters reports, his transition to political leadership proved difficult as Czechs’ initial enthusiasm towards free market democracy collided with the reality of economic reforms, questionable business deals, and corrupt politics.

“. . . he struggled to uphold his ideals. Dismayed at the looming breakup of Czechoslovakia, he quit as president in 1992, but soon became leader of the newly created Czech Republic.

Much of his two terms was also cast as a struggle for the soul of democratic reforms against right-wing economist Vaclav Klaus, who eventually replaced Havel as President in 2003.”

Human rights remained a key element of Havel’s political agenda.  He repeatedly angered Chinese communists by hosting the Dalai Lama, and also met Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize on his nomination.

European Fighter for Human Rights has Died – BBC News

While his political idealism was less appreciated by his fellow Czech citizens in the years following the Velvet Revolution, there is no doubt in their collective consciousness that his passion and commitment to ethical leadership provided the inspiration for the country’s transition to democracy.  Havel never wavered in his belief that politics had to have a moral foundation.  As W.L. Webb noted in his obituary, he wanted

. . .to carry the moral clarity and authenticity of the politics of dissidence into the hurly burly of late 20th-century market democracy politics. Nor was this effort directed only at a domestic audience. “Experience of a totalitarian system of the communist type,” he once said, “makes emphatically clear one thing which I hope has universal validity: that the prerequisite for everything political is moral. Politics really should be ethics put into practice … This means taking a moral stand not for practical purposes, in the hope that it will bring political results, but as a matter of principle.”

Since the announcement of Havel’s death, many tributes have been paid by leaders from around the world.  Perhaps the tribute given by President Barack Obama best summed up his life and legacy:

“His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”

The ethical leadership provided by Vaclav Havel can serve as a model for the many countries just emerging from long periods of repressive government like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.

December 15, 2011

Kiva & the Micro-Lending Revolution – Too Small to Fail

Today there is a lot of press about the banking crisis.  The headlines blast us with news about bad loans, the need for bank bailouts and now the threat of junk sovereign debt.  All of this has made most banks skittish about making loans.


Muhammad Yunus

One form of financial assistance that is flourishing, however, is micro-lending.   In micro-lending, loans, very small loans by traditional banking standards, are made to individuals who are too poor to appear on the radar of any financial institution.  Micro-lending has become very popular as a way for individuals to make small loans that go a long way in helping the poor establish or expand a business that will lift them out of poverty.  One of the pioneers of micro-lending was Muhammad Yunus who won a Nobel prize for his pioneering work in making loans available to the desperately poor through his micro-finance institution, Grameen Bank.  The bank estimates its micro-loans have helped over 8 million of the world’s poorest citizens become more financially self-sufficient.

The Internet has made it possible to easily connect micro-lenders with small borrowers.  Consider Kiva, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty.  The Kiva operating model is simple:

  1. Let’s say you want to lend money to one of Kiva’s entrepreneurs.  You open an account and then can make loans as small as $25.
  2. Kiva’s field partners (micro-finance institutions in areas where loans are made) vet the entrepreneurs and administer the loans.
  3. Kiva provides progress updates via e-mail.
  4. When the loan is repaid the money is once again yours to either withdraw or use to make another loan.

Video Explaining How the Kiva Micro-lending Model Works

Each loan has its own page on the Kiva website.  The page has a description of the entrepreneur, the amount of money to be raised, the repayment schedule, a list of contributing lenders and information about the partner administering the loan, including other loans that partner has supervised.


Kiva founders Matt Flannery & Jessica Jackleys

Since it was started by Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackleys in 2004, Kiva has built up an impressive set of stats:

  • Total value of all loans made through Kiva: $264,818,925
  • Number of Kiva Users (those who have opened an account to make loans): 1,035,157
  • Number of Kiva Users who have actually funded a loan: 651,686
  • Number of countries represented by Kiva Lenders: 217
  • Number of entrepreneurs that have received a loan through Kiva: 692,882
  • Number of loans that have been funded through Kiva: 349,124
  • Percentage of Kiva loans which have been made to women entrepreneurs: 80.52%
  • Number of Kiva Field Partners (micro-finance institutions Kiva partners with): 146
  • Number of countries Kiva Field Partners are located in: 61
  • Current repayment rate (all partners): 98.96%
  • Average loan size (This is the average amount loaned to an individual Kiva Entrepreneur. Some loans – group loans – are divided between a group of borrowers.): $385.41
  • Average total amount loaned per Kiva Lender (includes reloaned funds): $256.61
  • Average number of loans per Kiva Lender: 7.78

And perhaps best of all in this era of oversized executive bonuses, Kiva distributes 100% of the loan funds it collects to its entrepreneurs.  The non-profit uses a combination of fundraising and grants to pay for its operational overhead.

As with any financial endeavor, there are risks for the lender.  For example, the loan may not be repaid.  Or the field partner could engage in fraud.  Or the countries where the loan is made might go through political or social upheaval.  But Kiva’s 98.96% overall loan repayment rate is a number most large banks can only dream about.

Micro-lending represents a powerful, sustainable method for people to help other people move out of poverty.  And taxpayers needn’t fear that they will ever have to bail out the micro-lenders.


December 6, 2011

Occupy Wall Street – Now in Your Hometown

john-zogbyIn 2008, John Zogby, CEO of Zogby International and renowned pollster, wrote a book called The Way We’ll Be, in which he talks about the transformation of the American Dream.  In the book, he discusses how his polling data identifies two groups that symbolize our changed attitudes toward the American Dream:  he calls them First Globals and the Secular Spiritualists.

The first group is made up of individuals ages 18-29.  He characterizes First Globals thus:

They have passports and have traveled abroad. They are the least likely to say that American culture is superior to other cultures of the world, and they are by far the most likely of any age cohort to call themselves “citizens of the planet Earth.”

They are multicultural (in 20 years America will look like Barack Obama, they say) and 40% say they expect (not hope or wish, but expect) to live and work in a foreign capital in their lives. They are revolutionizing the worlds of work, philanthropy, relationships, governing, and music.

first-globalsThe second group, the Secular Spiritualists, is made up primarily of Baby Boomers.  After decades of corporate downsizing, re-engineering and now, financial meltdown, the individuals in this category are shunning the material American Dream.   They have decided to reorder their priorities away from things and rejected the notion that he who dies with the most toys wins.  Instead, for Secular Spiritualists, life is about being genuine, about achieving a legacy larger than one’s self, about leaving this earth a better place for family, community, and planet.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has now united these two groups as they each face an uncertain future.  The movement was born out of quintessential human emotions–fear, frustration, and loss of control over one’s own life. It is unique because the usual expression of those emotions is aggression, but the “Occupy” groups are decidedly non-violent.  Its call for us to honor our heritage and reclaim control over our destiny as a nation has resonated deeply with many Americans.

Occupy Wall Street movementThe story of a friend of mine, Clement, demonstrates the deeper social shift that Occupy Wall Street represents.  Born the seventh son of a coal miner and his wife in rural Ohio, Clement elected to escape the life of the “working poor” by joining the Air  Force.  He did not want to make the Air Force his life, but neither did he want to return to his rural roots.  Clement settled in the mid-Atlantic and landed a job as a technician for a large chemical company where he worked until retiring a few years ago.   He settled into a life that was mostly video games, TV, golf and occasional trips to Las Vegas to play poker.  Many of his friends along with family members assumed this would be the end of the story.

But after a time, Clement fell into a prolonged depression.  Therapy and medications helped to a point, but there was still an awareness of unresolved need in Clement.  Along with his wife, he began to take some exploratory steps.  They started as a “holiday bell ringers” for the Salvation Army, and then joined a dedicated group who collects, cooks, and serves food to the homeless every week.  Clement found his interest in giving back expanding and this year he committed to a course of study so that he could qualify as a volunteer contributing a vital social service for which there is no longer a budget.  Today he volunteers regularly at a center to help abused women handle the burdensome paperwork that allows them to receive government aid and protection for themselves and their children.  His life now has a foundation of purpose and intention that was submerged before.

You won’t see Clement in the Occupy marches, but his resolve to change his community for the better symbolizes the desire of so many to escape the sterile consumerism and profit over people mindset that has hollowed out the best aspirations of our nation and sparked the Occupy movement.  And in that respect, Occupy Wall Street is now in every town.

November 27, 2011

Back to the Future – Return of the Extended Family Household

The US housing market is still moribund.  New single family home sales were only 323,000 last year, the lowest since records began being kept by the Commerce Department.  On top of that, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reports that 2010 household formations, at about 981,000, were still significantly below the 2004 high of 1.48 million.   Both numbers represent troubling news for home builders.

However, according to a recent article in BusinessWeek, some builders may have found a profitable new niche in an otherwise bleak market – the multi-generational home.  These are residences that cater to families where multiple generations are living under one roof.  Pulte, the nation’s largest builder by revenue, is offering new homes with stand-alone smaller units or the option of converting garages to “casitas,” the Spanish word for small houses. Other Pulte features to accommodate extended families include ground-floor master bedrooms for elderly family members who can’t climb stairs.

multi-generational livingThe reason builders see this as a new opportunity is evident from the numbers in a recent study by the Pew Research Center, The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household.  Multi-generational living arrangements were common up until the 1950’s, then declined.  Since the 1980’s, however, such households have grown steadily, and in 2010 it is estimated that 51 million American households (16.7% of total households) were in this category.

The economic and social factors cited in the Pew study are informative:

  • Both men and women are marrying at a later age, 28 and 26, respectively.  This is about 5 years later than in 1970.  For these 20-somethings, home may be the best living situation in a down economy where it is difficult to find a job or  launch a career.
  • Immigration also is a big factor.  First- and second-generation immigrants are the most likely to live with extended families.
  • The Great Recession, in particular, has hastened the return of  the extended family.  Adult children may need to move back in with their parents for economic reasons.
  • Older family members are moving in with their Baby Boomer children due to ill health, widowhood or financial necessity (e.g., declining health coverage due to cutbacks in Medicare programs).

These trends illustrate the shifting context in which the American dream is played out.  The extended family residence is just one more way that Americans are dealing with the Great Recession.  Whatever the economic and social fallout from this new family togetherness, the builders will happily oblige by filling our need with the latest version of the mother-in-law apartment.


November 25, 2011

The Penn State Scandal – An Ethical Meltdown

There are many dimensions to leadership. One of those is an ethical dimension, which often remains unacknowledged until circumstances conspire to bring it into full public view. Consider the Penn State sex abuse scandal which exploded into our national consciousness on November 5, 2011.  It is instructive because it shows how, within an institutional setting, ethical lapses can cascade, wreaking destruction like the waves of a tsunami tearing through a coastal city.


Jerry Sandusky

Like so many stories of child abuse, the Penn State scandal has a long timeline.  The alleged abuse of young boys by former football Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky began in 1994 and continued at least until 2008.  After numerous complaints over a ten year period, investigations into Sandusky’s behavior began in November, 2008, and resulted in a Grand Jury report which led to his arrest on November 5, 2011.

Sandusky, 67, coached at Penn State for more than 30 years. From 1977 until his retirement last year, Sandusky had also run a foster home in State College, Pa., for troubled children called The Second Mile.  Sandusky founded the organization in 1977 as a group home for troubled boys, accepting children who would benefit from positive human interaction. The charity has expanded into a statewide charity with eight chapters across Pennsylvania.  Many of Sandusky’s alleged victims were boys from The Second Mile.

The buildup to Sandusky’s ultimate arrest may have been slow, but the consequences following the release of the Grand Jury report have been swift and stunning to those who were unaware of what had been taking place over the years.


Joe Paterno

In the space of a few weeks, Joe Paterno, a college football legend with more wins than any other coach in history, was fired.  Tim Curley, the university’s Athletic Director resigned and was charged with perjury and failing to report suspected abuse.  Gary Schultz, VP for Business and Finance resigned and was indicted for perjury and failure to report suspected abuse.  Graham Spanier, President of the university was fired along with Paterno by the university’s Board of Trustees. And Jack Raykovitz, CEO of The Second Mile, was forced to resign leaving the future of the charity in doubt.

As in many such cases, there were opportunities to stop the abuse early on, but in each instance, allegations were not referred to the police.  Instead, those responsible for handling the matter chose to conduct internal inquiries.  This leaves a strong impression that the need to protect the victims was a lower priority than the desire to protect the institutions where the abuse took place.  In the fallout that has already occurred and will continue for years to come, the institutions have been irreparably damaged.

All the individuals involved in the scandal claimed they were doing the appropriate thing,  but in each case there was an ethical lapse.  Joe Paterno’s case is instructive.  He is easily the highest profile figure in the scandal, and came under intense pressure for his alleged primary role in the abuse scandal. He was reportedly the first to know about the alleged abuse.  As Time correspondent Nick Carbone noted in a recent article:

Paterno hasn’t been charged, and the Grand Jury investigation notes that Paterno appropriately reported the abuse to a higher level, alerting Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley about the incident. “Joe Paterno was a witness who cooperated and testified before the Grand Jury,” said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office. “He’s not a suspect.” Pennsylvania state Police Commissioner Frank Noonan also said that Paterno fulfilled his legal requirement to report the matter upon referring it to Curley.

But meeting the legal requirement is not enough in such situations; there is a more demanding moral and ethical requirement to which we are held in such cases.  Meeting the legal requirement is insufficient.  It is equivalent to standing by while the wrongdoing continues.

There is a lesson from the Penn State scandal for administrators, executives, and others in positions of responsibility who face similar situations.  Looking the other way or passing the buck are not acceptable options.  The human drive for justice and the righting of wrongs is ultimately more powerful than the money, prestige or influence of any institution or the bonds of longtime personal allegiances.


November 21, 2011

Mystik Sounds – Hip Hop Tries a New Rap

Hip-hop has a bad reputation when it comes to its portrayal of women.  Groups and record labels have been criticized for songs with lyrics about gender-based violence and videos which show women in a negative manner.  But Mystik 703, a popular Haitian hip-hop group from Kafou, is trying to change that.

Mystik 703Founded in 1999 by K.libr’, Ouragan and Ded Kra-Z the group was initially called Soldiers and recorded an album that never got released. After many frustrations with the label, they changed the name to Mystik 703 and spent the next few years performing shows and winning many competitions in Haiti. In 2005 they started working on their first album under the new name. The trio released their debut album Nou Nan Lakou a in November 2008. In the summer of 2009, they officially added eUd (with whom they had collaborated on recordings and shows) as the 4th member of the group. With eUd on board, the group started preparing D-C-Ni (pronounced Decennie), which they finally released in November, 2009.

Recently, Mystik 703 partnered with global humanitarian organization International Medical Corps in a campaign to end violence against women.  Dedkra-Z talked about the band’s reasons for joining in the campaign:

“We all know that violence against women has drastically increased since the earthquake.  When International Medical Corps approached us about making this song, we all agreed that it was a great opportunity to give the fight to end violence against women a stronger voice in Haiti.”

Their newly released song, Pa Fè Yo Abi (which means “Women, Symbol of Life”), is inspired by the women of Haiti and seeks to create awareness, particularly among the country’s youth, that violence against women cannot be tolerated.  The campaign began with a concert in Jacmel, in southern Haiti. The song is getting plenty of airplay on Haitian radio stations, and now they are distributing the song so that it can be shared widely throughout the country.

Mystic 703: Pa fè yo abi

The band counts Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur and the Fugees among its influences.  The success of Mystik 703, with this its positive message, could encourage other hip-hop artists to follow suit.