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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.