Monday, March 2, 2015

Independent study paper

This summer I will conduct civic research through Foundation for Sustainable Development in Cochabamba, Bolivia for nine weeks. In Bolivia, I will work with CADEPIA (Chamber of Small Business and Artisanship) to study microenterprise development in the area. I will work in the organization’s Marketing Program, which aims to find new markets for clients’ products, negotiate with wholesale buyers, and assist with exportation. Part of my project will be conducting a market analysis to provide local entrepreneurs with information necessary for starting successful businesses. I am excited to fully develop my research objectives once I arrive in Cochabamba. In this post, I will go more in depth about my research in Bolivia this summer. 


Background & Analysis
Country Specific
While in recent years Bolivia has been one of the fastest growing countries in South America, it has historically been a country plagued with many difficulties, economic and political. Bolivia’s per capita GDP, $4900, is the lowest in South America, and there is a huge wealth disparity between the rich and poor of the country. I hope to design my microenterprise research to analyze this disparity more closely.
Bolivia’s current president is Evo Morales, and he has served in this position for over 10 years. The country has traditionally been known for short-term presidencies, coups, and political unrest, so the stability of the Morales regime is a welcome change. Morales is also distinct because he is the first Bolivian president of native descent. Bolivia has the highest population of native peoples in South America, so the election of Morales is a victory for these people who have traditionally been oppressed and underrepresented in government. In Cochabamba, the region in which I will be working, the majority population is native. Therefore it will be important for me to understand these social and class dynamics before conducting my research.
            One of the most prominent events in Bolivian history is the “Water Wars” of 2001. The “Water Wars” happened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when an American firm privatized the water industry and caused water prices to surge. Citizens took to the streets in opposition, starting the largest protests in Bolivian history. The protesters were angry not just because of the high prices, but also because of the foreign domination that this event symbolized. The American company eventually left, and water prices returned to regular rates. However, the suspicion against foreign influence still remains. This sentiment is something I will have to be cognizant and cautious of during my service.
In modern times, the most significant development in Bolivia is the growth of its natural gas industry. Export revenues from natural gas have pushed Bolivia into having the fastest growing GDP in South America. However, Bolivia still struggles from a lack of sufficient infrastructure to fully grow its gas industry. The country is currently dependent on foreign investment to fund this crucial infrastructure. Additionally, because the price of oil and gas fluctuate so widely, a gas-dependent economy is somewhat controversial and creates political heat for Morales. While Cochabamba isn’t too involved in Bolivia’s gas industry, I hope to address in my research if the growth in export revenues has in any way improved the lives of the people of Cochabamba.
Issue Specific
The issue that my research will explore is microenterprise development. Microenterprises, “mom and pop” businesses of ten or fewer employees, are huge in Cochabamba. In 2001, over half of economically active Cochalas worked for microenterprises. Fencing production is an example of common microenterprise in the region; the province has over 22,000 fencing businesses.
Microenterprises are prominent stepping stones for low-income people in Latin America to generate stable income and savings. Therefore their successful development is crucial in regional economic development for places such as Cochabamba. A common impediment to starting a microenterprise is a lack of funds to cover the startup costs. Bolivia, however, has been ranked top five in the world for expanding access to financial services (such as loans) for underserved populations. This makes the path to microenterprise development much more accessible in Cochabamba. Despite these positive assets to the microenterprise sector of Cochabamba, there are several aspects of these industries that could be approved upon.
One category in which the industry is lacking is the preparation of business owners for developing microenterprises. Studies have shown that micro entrepreneurs often lack access to services such as marketing, training in formal business skills, and technology transfer. Increasing accessibility to programs that teach these skills could be a way to improve the livelihoods of Cochabambans. A potential research project in relation to this category would be to study if there was a demand for these types of programs, and if so, how best to make these programs accessible.
Other impediments to microenterprises are more institutional. This is when local policies or institutions create complications for starting businesses. For example, despite Bolivia’s growing access, less than 5 percent of Latin American microentrpreneurs have access to formal financial services such as banks to make deposits. Furthermore, business regulations, tax regimes, and licensing requirements can make it even more difficult for microentrpreneurs to expand and develop their businesses. Research in this category would be more policy related and address what legislation could be created to make financial conditions in Cochabamba more conducive to microenterprise growth.
Microenterprises can also faces struggles that are more market based. For example, researchers studying a village in India found that a common problem microenterprises there faced was a “heavy reliance on local markets for procuring inputs and selling outputs.” This made products less competitive and generated less-than-optimal revenues for business. I could conduct a similar study in Cochabamba and analyze what market-related factors keep microentrpreneurs from reaching profit maximizing revenues or outputs.
Evidently, there are several different approaches to analyzing microenterprises. Choosing which of these categories to carry out my research will be difficult, but the organization I will be working for, CADEPIA, will be a huge help in making my decision. .
Breaking News
Country Specific
Currently, the biggest breaking news item in Bolivia is the collapse of a bridge connecting Cochabamba to Santa Cruz. The bridge passed over a small river whose currents were especially strong due to heavy rains and flooding. The force of the currents caused the supporting pillars of the bridge to break, leading to the collapse of the whole bridge. A bus was driving on the bridge when it collapsed, but firefighters were able to rescue all the passengers who fell into the water below. Locals claim that the bridge collapsed due to poor maintenance from the government.
            This story exemplifies the country’s significant and wide-spread infrastructure problems. Bolivia is known for dangerous roads and bridges, and travel within the country can be very unsafe. Even though the government recently commissioned the construction of several new highways connecting major cities, little has been done to repair existing roads and bridges. Infrastructure is also an issue when it comes to building pipelines and facilities for the country’s growing oil and gas industries. For both safety and economic reasons, Bolivia greatly needs new infrastrucutre.
            Another prominent story in the news is that Bolivia has started negotiations with Uruguay to gain access to one of its ports on the Atlantic Ocean. Bolivia wants this port through to lower its dependence on Chile, the only country through which it currently has ocean access. Having this additional port would allow Bolivia to export more goods. Uruguay and Bolivia do not, however, share a border, so in order to get its goods to the port, Bolivia would have to cross through part of Argentina, Brazil, or Paraguay. Bolivia used to have its own coastline before losing it to Chile in the War of the Pacific in 1883. Bolivia and Chile today have a contract that gives Bolivia special access to certain ports, but Bolivia claims that Chile repeatedly violates its contract and does not provide fair use.
            Bolivia’s attempt to gain this additional port reflects the overarching national priority of reducing dependence on foreign countries. A trend of the Morales’ presidency has been forging new relations with world leaders to diversify Bolivia’s interests and reduce monopolized influences of the past. By having two ports instead of one, Chile no longer has sole power over Bolivia’s export industry. These events are huge leaps forward for Bolivia, a country that has traditionally been exploited by foreign powers.
Issue Specific
A significant current event related to the economy is Bolivia’s recent agreement with the United States to support the efforts of the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency. In 2008, Morales broke relations with the DEA in an effort to win votes from constituents in the coca-growing parts of the country. This resulted in Bolivia losing preferential trade status and lead to a reduction in exports to the United States. Today, however, Morales has consolidated his power, so he no longer needs to support coca to win votes. Therefore he can now work with the DEA to reduce cocaine production and gain the benefits of being a preferential trade partner.
            This development with the DEA is significant to microenterprise development because microenterprises are a prominent alternative employment for those who leave the cocaine industry. Therefore the decrease in the production of coca would mean a surge in microenterprise development. Furthermore, increased exports to the United States could potentially stimulate demand for goods produced by local business. Improved relations with the United States could also lead to more foreign investment that would bring infrastructure improvements that local businesses could use to transport inputs and outputs. Bolivia working with the DEA is a positive advancement for local small businesses.
             Another economically related piece of breaking news is that the COB, Bolivia’s workers union, have gathered to demand rights for workers in various Bolivian industries. The COB said that they would like to meet with Morales, and they came with a list of demands including a raise in minimum wage. They also inquired about the creation of a “Social Commission” which was promised to them during their last meeting. The commission would be responsible for monitoring workers’ access to health, education, and other benefits.
            Workers’ rights are significant to microenterprise development for several reasons. First, if workers have lower wages, they will have less disposable income to spend on goods produced by microenterprises. Second, if wages in the industrial sector fall below a certain level, people will begin to leave the industrial sector and turn to microenterprise to make a living. Both these trends would create an interesting dynamic for microenterprise in Cochabamba, so the progress of the workers’ rights movement is something that should be closely monitored.
Local Faculty/Community Connection
I spoke with Dr. Eric O. Fisher, guest lecturer in the economics department, about my project in Cochabamba. Although he didn’t know very much about Bolivia itself, he spent a year in the Peace Corps in Morocco so he knows a lot about foreign service. Additionally, he teaches a class on international trade, so he has a lot of insight into international and developmental economics.
            The first thing Dr. Fisher told me was some advice on service ethics. He told me that the people of Cochabamba are going to teach me a lot more than I will teach them. This is a very important point to remember during a research project. Research attempts to gather and analyze knowledge, but it easy to overlook the local knowledge and non-traditional sources of knowledge when you are in the field. Dr. Fisher also gave me advice on the economics side of the project. He gave me several ideas on potential research questions based on studies done in places like India. He ran me through a few hypothetical situations and got me to start thinking about what it will be like to actually be researching in-country. He also pointed me toward a few textbooks on microfinance and books on Bolivia. It will be easy to integrate this information from Dr. Fisher into my project, and talking with him really helped me start planning my research project.
            The community organization I spoke with is MoneyThink, a national organization whose aim is to increase personal finance and financial literacy skills in low income students. MoneyThink goes into schools and gives lectures and workshops to help kids think about personal finance and making budgets for when they get their first jobs and paychecks.  While the research I will be doing in Cochabamba isn’t about personal finance, the work that MoneyThink does is the closest equivalent project in the United States. Starting small businesses is a very different process in the United States, and most people who do so have formal training in business or easy access to information on how to run a business. Conversely, many students in the United States have lack knowledge of personal finance, so MoneyThink is a good alternative way to continue my service.
The Houston branch of MoneyThink is led by a Rice University student, and he told me there were a lot of ways to get involved such as being a student mentor. Mentors go into schools and do activities with the kids such as budgeting and talking about savings. After coming back from Cochabamba I could become a student mentor and continue to combine service and economics in a way that is relevant to the United States.
Reflection
I wanted to do civic research in Bolivia because I’ve always been interested in developmental economics and international service. I was born in Sri Lanka and I lived there for six years, and whenever I go back to visit I am always interested in seeing how businesses there develop and how these business contribute to quality of life. I wanted to explore this topic more in the frame of Bolivia. I chose Bolivia because it’s a beautiful country and I thought it would be a great place to solidify my Spanish skills. My friends who are Bolivian or who have lived in Bolivia told me that it is an absolutely wonderful place and that I would really enjoy living there for the summer.
Some questions that I was not able to address in this paper are more data and statistically related. Information on specific figures about the economy and industry in Cochabamba are difficult to find, but it would be nice to have more exact figures before jumping into the research. CADEPIA, the organization I will be working for, probably has some solid numbers in their records that I can access once I am in-country.
Some further topics I would like to explore in Cochabamba are the recent fracking and anti-fracking movements in Bolivia. The country’s oil and gas supplies are getting low, so some want to turn to shale fracking to access more resources. However, there is a fast growing opposition movement, especially from indigenous people and environmentalists. I hope to learn more about these sentiments while I’m in Cochabamba, but I think these energy policies are beyond the scope of my research. I would also like to look more into the macroeconomic health of Bolivia  such as its currency, inflation, and GDP growth. Its recent economic success could make it a very educational case study. I’m sure these macroeconomic elements will come into play during my project and I will have plenty of opportunities to research and discuss them.

Appendix
(2014, November 6). Five Latin American Countries among Top Ten with Best Environment for Financial Inclusion. Inter-American Development Bank. Retrieved from http://www.iadb.org/en/news/news-releases/2014-11-06/global-microscope-2014-environment-financial-inclusion,10975.html.
(2011). Leasing the Rain. PBS Frontline World. Retrieve from http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/bolivia/thestory.html.
(2011). Economy. FEICOBOL: Fundacion para la Feria International de Cochabamba. Retrieved from http://www.feicobol.com.bo/economy.
Rodriquez-Garcia, Rosalia. (2001). Microenterprise Development for Better Health Outcomes. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books.
Sirinivas, Hari. (n.d.). What is a Microenterprise? Global Development Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.gdrc.org/icm/micro/what-is.html
Kingman, Chrstina and Carol Newman. (2015, January). Social capital, political connections, and household enterprises. World Institute for Development Economics Research. Retrieved from ISSN 1798-7237.

Smith, Isaac H. and Kristina Seawright. (2014, Novemeber 6). Social Innovation Through Development Franchising: Compensating for a Lack of Entrepreneurial Expertise and Connecting to Formal Supply Chains. The Business of Social and Environmental Innovation, 49-52. Retrieved from ISBN 978-3-319-04050-9.
Tobar Pesantez, Luis. (2015). Competitive Analysis of Small and Medium Enterprises in Ecuador. Revista International Administración & Finanzas, 8 (3), 79-92. Abstract retrieved from ISSN 2157-3182.
(2015, February 15). U.S., Bolivia: The Pieces Are in Place for Improved Relations. Statfor Global Intelligence. Retrieved from https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/us-bolivia-pieces-are-place-improved-relations.
(2015, February 28). Floods bring bride down in Bolivia. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/bolivia/11441947/Floods-bring-bridge-down-in-Bolivia.html.
(2015, February 26). Uruguay Signs Deal with Bolivia Granting It Access to the Sea. TeleSUR. Retrieved from http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Uruguay-Signs-Deal-with-Bolivia-Granting-It-Access-to-the-Sea-20150226-0014.html.
Rocha, Jose. (2015, February 25.) COB quiere reunión directa con el Presidente. Los Tiempos. http://www.lostiempos.com/diario/actualidad/economia/20150225/cob-quiere-reunion-directa-con-el-presidente_292402_645102.html.



Thursday, February 26, 2015

SMART goals

The three main "SMART" goals I want to achieve for Loewenstern revolve around the same thing: asking questions. Asking questions applies to my pre-service goals, in-country research goals, and my language and culture goals. Asking questions is hard for me because it requires being vulnerable and letting people know that I don't understand something. But because I'm going to a country I've never been to and doing a project I've never done before, its pretty obvious that there's going to be a lot of things that I don't understand. So in order to actually conduct a successful research project and be a respectful and courteous outsider, I have to make it a goal and force myself to ask questions. Here's how asking questions fits into each one of my SMART goals.

Pre-service: ask professors, ask books, ask the community
Because the Loewenstern I'm doing is community research, there is a lot of pre-trip reading and learning I have to do before hand. It is essentially the literature review part of the research process before I go into the community and figure out a research question. But I have never conducted an independent research project before so I need to ask a lot of people a lot of questions. I've already begun talking to some professors, and they have been extremely helpful in recommending books and articles to read. My pre-trip SMART goal is to keep this process going.
  • Specific: My specific goal is to meet with at least two professors to formally go over my research plans and get their advice on community based research- despite its differences from purely academic research. 
  • Maintainable: This goal is maintainable for the next few months that I'm on campus because I will be surrounded by professors.
  • Attainable: There are several economics professors who I know well, so it is definitely possible for me to meet with them.
  • Relevant: My project will be researching microfinance, so having the input from economics professors will be very relevant to what I will be working on.  
  • Timely: I have about two months until the semester ends, so that is a strict deadline.
In-country: ask the community, ask the organization
FSD's research program is relatively new, so when I get to Bolivia, the organization I'll be working for could have some gray area for what exactly they want me to do. While the community assets will determine the project, I will still need to make decisions on how the project is carried out and what tools and methods I can use. So I will have to keep checking in with the organization to make sure that we are on the same page and I am fulfilling their expectations.
  • Specific: My specific goal is to check in with my organization's leadership at least once a week to catch them up on what I am doing and ask them for feedback.
  • Maintainable: When I get busy, it will be temping to skip the weekly check-in, but I will have to be sure that I stick to regular meetings throughout the summer.
  • Attainable: After I overcome my initials fears of asking questions, it should be attainable to schedule a weekly meeting.
  • Relevant: My time in country is so limited, so I dont want to waste a single day that I have there. These weekly question and answer sessions will make sure that what I am working on is relevant and useful to the community.
  • Timely: Once a week, maybe Mondays, sounds like a good time frame to achieve this goal.
Language and culture: repita por favor
I'm pretty comfortable with Spanish, especially once I settle into it for a few days. But there will still definitely be cultural and language barriers when I get to Bolivia. (When I was talking to FSD, they mentioned a siesta-type midday break, and I am getting nervous for it because I'm not used to just dropping what I'm doing and taking a break midday.) I will certainly be asking a lot of people to speak a little slower and re-explain jokes and references to me. It will be an experience but I think overcoming the barriers instead of retreating into friendships with other Americans in-country will be worth it.
  • Specific: If I'm lost in a conversation, ask for clarification instead of laughing along and pretending I understand.
  • Maintainable: I'm sure this situation will come up many times so it will be maintaible. I think this is the only goal that will be easier to complete as the summer goes on because I will be more comfortable with asking for clarification
  • Attainable: I will have to overcome a lot of shyness (and pride) but I think I will be able to do it  if I started with just my host family and then moved toward coworkers and strangers
  • Relevant: Knowing the culture and language is a big part of my reason to come to Bolivia, so this goal is definitely relevant. Being more adjusted will also help with the research project when it comes to interviewing and communicating with business owners.
  • Timely: This one is a little harder to make a timeline for, but I can make it timely by setting benchmarks. For example, the first week I can require myself to ask for clarification at least 2 times a day. For the second week, I can require it for at least 3 times a day. And so forth until every marginal week I need less clarification.
I believe that these three smart goals will help me be a more effective and useful researcher and help me feel at home in Bolivia. Asking questions- and setting goals for asking questions- is definitely the best way to learn and grow! 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thoughts on international service

At this point we've known about our acceptance to the Loewenstern Fellowship for several months, but we haven't found out very much about what exactly our projects will be in country. So I was very excited for this week's training with FSD, a major partner organization that many of the students in the program (including me) will be working with this summer. The representatives from the organization were kind and experienced and taught us a lot about international service, but, disappointingly, they did not answer the number one question in most of our heads: what in the world am I actually going to be doing this summer?

Now that I think over everything we learned during training, I realize that that's okay for now. By not answering that big question, FSD reminded me of the most important factor of international service: everything is about the community. I learned that I have to go to Bolivia with no clear picture of my project because I don't yet have a clear picture of the community. No matter what project I craft in the comfort of my home, it's worthless if it's not what the community needs. 

And this is the the key to ethical international service.

International service is only beneficial to the community when the volunteer puts the community's interests above his or her own. This may seem like an obvious concept- I mean, you're going to this place to help...right? But what is "helping" really? 

Flying into a country and building a house or designing a business plan or organizing a human rights rally may be helpful to a community, but it may not be the help the community actually wants. During the FSD training we learned some valuable methods on how to piece together what exactly the community wants. It requires asking lots of people lots questions and gathering information without placing value judgements. Several weeks of your trip should be spent just figuring out your project. But this begs the question: "So if you have to look so hard for a project, then are you even needed there?"

I think the answer to this is that you have to spend time to properly  match your skills with the needs/assets of the community. You may have a lot of skills. And the community may have a lot of wants. But matching, those skills to those wants is a lengthy process. It's like one of those kids toys:


The community is like the sphere with all the openings. If you're a the hexagon piece, you're not going to fit in the triangle cut-out. You have to search around and find the hexagon cut-out before you can fit in. And just because you have to look for the cut-out, doesnt mean it doesnt exist. Similarly, in international service, you have to thoroughly understand and analyze the community before you find where your skills belong. Once you have gained an understanding, only then can you figure out how the skills that you have can complement the needs/assets that the community has.

This way of thinkings requires being uncertain and confused and uncomfortable for the months preceding your trip. You have to come to terms with the fact that you won't know your project until you get to the community. Once you get there and know your project, well.... I guess I'll learn more about that in the next few weeks.