Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Microfinance. Beyond empty slogans?

Saw this banner ad on Parul's blog and clicked lazily. Was surprised to see something that looked worthwhile, for a change. Kiva appears to be an organization that helps online lenders provide small (or big) loans to poor entrepreneurs. These are semi-skilled people who will not get loans from traditional institutions (that are too busy paying hefty bonuses to care). All they need is a few dollars and some basic hand-holding to cross the bridge between destitution and dignity. Kiva does not guarantee that the money will be repaid but they do have a system to track the repayment. If you wish, the money can be re-lent or donated to Kiva for covering their opex. Click here for more

The reason I post about this is two-fold. One is that I found the simplicity of the idea marvelous. All you need to do is browse through profiles (just like say, on Facebook) and click a button to lend measly amounts starting from $25 to an entrepreneur you like. A progress meter shows how much the entrepreneur needs and how far they have succeeded. Often the principal required is as low as $500!

Considering how we end up spending $50 on just a weekend outing to the movies, imagine how the same "disposable" money could fuel the engine of growth for a poor family! Kiva, and others like them, are part of a humbling and direct effort.

The other reason I decided to express this post is that I am not sure how real this organization is. I only found this through a banner ad. On the Internet, how does one know whether the people behind the style-sheets are genuine, worthy individuals or merely scamsters out to squeeze the emotions (and dollars) from a blog-loving public? Look at the Fake Mommy fiasco, that fooled a lot of people for a lot of time.

Then, how does one validate that those stories of need and enterprise are true, that the money will reach them and that they will use that money productively? Skeptics wonder the same about established, non-transparent organizations like Cry and Concern as well. However, I was drawn to the simplicity and power of the change that microfinance seems to promise. "Garibi Hatao" with an agenda, not just with slogans.

I hesitate only because the Internet that makes things so simple, also obfuscates the truth.

Is there a way to ensure good intentions come with KPIs? Does it help to have other websites like this one tracking the myriad microfinance sites? Or is it even worth thinking so much about it? After all, when it comes to spending that same $50 on first day show of some new YashRaj Films trash, we prefer to leap before we look, don't we?

Monday, June 22, 2009

The "All Dressed Up But Nowhere To Go" Look

I just couldn't get this picture from today's edition of Deccan Herald out of my head. The article was about a new "Breathe Fresh" campaign led by homemakers in Bangalore. Read more about it here

What captured me about the accompanying photo was not just the fact that they cropped the lady they were talking about. That part was funny! Notice the posse of auto-rickshaw drivers she is addressing? The way they stand, their doped eyes, the aggressive hand-postures, the leery expression... why, the Great Wall of Incomprehension that seems to separates them from her! No?

To experience one such look, when one is desperately seeking a ride home, is excrutiating. This frame full of those faces felt no less than gang-rape.

Anyone that has faced the misfortune of being at the mercy of auto-rickshaws in Bangalore will recognize that "i'm only here for a joyride" look. Whether at a lazy 3PM or anxious post-movie midnight, no logic drives the Bangalore auto-guy's refusal to ply. Whether one is pregnant, disabled, elderly or soaked, neither money nor pleading can move that inert soul slumped over a rickety handle-bar. In many cases, they grimace as if you just revealed your address as "39, Hell Street", before put-putting away... 300 metres to the next sideways nod. Sometimes it looks like they roam the streets only to score the highest Nos.

When one does agree to go, the meter is rigged (often, by just a rupee per KM). That translates into about Rs.50 extra for a cross-city return-trip. If caught, the robin-hood excuse is: "What saar, you are IT. So much you are earning. What is one rupee extra faar you?"

After my five year battle in the city, the auto unions have won. I pay them whatever they want, I go wherever they wish and simply walk the rest of the way. For I have seen, even the police is shit scared of their unions. They fail to enforce something as basic as the mandatory PUC check, while cutting down trees in Lalbag to ostensibly reduce pollution! Trucks, buses and autos spewing thick black smoke can pass under the running nose of traffic constables with not a whistle of alarm or protest.

To see a bevy of sweet brave hearts do something about the menace, instead of arm-chair blogging, is indeed news of the day. Extremely heartening! This huge population of commercial vehicle drivers and owners will steer us into or away from the gas chambers that they continue to create. If we can reach out to them, whether through education or torture, the time to do it is now before Bangalore turns into Bombay.

For all our sakes, I wish the "Breathe Fresh" ladies good luck.

Monday, June 15, 2009

America is back: Recession ends at least for CEOs

After a long time, a Dilbert cartoon that I just loved. Succinct take on the "we are in it together, but YOU get laid off" attitude of CEOs and top management during the recent crisis. Sounds even funnier when read with this article, in Business Standard Weekend. To quote the author:

What these masters of the government rescue need now is a shopping list — a 10-step programme to restore their remorseless, reptilian souls and help them rediscover the unique thrill that can come only from being paid millions of dollars to provide services that are of no value to greater mankind.
More here

Monday, June 08, 2009

News Analysis: "Daggering" with Kim Jong Il

Heard the sad news about 2 American TV journalists sentenced by North Korea to 12 years hard-labor. Their alleged crime was illegal entry into N Korea, which basically means they were conducting interviews at the border when the N Korean guards saw them, went over to the other side and forced them to come with them. This other news about 2 Kashmiri women, on the same day, only amplifies how secure people in border areas may feel with the runaway security guards all around them. In the latter case, the charismatic new Chief Minister, young Omar Abdullah, even dismissed the local allegation of rape and refused to entertain any investigations until the valley boiled for 7 days!

Coming back to the first news, these 2 reporters, in their 30s, have been charged with espionage and found guilty in a 'show trial'. US media, of course, is requesting that the innocent journalists not be used as pawns in what is actually a diplomatic stand-off. Their case is no more than North Korea dipping its toes in the Obama waters. They will tailor future provokations to US based on how the new administration tackles this negotiation and crisis. Neither the US nor North Korea have anything to lose, but the winner gains powerful credibility in the region.

What surprised me, though, was that these 2 ladies who risked their life to collect some politically sensitive, award-worthy news do not work for any news organization (like BBC or Reuters) at all. Their employer is a Silicon Valley start-up known as Current TV.

The Current TV home page is full of fluffy, sex-and-sensationalism type "news". They call it mash-ups and claim to offer some sort of "user defined" criteria of what qualifies as news. Whatever that may be, I did not see where a serious reportage about refugees from North Korea (that the 2 ladies were allegedly investigating) would find a place anywhere on this site.

Sample a few headlines:
Flavored Lube Tasting
So Where is ET Anyway?
'Apprentice' Results
'Big Brother' Entrants Revealed

What could have motivated two young, female journalists working for a web-tabloid to cross the border (or even venture close enough) into known hostile country during a known period of hostilities? Even if they got out of there OK, there's no way their 'serious' report would make it past the sub-editor at Current TV. Hell, I had a hard time finding even the story of their own plight on that site! Makes me wonder, what were the little ladies reeaallllly up to? Hmmm.

Search results for the term "Korea" on Current TV do not mention the incident

To cherry the cake, Current TV is founded by the man who invented the Internet itself-- Mr. Al Gore. Wow.

Is it just me, or is there an inconvenient truth lurking out there.... somewhere...?

PS: For a context of what the title of my post refers to, read this (be warned, though)

D'oh Kkknight and other Punxx

I am a huge Simpsons fan. More in the hero-worship, role-model kind of way. Just discovered this artist who takes the 'worship" to a whole new level. This guy called Dean Fraser has kidnapped icons from TV, movies, comics and basically everywhere to make them live in the Simpson universe.

Have a look here

For the too lazy to click-through types, a sample is provided below.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Cool new website - Planet RadioCity

Discovered this new initiative by one of India's leading music stations. An interactive video and music website called Planet RadioCity, along the lines of Channel V's vIndia and MTV. For a company not known for its online presence, this was a pleasant surprise. It has good features and looks promising. If only they'd reduce the intrusive ads until they have attracted a significant following. Unlike the MTV site, this one seems to have its heart in the right place (music!) and could become a better source of old and new music than shady sites like Raaga.com

Of course, seeing how they destroyed their wonderful brand in Bangalore one hopes they do not repeat the mistake with the website. From being the ONLY place for music in Bangalore about 3 years ago, they have come to a point where even cabbies don't listen to them anymore. All thanks to their absurd fetish for discarding brilliant programming like current topic discussions, movie spoofs, jokes, campus banter and good blend of regional/bollywood/english music in favor of only playing the latest Kannada songs. Even local friends who know the language cannot relate to their music anymore!

In my opinion, the blame lies more with the flawed government policy than with the station itself. By allowing a production company to run no more than one station per city, the government restricts them to playing whatever gets the maximum revenue. All stations end up playing safe and playing the same kind of music. Creativity, differentation and building taste becomes a casualty of petty culture policing. The next round of auction for radio frequencies must allow the market to decide who plays what music on how many channels per city. By making it cheaper to run radio stations, the government can truly allow them to enrich our lives.

Until then, this new venture by one of my favorite radio people will be keenly watched for some old-fashioned entertainment. The fact that I landed on their page after seeing a banner ad on some unrelated website means that at least their marketing guys are doing it right!