Friday, May 28, 2004

Everybody hates foreigners

So it's taken me about five years of travel through approximately 20 different countries to realize a multinational truth: Short of actually hijacking your airplane, bureaucrats at foreign embassies will do everything they possible can to prevent your travel to their country.

My suspicions began two summers ago, when I was applying for a visa at the Russian embassy in Ukraine. The official at the desk winked at me as he suggested that the speed with which I would procure a visa would be directly related to the quantity of small foldable green bills included in my application. It's interesting that although accepting bribes and even conducting transactions in American dollars are expressly illegal in Russia and Ukraine, those rules don't seem to apply with the officially appointed bureaucrats at embassies. It's good to know that they are vigilantly looking after the interests of Russian citizens by deterring would-be American terrorists from crossing their boarders under the silly guise of business or recreation. Anyway, I was dissuaded, and never got the visa.

My uneasiness was further confrimed last summer, as I applied at the Ukrainian embassy in Azerbaijan for an entrance visa. Between numerous assurances of unbounded love for the American people and way of life, this bureaucrat informed me that he just could not assure me that my visa would be honored when I hop off the airplane in Kiev. This was because the term for travel on my Ukrainian visa didn't technically start until the day after my arrival in Ukraine. As opposed to altering my visa, the bureaucrat was curious as to whether I could just cancel my trip to Ukraine. I felt comforted to know that my convenience was more important to him than my desire to visit his country. Fortunately, I went to Ukraine, anyway, and the lady with the visa stamper at customs was too busy with a fascinating Brazillian soap opera to pay any attention to the travel term on my visa. The take-home lesson from this is that I can still conduct my typical subversive behavior in foreign countries. I just have to know where the boarders are porous and the officials aren't so vigilant in their defense of national interests.

My frustrations with visa applications have, however, reached new heights. I should have known that the application process for six visas would be complicated, but for heaven's sake! The application process has taken over 2 weeks, now, and I have one Tajik visa to account for it. I'm headed out to Washington D.C., on Monday evening, to personally attend to the problems at the embassies. I'll make sure that I bring plenty of money and patience. One way or the other, these experiences have helped me to understand the mentality behind people in the John Birch Society. It's not just Americans who hate foreigners; everybody else does, too!

Thursday, May 27, 2004

This summer

In order to understand what I'm doing, this summer, let me explain my adventures, a year ago. I had a wonderful opportunity to spend last June and July in Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan, respectively, working for the Foundation for International Community Asistance (FINCA). This NGO provides micro-loans to people in poorer countries. To see FINCA's website, go to Anyway, my job was to interview a representative sample of FINCA clients to gather demographics, business, and family data. The idea is to get a snapshot of the clientele in a country, in order to make some generalized statements, and even predictions as to the effectiveness of FINCA's program.

Upon arrival in Kyrgyzstan, my two partners and I realized that following FINCA's established methodology of conducting individual oral interviews with each client, we would never gather a statistically significant sample size of a country's clientele. We realized that with 99% literacy rates in former Soviet states, we could devise a written questionnaire, and administer the tool en masse. Our results turned out to be very successful, and we were able to gather data for approximately 450 clients in Kyrgyzstan, and 350 in Azerbaijan.

When I arrived home, I began investigating the datasets with assistance of local BYU professors and my FINCA partner, Kris Johnson. We discovered that we could put together moderately robust econometric models to predict family business income as a function of demographics data and the number of loans that a client has received. This is a potentially very interesting finding, because it suggests some quantifiable results of real positive impact of micro-loans on family income. The generally acepted real impact of the micro-finance industry is somewhat ambiguous, at this point, due to a paucity of rigorous quantitative studies. In spite of these encouraging results, it became apparent that our data was incomplete. It represented a snapshot in time, which means that we can only compare clients to each other. This is a problem because clients must be measured using a standard of their own progress, not someone else's. For example, a more mature client might make less money than a less mature client. This does not necessarily suggest that the each progressive loan has caused the mature client's income to decrease, but could rather suggest that the clients each started from different initial income levels, and that both have increased over time. Kris and I realized that in order to develop a truly robust model, we would have to follow these clients over time, and develop a panel-data econometric model (sorry for the jargon...).

We pitched a proposal to the founder of FINCA, John Hatch, when he was visiting Provo, back in March. We suggested that we could return to one or two FINCA offices in the former Soviet Union (hereafter referred to as the NIS, or Newly Independent States), and train country staffs to administer the questionnaire over time. John Hatch enthusiastically endorsed the proposal, but decided to make the project much more ambitious than we initially intended. He suggested that Kris and I travel to ALL of FINCA's offices in the NIS to conduct our tool. Since that time, Kris has left the project to pursue a career in the corporate world, and I'm now on my own. I've subsequently streamlined the project to include only 5 NIS countries. Next week, I will leave on a trip that will include two-week stints in Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. To get a cursory look at each of these countries, go to the following links:
Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan

I don't have a final departure date, because I'm having some visa troubles. As soon as I have some final information, I'll be sure to let you know. This has gotten a little long, so I'll continue my ramblings, later.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Hello... I'm going to try to keep this up.

Well, my friends, I found this neat way to create an easy personal website. It's kind of tacky, right now, but I'll definitely try to improve it, over time. For now, I'll just use it to update people about what I'm doing. It will kind of serve as a public journal. It's better than sending out mass emails, because nobody really likes to get spam, anyway. So you can visit it whenever (or never) if you want.

Me near the old wall in Baku.