Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A little peek into my possible future

Hey everyone –

I want to first give a notice that this post is mostly me processing through and putting on paper some of the thoughts that have been developing in my head the past few months. You may or may not find it interesting, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to post this.

Everything here in the Dominican is wrapping up for me. I’m just starting my final full work week right now, and that’s a little weird to think about. These past two and a half months have certainly flown by – and I’ve had a blast. To say I’ve grown or changed while being here would be an understatement. I’m quite certain that I’ll find out what I learned as time goes on – I tend to leave a long trip with this sense that things are different, except I never have the ability to say how.

At the very least, this summer has been very eye-opening and valuable to me because I believe it will go a long way in determining where I am next year after graduating. I have obviously been thinking about more than this, but future planning has been the most concrete idea to come thus far. The rest will follow with time as I said above.

I am quite certain after this summer that I want to live abroad after graduating, working in a similar capacity to how I am now. While I am not going to limit myself to only searching for an international job, that will be my first choice. I absolutely love speaking Spanish and I’ve found in my travels that I am independent and flexible enough to enjoy an extended stay in a foreign country. I feel confident that an extended stay (one or two years) working for a non-profit and bringing in a fairly low income would be a job I could handle – and would probably love. I have a growing passion for applying these personal interests and skills, my studies and my faith into a career in international development.

The next step for me is to figure out what I want to do in international development. This may take another year or two (or perhaps much longer). My journey to even getting to this conclusion has taken a long time – starting with my first international trip to Spain in 2004. Each international trip I have taken, no matter the length, has given me some very valuable lesson guiding my next step. I can sum up the way my future plans have changed after each trip as follows:

Chapter 1: Spain 2004 - Missions trip with high school youth group. This is where my passion for Spanish began. I became enrapt with the language. This is also where I decided that I wanted to do something internationally. I didn’t know what – just that my future would involve international work.

Chapter 2: Dominican Republic 2007 - This 10 day missions trip was with my college youth group came to the very poor southwest of the Dominican. Here was my first run in with extreme poverty – and here is where my desire for doing international development began.

Chapter 3: Argentina Summer 2008 - In the 6 weeks I spent here, I had my first semi-extended international stay. I realized that living abroad was a blast, especially in a situation where I used Spanish more than English. I also learned that I love Latin America. Especially the Argentine people.

Chapter 4: Spain Fall 2008 - For four months I lived in southern Spain, and I learned a couple things: First, four months is a very short amount of time. It was over before I knew it. Secondly, I learned I really don’t care much for Europe, at least in terms of wanting to live or work there. I didn’t feel the same passion and excitement I had visiting the Dominican and Argentina. I see Europe, especially Western Europe, as a place I can visit later in life. It is much more accessible and easy to travel for those older than their 20s than is Latin America. Europe will have its place and time for me. Right now, it isn’t where my heart is.

Chapter 5: Dominican Summer 2009 - As I said, this trip has given me a direction for how I want to work – internationally and with development. It has also helped me develop a short term plan for my next step.

I am going to graduate from UW this June with a double degree, and then hopefully have a place in the world to go work for the next year or two to gain experience. I am then planning on using that international experience to write the next chapter of my life, which will be grad school. It has become increasingly obvious to me this summer that I need to get an advanced degree. What degree am I going to get? Well, I am hoping that if I get a year or two of work experience, that will help direct the direction my studies will take.

Basically, the degree is going to need to be something specific. Undergrad studies are designed to be general so you can figure out what you’re interested in – which is exactly what they did for me. Grad school, for what I’m trying to do, is where you find a specialty niche and focus, focus, focus. The more specific my degree, it seems the better that will help me find valuable work in something I love to do. Call it my Chapter 6.

So, there you have it. My three-four(ish) year idea of what my life might look like. I am completely open to this changing if circumstances come out differently. If I end up living in Seattle for the next 3 years and never go abroad and somehow grad school doesn’t come so rapidly, I’m not going to throw a fit because my life didn’t turn out how I envisioned it. I want to “go with the flow” and see where the flow takes me – though it seems to me the flow is taking me in the direction I have visualized.

I’ll be back in Seattle in about a week – I'm looking forward to seeing you then!


Monday, August 24, 2009

Are expensive short-term mission trips worth the cost?

Hey everyone –

I want to give a post about something a bit off topic from what I’ve been posting lately, but I feel it warrants some thoughts – especially for those of you who have gone on short term mission trips. I had some talks with other fellows early on in the summer regarding the value of spending a fairly large amount of money to go somewhere for just ten days. This may be a little repetitive for any of them reading this, but I felt this needed a blog post.

The question is: why spend $1600-2000 on a international trip where you are working for a week and then just coming back to the US? Are you really making any sort of long-lasting difference? Are you doing enough to justify spending that $1600 – 2000 on a trip and plane tickets, rather than just sending it in full to a development organization that could immediately put the money to work?

All are difficult questions – and ones I’ve had to wrestle with after going on two such trips. In fact, the last night I had in Santo Domingo in 2007 with my spring break missions trip team was partly spent exploring that question. Quite frankly – I didn’t have an answer back then to these questions. Not having sufficient answers made me begin to question if the cons didn’t actually outweigh the pros of an international mission trip.

Two years later, I finally feel that I have a couple answers which to me make the pros of short term mission trips (or other service projects) outweigh the cons.

First: Any time people want to bring the ultimate message of Love and Hope to others, I think this is great. While this alone isn’t enough to answer the questions I posed above, especially since there are PLENTY of people in the US who need this message, it certainly is a plus which occurs with a mission trip.

Second:I feel like there is some amount of long lasting impact with some projects. The most obvious ones are buildings or other physical projects which some trips undertake. In the case of my trip to the Dominican, most of us didn’t have such a project. We were with children the entire day, playing sports, doing Bible lessons (sort of), and mostly just being with them when no one else was around. As you might guess, it was very hard to point to something and say “look, we made a difference”. Instead, it felt like we were just another group of white gringos to come through, give a few hugs and piggyback rides, only to get back on our bus and fly back to our comfortable beds in the States.

I argue that we are not “just another group”. These kids remember the people who come through. This was proven to me when a couple people who had visited the villages a couple years before came back. The kids remembered their names and even still had the nametags and drawings given to them two or three years before. This was absolutely surprising to me. The kids specifically remember the guys and girls who played with them for just a few days a couple years ago. This proved to me that there is at least some sort of long lasting effect on lives which may not be apparent upon leaving back home.

As you can guess, these two reasons alone are not enough to convince me of the value of short term mission and service trips. Which brings me to the strongest point:

Third: Mission and service trips change the lives of the people who go – and sometimes direct them to dedicating their life to service. I now consider these sorts of trips as an investment. The $2000 spent is well worth it when you consider how life changing this experience is for some. True, some people go home after a trip, say “well, that was a nice experience. I have some good memories and friends now” and don’t really give international service another thought.

On the other hand, many people find their first experience with international poverty to be striking, and can have a spectrum of reactions. This may be from being more aware of spending and finding ways to give to charities or serving the poor in their own community more, all the way to people who decide that serving internationally may be the career for them.

As you may have guessed, I fit into this latter category. My 10 day trips to Spain and the Dominican Republic were fundamental in my career development. I’m gong to explore this more in a future blog post, but suffice it to say that the roughly $3200 I spent (or rather, my parents spent…) was an investment in who I am today, thinking about living internationally.

I have seen plenty of friends impacted on various levels along this spectrum by a short term service or mission trip. This alone is what answered those questions I posed at the beginning. If this was all just about a 10 day spree costing $1600 with relatively minimal impact in the community and no impact on the people involved, well then I’d say that money could be spent in a better manner. For the reasons above, I see this as money well spent.

Think about it.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Microfinance thoughts

Hello everyone –

I wanted to share some thoughts about microfinance in the Dominican which haven’t been apparent to me until recently through observation and conversations with other interns. I see two major issues which are preventing microfinance measures from being as effective as they otherwise would be. First of all, I see a distinct lack of specific, well-thought out goal setting by associates. Quite simply: many cannot tell me why they got a loan, beyond saying “I want to grow my business”. The answer to the follow-up question “And why do you want to grow your business?” draws empty stares more often than not. Secondly, I see an oversaturation of certain businesses. Many borrowers settle for selling new and used clothing, making a colmado (small corner store which has various small food items, drinks and other goods). Let me develop these thoughts a little bit more.

First of all, I am extremely troubled by the lack of goal setting that many associates demonstrate. All of us working and who read about microfinance hear about its ability to assault poverty by allowing people to work their way into a healthier income, better housing situation, more food and education for their children. I have my qualms with some of these claims, especially with how great the affect is, but we’ll leave that to the side for now for the sake of argument. It just worries me that these borrowers don’t have a clear idea of why they are taking out a loan. I have to give very leading questions, referring to their children or capital improvements to their homes, in order to get any sort of long-term picture. Even then, the answer is somewhat forced and it seems the women and men are asking in their heads “why is this question being asked to me? I don’t understand why this is so important.”

Given, some of this may be due to a language barrier, and I may perhaps be asking the questions incorrectly, but I don’t feel that’s the case. I think its more likely that people either a) haven’t thought about the question or (more likely) b) have future goals, they just haven’t fully articulated them. I see this as a problem. There is a need for people to have a well-articulated idea of how exactly they want to apply this loan to their life and family.

Why is this important? I am still attempting to articulate this fully, but I feel there is an inherent value in having a specific goal in mind when undertaking a project as serious as starting a business. A goal will allow the women and men here to seek encouragement when looking at their business. It gives them a concrete example of how a growing business is helping their family. They can point to the extra food on the table, their child taking university classes, or their brand new concrete floor and use this as motivation to continue seeking to grow their business. This is my only concrete idea to answer this question – in reality, I’m struggling to articulate why I find this so important. I may have more ideas about this in the future. For now, I wanted to at least put this thought out there, and let you know that more will be settling with time.

Feel free to comment something about this! I’d love to hear any of your thoughts. I’d love to know, also, if you think this isn’t something important. Thanks!

Secondly, I want to address the oversaturation of business choices of the associates here in the Dominican. I have a much more concrete idea of this issue, and this one is quite concerning. Microfinance allows the borrowers to choose their own business – and much of the theory is built upon the idea that borrowers inherently know their community, and know what sorts of businesses would be most successful. After all, nearly all have lived in one area their entire life, they know their neighbors, and therefore know what items are in demand, what sells well, etc.

Unfortunately, in the Dominican we aren’t seeing this put unto practice with any real regularity. Many women settle for just two types of businesses: colmados and new and used clothing. This has caused what seems to be an oversaturation of these businesses. In a single bank of 20 women living in a small neighborhood already full of such stores, quite easily 10 or more of them will start such a business. This simply cannot be good for sales.

Again, I may be totally off-base and ignorant in this observation. I allow for the thought that these women truly do know what they are doing, and that another 10 colmados in a neighborhood is one of the most profitable businesses they can get into. However, I am certainly not convinced of this. I would be surprised if someone were to show me that the colmados formed are equally or more profitable than rarer businesses.

The thought myself and some other interns have is that the women, instead of choosing the most profitable business for their family, are going the route of least resistance. It is far more comfortable to start up a business such as a colmado or clothes sales when those are stores they see everywhere, and they see their friends in that market. They might know less about other businesses, and therefore instead of looking into that other type, follow their friends.

Regardless of the reasons for starting colmados or clothing businesses, it seems fairly clear that there is an oversaturation of these businesses. I would love to someday see someone go and collect data regarding these businesses and their profitability. If it turns out these businesses are not receiving the type of profit that other businesses are, I’d argue that Esperanza should considering helping associates think of alternative businesses. I have met some women who recognized this oversaturation and chose less-common businesses, such as working as town veterinarians and selling cleaning supplies, and are currently very successful.

I am not arguing that Esperanza somehow force people to choose other businesses; I don’t agree with that at all. Instead, I think it would be valuable for the associates to see that their family may perhaps benefit more from a different type of business, and then choose between all the options. In some cases, surely a colmado is the best choice; and in some it may not be. I see no harm and potentially a lot of good (and profits!) if the associates begin to choose from a greater selection of businesses.

That’s really all I have to write for now. Sorry if it seems somewhat scattered – I have a lot of thoughts bouncing in my head and I just wanted to get them on paper to help me process them.

Please do let me know if you have any thoughts about any of this – I’d love to hear from any of you.

Mil gracias!


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Waterfalls and success stories

Hey everyone!

I wanted to give you a quick update about what’s been going on in the Dominican – I have been having QUITE the adventure as of late. I won’t share all the intimate details of each day, but I had the most amazing outdoors weekend here in the Dominican. I went to a city called Jarabacoa with six others. This is basically the outdoors center of the Dominican, as it is up in the mountains, has a slightly different climate, and has all sorts of outdoor activities to partake in.

Sunday was spent doing what is called “canyoning”. What exactly is that? Basically, there is a little canyon carved by a river and what I got to do was go down a certain section of it – which included repelling down waterfalls. It was AMAZING. There were 3 separate waterfalls which we repelled down with the first two being around 6 meters high and 10 meters high. The last one? 35 meters high. That’s over 110 feet. It was absolutely incredible! And also the craziest thing I’ve ever done. If I didn’t know what an adrenaline rush was before, this definitely confirmed that my body can produce it. I’ve never been one for going down completely horizontal to the ground from such heights, but I can say that this was a great experience for me. It helped me get out of my “I don’t like taking risks” shell a bit, in a safe environment. I wish I had pictures of the trip, but sadly we didn’t have a camera. Here’s a photo of the tall waterfall we repelled down so you can see it though:

Along with this repelling, we got to swim down the river, slide down various rapids on our (now bruised) behinds, and we even got to zip line (!!) down one. Basically, the experience was awesome.

Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights were all spent at an American boarding school which is in Jarabacoa. One of the interns spent two years there, and they were nice enough to rent out to us their guest house. We were able to make s’mores, cook our own chicken and curry dinners, and more. It was very relaxing and a great place to go back to.

On Monday, we went to what is called the 27 Waterfalls (27 charcos), which was described to us as one of the coolest things you can do in the entire country. Basically, there is this river up in the mountains where a river has cut out 27 waterfalls in close succession, ranging from 2 meters high to up to 8-10 meters. Some waterfalls are better to slide down, as they have carved paths where you can go down, and most are better for jumping. It was ABSOLUTELY AMAZING. I have a couple photos here of our trip, and you can see how beautiful the scenery was. We just spent 3 hours in this beautiful setting, enjoying the feeling of jumping from rocks and good friends. I can’t think of a better afternoon to have. Enjoy the following photos! I highly recommend that you do this if you are ever in the Dominican. It only costs $14 and is an unforgettable experience.

I wanted to end off by showing you a copy of a ”Journal” which I did for Kiva recently. Basically, when a loan which is funded through Kiva ends, there is a follow up which needs to happen so that those who loaned are able to hear how the busineses are going, how the borrower’s situation has improved/worsened, etc. I was able to talk to one amazing woman named Inocencia. Her story is fantastic. I just copy and pasted the Kiva journal I wrote so you can see it here, followed with her picture.

Dear lender,

My name is Nate Sooter, and I am working with Esperanza International this summer here in the Dominican Republic. One of my opportunities is to catch up with borrowers who have taken out a loan with Kiva and Esperanza, in order to tell you, the lenders, how they are doing after the loan. I had the immense pleasure to speak with Inocencia Ortiz just yesterday, one of the La Amistad group members you lent to. I wanted to pass along an update to you about how her business is doing today, how your loan had a direct impact in her life and a few other updates.

Inocencia is happy to let you know she successfully finished paying her loan back a couple months ago. Her business is to hand-make, from her home, curtains, sheets and blankets for beds, tablecloths and more. She buys the thread and materials directly, and then uses machines in a room of her house to customize the orders she receives from those in her neighborhood. She also rides on a motorcycle with her son to other towns here on the Samaná peninsula to increase her sales possibilities. Though – she added with a laugh – she sometimes finds herself caught in an unpredictable tropical rainstorm. She is able to shrug this off with a good sense of humor and try to travel on only sunny days.

In fact, in these other towns, Inocencia is so well known and she is such a good businesswoman, she is able to sell on credit, and collects payments form those who cannot pay for their purchase immediately. This allows her to not only sell more, but allows her to help those who might not otherwise be able to save up for new bed sheets or a tablecloth.
After finishing the loan you gave her, she has currently been able to take out another loan with Esperanza – her eighth cycle. Inocencia is proud to state how she has never been behind on a payment in her nearly four years with Esperanza – including your loan through Kiva. With each loan, she tells me that her business has been growing. She is able to buy more varied materials and fabric. She is excited for the future of her business, and is very thankful for your support.

Inocencia also related to me how concrete of a difference your loan has made in her life. Through the microfinance process, Inocencia obtained enough profits to purchase the motorcycle I mentioned. This investment has allowed her to continue to expand her sales beyond just where she can reach on foot. The photo I included with this journal is of her on this motorcycle.

More importantly, while she was repaying back the loan you offered her, Inocencia was able to come to the aid of her son, who had a construction work-related accident. At 25, José was using a hammer and had an accident which seriously injured his eye. However, due to the extra profits Inocencia has received through investing in her business with the loan of you and others, she was able to get hospital care immediately for her son, medical tests, and eventually a surgery which saved the sight in José’s left eye. Many entrepreneurs I have spoken to in the Dominican have had a similar situation to Inocencia – the money goes to cover emergency medical expenses which otherwise would go untreated or would cause some to resort to receiving loans from moneylenders who demand upwards of 100-120% interest. This story alone can help you rest assured that your loan had a direct impact on lives here in the Dominican – José today can see out of his left eye in part due to your investment in Inocencia’s business.

In the future, Inocencia is hoping to save up money to continue upgrading her home. She hopes to fix the roof – which is currently just made of tin and can rust when the rainy season arrives – and hopes to construct some walls out of concrete blocks, rather than just wood.

Again, thank you very much for your loan to Inocencia and the others in La Amistad. Though I am only able to relate this story from one of the 15 members you lent to, you can be certain that your loan had an impact on each and every individual life of the borrowers. These loans through Kiva have a concrete and direct effect on the lives of women and men living here in the Dominican Republic, and I encourage you to continue lending on Kiva.

Now that this loan has been successfully paid back, consider giving to another Esperanza loan. For a list of all the Esperanza International loans currently seeking funding through Kiva here in the Dominican Republic, please click here: Currently Fundraising Esperanza Loans

Muchas gracias de todos aquí en la República Dominicana por tu préstamo a Inocencia!

Until next time,


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The luxury of being on-time

Good morning all –

While in this post I am not going to speak much about what’s happening here in the Dominican, you can rest assured that all is going well. I spent the most recent weekend away in an apartment near Cabarete on the north coast. Here are a couple photos I took there. It’s quite beautiful:

Now, on to the topic. If you have ever travelled to a developing country, or talked to someone who has travelled to one, you may have heard a reference to a “slower pace” of life, or how things don’t revolve around time. That is, many will hear of how hectic the US lifestyle is, and how it seems people in the US are so clock-oriented that they stress themselves out.

This much is true: America, Europe and other developed areas of the world do tend to live a life where more things happen during the day (appointments, activities, etc). The pace of life in developing countries such as here in the Dominican Republic is slower. I want to share with you a thought I had about this difference between these two lifestyles.

Quite simply, I see the ability of being “on time”, or planning one’s day around a schedule, to be a luxury available only in developed countries. I finally came to that realization just recently. Let me describe.

Here in the Dominican, an easy example of this is transportation. When one doesn’t have a vehicle of their own – which would be a majority of people here – they must depend on public or semiprivate transportation. In the Dominican, that comes in the form of gua guas which I mentioned in a previous blog. They are overly packed contracted vehicles which run on set routes and pick up and drop off people at random. They do not leave until the driver feels he has a sufficient amount of people on board, and they will constantly be stopping along the road to pick up new people and drop others off as they arrive at their destinations. Needless to say, they go SLOW. The driver has no incentive to really go fast – his incentive is to go slow enough to get as many people on board as he can.

This past Sunday, I had to get from Cabarete back here to Samaná. That’s roughly 180km, which isn’t necessarily a long way. It would be a trip of less than two hours if I had my own vehicle. How long did it take me? 5 1/2 hours and 4 separate gua guas. I averaged a speed of around 32 km/h on this road. My whole Sunday disappeared. This sort of event prevents me from planning anything beyond “I’ll be back Sunday evening sometime”.

Another example is that entering into a bank, post office or other service will also not be timely. I spent nearly an hour in a bank in Haiti (which was air conditioned, organized and seemingly well-run), and that is just to be expected. Cars also break down more commonly as they are poorly maintained, causing delays. There are no efficient trains or public busses which run on a set schedule here or in many other developing countries.

In short, people here cannot afford to tightly pack their schedules with activities, errands and other plans. It isn’t possible for someone to say when they will arrive somewhere unless it is an incredibly close location. You cannot go to a meeting and return on a set schedule – life just doesn’t work like that, especially in more rural areas. Santo Domingo is an exception in the Dominican, as many times you can access nearby amenities with some certainty of when you will get there and return – then again, this city is more developed than the rest of the country.

So, I return to my main point: being on time is a luxury of developed countries (and more developed areas of countries like the Dominican). We can create such a tightly packed schedule in the United States, Europe and other places because we have the luxury of knowing how long it will take to get there, how long the scheduled event will last, and how long it will take to get back. Many people can afford to have their own vehicles, and when they don’t, the bus, train and other public transportation systems are fairly reliable and on-time. This makes the day much more predictable, and this allows us the luxury of planning an intricately busy day if we so desire.

Next time you find yourself commenting on how people in the US are so busy and don’t seem to stop, just realize this – schedules are a luxury. It helps you be more productive than you otherwise might be. Most people around the world don’t have the ability to make that schedule.

Just some food for thought.