Friday, August 31, 2012

Louie, Corn, Cows, and Windmills

Travels with Louie
I have to hand it to you, Mitt.  I've been traveling across America with Rickie's poodle, Louie, and I could never get him higher than the trunk.  How did you master dog on top?  You, sir, deserve to be Top Dog!
Louie and I have indeed been traveling from Idaho to Washington, D.C., launch point for my trip to India.  Southern Wyoming was as desperate as I remember it, until you get to Laramie.  And then at the Iowa board we enter 800 miles of corn and soybeans.  Corn and soybeans and nothing more.  Nothing.  Not a stalk of barley, a bale of hay, a handful of oats.  800 miles of subsidies. 800 miles of ethanol nobody wants to run in their car.  800 miles of Iowa primary promises never to abandon supports and insurance for corn and soybeans.
But it was no time to be a cornstalk in this year's drought. Much of the crop looked awful, which means prices have skyrocketed.  I wondered what it would be like to follow an ear of corn as it enters the world market and ends up in Mexico, Somalia or even India priced three times higher than average.  Last time this happened poor people in Third World countries rioted over the price of corn.  Turning corn into ethanol has robbed the world of food. 
The farmers of America's breadbasket will be protected with federal crop insurance.  Those who consumer our corn beyond our borders won't be so lucky.
Another impression was this:  where were the cows?  From Omaha to Wheeling, not a single cow.  No pasture and the only fences were from a bygone era.  Seriously:  no cows for 800 miles.  I take that back.  Just beyond Columbus, Ohio, there appeared a small herd which was so notable they were grazed under a full-size billboard proclaiming, "Dickinson Cattle."  
No doubt there are cows in feedlots in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio but corn and soybeans have made them entirely too much trouble on the farm (and I doubt they've been zoned away from the freeways).  Quite amazing.
However a lot of Iowa farmers did have a third crop:  wind.  I called the Iowa Wind Association and was told 30 percent of Iowa's electricity will come from wind by the end of this year.  Even allowing for the difference between capacity and megawatts actually delivered, that's a lot of wind.  Wind provides 5,000 megawatts and 7,000 jobs in Iowa, tied for first with Texas. 
I would guess that Iowa jumped on the wind wagon early because it tends to be a progressive state.  Idaho fiddled around and now its utilities have the upper hand and are shutting down lots of alternative energy.  Wind turbines are built with 20-25 year contracts in place.  Over their lifetime I'm willing to bet Iowans will be glad they took action when they did.
That's it from stateside.  Tomorrow I'm on the 4:40 out of Dulles bound for Charles de Gaulle, then on to Bangalore, arriving just before midnight Sunday.  Monday begins early with an India wedding.   I'm eager to be under way. 
I won't be in India long enough for the consequences of this year's drought to show up in local markets
 Note- Graphics done by my grandaughter Julia.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

India #1 Why India?

I'm about to set off for India as a volunteer for ACCION International.  What's this all about?
My story begins 54 years ago when I had the privilege of traveling throughout sub-Sahara Africa for a summer with the president of my university, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C of Notre Dame.  For a kid who had never been on an airplane, let alone out of the country, it was a life-altering experience.  I came back strongly imbued with what later became the Peace Corps idea: young American should live in, learn from and contribute to the emerging countries of the world.
I didn't have to wait long to act on this idea.  After a stint in the army I enrolled in law school and there met another law student with the same idea, which he was pushing close to reality in Latin America.  I joined forces with Joe Blatchford and were joined by a third law student, Gary Glenn.  Soon we had a name--ACCION--and were recruiting the first cohort of volunteers for the barios of Venezuela.
I worked organzing ACCION for the remainder of law school and opened it's first office, in New York City, raising money, garnering publicity and recruiting more volunteers before beginning a career in public service with Idaho Senator Frank Church.  (I later joined Blatchford when he became Peace Corps director in l969 and we practiced law together beginning in 1980.) 
ACCION consumed three years of my life, which is not a long time, but what we started turned into gold.  In l973 in Recife, Brazil, ACCION pioneered the micro-finance idea:  small loans to poor people to start businesses.  Micro-finance has since grown to a world-wide cause, thriving in nearly every country and ACCION has played a major role throughout.  (It is the largest micro-lender in the U. S., for example.) 
So when ACCION celebrated its 50th anniversary in high fashion in New York City last October and honored the three founders, I was grateful my youthful idealism had taken such a marvelous turn.  Particularly impressive was ACCION's for-profit arm which in the last dozen years as raised investment capital and started new and often unlikely ventures, such as a fund in Inner Mongolia.
That night I learned about the ACCION Ambassador program through which volunteers spend serious time learning and writing about ACCION's work in the field.  ACCION no longer runs projects directly; rather it supports more than 30 indigenous organizations and it is to them that ambassadors are assigned.  (ACCION learned in its first years its about them, not us.)
So I asked myself, was I up for doing now, at age 76, what I had been unable to do after coming back from Africa in l958, at least for a couple months?  I decided I needed an adventure and applied. 
What were they going to do, say no to a founder?  Well, yes, they might.  After all, the typical ambassador is young, bi-or-tri-lingual and headed for a career in international development.  And I would need an English-speaking assignment, which meant Africa or India that somehow matched my life experience.
India has intrigued me for years.  How could it not?  India would immerse me into the leading edge of global development in all its excitement, chaos and environmental challenge.  After some back and forth, I accepted an assignment in Bengaluru known to us as Bangalore, India's IT and outsourcing mecca which has exploded from a small, leafy retirement city to a metropolis of 7.5 million.  
After three months of reading, endless to-do lists, some training and a lot of nervous fussing, next Sunday, a few minutes before midnight, I will step onto Indian soil for the first time.  After a short night's sleep I'll be up early for the wedding of an ACCION staffer on Monday.  My 77 day adventure will at last be under way.  I hope you will tag along through this blog.