Thursday, May 19, 2011

Farewell Zacatecas

10 months turns out to be a very short time. Today is May 19, 2011 - almost a year and half since I first wrote my advisor here in Zacatecas seeking a university affiliation for my Fulbright application. When I sit back and reflect on how many changes, emotions, challenges, and life shaping experiences those months have held, it leaves me with a profound awe of the fullness of the past, and an excitement for the future. 

Today I fly out from Zacatecas for a summer of music making and time with family in the United States. In early July, however, I will be returning to Mexico this time to Mexico City. I am excited to be working in the microfinance department of the Instituto Mexicano de Investigación de Familia y Población (IMIFAP), a not-for-profit organization promoting economic and social development throughout Mexico. I am looking forward to continuing in the trajectory my Fulbright experience has sent me on, and I am confident my time at IMIFAP will be well spent. 

Noemí de la Torre (SEDEZAC), Daniella Burgi-Palomino,
Aaron Malone, Matt Rolland, Dr. García Zamora (UAZ)
To close out this phase of my Fulbright research, all three of the Fulbright scholars in Zacatecas decided to present our results at the University of Zacatecas this past friday.  The presentations went well, with a small but friendly turn-out. Our advisor, Profesor Rodolfo García Zamora, shared a few meaningful words at the beginning, commenting that he still remembers the days in 2009 when he began receiving our emails about the possibility of working at the UAZ with him. Almost two whole years ago! That made me appreciate the investment we all made in seeking the Fulbright, and all the planning it took to get here. What an adventure. He also observed the change he saw in each of us after we had our first 'visita al campo' (field visit), to Nochistlan back in October. We rightly observed that we returned motivated, moved by the reality of need and interest in migrant-spurred development. He formed words that I had felt, but had not yet expressed. He has been an encouraging advisor, and always had resources to set me down a new direction when I was feeling at a loss. I am very grateful for the warm welcome I have received at the Development Studies department at the university. 

In case you are interested in reading a short summary of my the first phase of research, an english version of my final presentation is available below. 
Also, there was an article published about our presentations. It was published in three of the local papers. Here's a link to one of them.  I made a basic translation and uploaded to my gmail account. You can download the pdf here. The article has things right for the most part, with the exception of mis-reporting the government institution represented. Noemí de la Torre is the director of the SEDEZAC migrant investment program, Zacatecano Invierte en Zacatecas.  I interviewed her several months back about the program.  SEDEZAC is the state level entity that promotes economic development, whereas SEDESOL is the federal level government agency that runs similar programs, albeit on a national scale. 

Friends at our 'callejoneada' farewell
Nevertheless, a little bit of press feels good. As the article mentions, we have a publishing opportunity! Our professor invited us each to submit articles for a forth-coming book on political economy in Zacatecas. I will be submitting an analysis of the financial sector in Zacatecas, with a focus on how microfinance institutions can help improve the very few financial services available in rural areas, and the general under development of the financial sector in Zacatecas. The book will be published in late August through the university publishing company. 

Adios to our querido Zacatecas. Until next time. 
Over the weekend, we had our farewell 'callejoneada' (parade). We had over 50 people attend and it turned out to be a great way to see all of our friends and acquiantances before leaving. We wanted to say farewell to Zacatecas in a traditional way for the region, and the callejoneada was an event I will never forget. My legs were sore for two days straight from all the dancing. If you'd like to see what the weekend held for use, hear what zacatecan 'banda' music sounds like, and what a 'callejoneada' is, I encourage you to watch a five minute video I made. I hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed living it.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Branchless Banking

It's been a while since I've posted, and an update is long over-due.  However, I promise the wait will be worth your while!  I've had some wonderful experiences since the Fulbright mid-term reunion, including a visit to northern Puebla to an AMUCSS microbank, a trip to Guanajuato to visit a female-focused development NGO (Ceremuba), as well as enjoying some vacation time exploring another beautiful colonial city with Fulbright friends.  The last few weeks have seen me busy in Zacatecas City going back through my research and working on drafting a paper synthesizing all that I've learned. We've scheduled our final presentations at the university for May 13, to be followed by a 'callejoneada' farewell party on Saturday the 14th. So, there's a lot to look forward to, as well as a lot to look back on. 

I thought I'd share a well written article on one of the recent changes in Mexican microfinance I've been learning about. A law passed in late 2010 permitted the expansion of what are called Corresponsales, or 'correspondance banking.' The idea is that registered banks are now able to create agreements with non-financial entities, such as convenience stores and grocery stores, to conduct financial transactions in these stores. The change is going to drastically change the financial sector in the next ten years, and we are already seeing a rapid race to link once expensive and complex financial services to everyday activities. Soon, you will likely be able to make a deposit into your bank account from any convenience store in Mexico, open a bank account in Wal-Mart (already possible through their new Wal-mart Bank), and pay all sorts of bills through stores. 

So, if you're interested in the trend towards branchless or mobile banking in the developing world, or want to read a concise summary of some of the issues I'm looking at in Mexico, check out this article:

Mexico: Promising moves towards new banking models

"However, most of these strategies are still about reducing the cost to serve existing customers and much less about growing towards new lower income segments...In all, 35% of the economically active population completely lacks any form of formal financial services, 57% of the municipalities have no banking access, and only 25% of the Mexican population has a savings account." 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A visualization of microfinance and migration

Hi All,
Here is the presentation I will be giving on Friday, February 25, at the Fulbright-García Robles midterm reunion in Mexico City.  I used an amazing software product called Prezi that really challenges you to rethink presentations.  When I was chaperoning the Flinn trip in Hungary, we were able to talk with the founders of Prezi, a Hungarian company, and had an excellent demonstration of the power of prezi to illustrate connections. I hope you enjoy my effort to connect microfinance, international migration, and my research activities here in Zacatecas.

Off to Mexico City!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

FDI in Mexico: past and present trends

I've published an article with Ventana Magazine, a tourism and informational magazine for travelers and foreigners living in Mexico.  The article, Overview of Foreign Direct Investment in Mexico, is an expanded version of a previous blog post I wrote and provides a broader, historical context for understanding foreign business activity in Mexico.

This week I'm carrying out several interviews on government micro-financing programs for small and medium sized businesses in Zacatecas. Many of these programs have special emphasis on migrant investment, making up an interesting aspect to the development financing landscape here in Zacatecas. More to come on that later in the week.

Enjoy, Matt

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A summary of my research here in Mexico

Can better financial services improve the lives of migrants and their families? This is the fundamental, motivating question behind my 2010-2011 research project in Mexico.  Microfinance is a movement to develop new tools and institutions that provide financial services to low-income groups.  In the last thirty years, microfinance has expanded from a few lone banks in Southeast Asia to include over 1000 institutions in 100 countries, reaching more than 150 million clients.  Microfinance is no longer a novel experiment but an entrenched camp of the development landscape.  As microfinance has grown, it has evolved differently in each region, demanding new tools as it expands wider and deeper.  My Fulbright-García Robles project is to explore the state of the microfinance sector in central Mexico with a specific interest in what tools have been developed to reach migrant communities.

Zacatecas is an interesting place to work because of a long history of international migration and a relatively undeveloped microfinance sector.  My first goal is to review the current financial sector in Zacatecas, documenting the credit and financial services available.  So far, my research has shown that financial programs for migrants are offered by a few private sector actors concentrated in the three largest cities - Zacatecas City, Guadalupe, and Fresnillo – and a few key government programs.  Rural options are scarce and costly.  Government programs include the Secretary of Economic Development’s “Zacatecano, Invierte en Zacatecas”, which offers start-up funding for migrant owned business, “Fondo Plata”, which supplies larger credit lines, and Sedesol’s “3x1 para Migrantes”.  A new program, “1x1”, looks to replace “3x1” as a funding source for productive projects by providing zero interest loans for migrant-owned businesses.

Isabel Cruz, founder of Amucss, received the
HESTA Onnasis award on immigration and
human development in 2010 at the
Global Forum on Migration and Development 
To compile and describe successful models, I am visiting prominent microfinance organizations throughout central Mexico.  In nearby states, such as Guanajuato and Puebla, innovative approaches to microfinance have been pioneered. One front-runner in the field, Mexico City-based Amucss, has developed affordable life insurance plans for migrants, remittance-based income insurance, body repatriation funds, and is developing a rural health insurance program.  Another innovation is the microfinance network, “Envíos Confianza”, which enables small banks to become international remittance providers, linking money transfers to savings accounts, education funds, and insurance programs.

Migration entails unique financial demands in terms of costs, risks, precariousness, and barriers to access financial services.  To better understand the impact of these conditions, I am surveying the federations of clubs of migrants in southern California and Chicago.  The goals of the survey are to test the level of interest in participating in hometown microfinance banks and to collect information on business perspective of these migrants, financial activity (health insurance, use of loans, etc.), and financial needs.

In addition to writing an academic article for publication, I am using these three research activities to equip the Federación Zacatecana (FEDZAC), the Zacatecan Federation of Clubs of Migrants, with a toolkit to design and expand a new credit program for migrant-financed productive projects in Zacatecas.  This program will begin operation later in 2011. With expanded services, migrants will be able to better manage the financial risks and costs incurred during international migration and access new avenues for investment in their hometowns. Reducing the financial gap in Zacatecas is a crucial step towards raising the developmental impact of international migration.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A country legend passes

I read the news today that country legend and hall-of-famer Charlie Louvin passed away on January 26th at the age of 83. Charlie died from complications resulting from pancreatic cancer but remained musically active until the day he died.  As one of the two members of the Louvin brothers, Charlie's music has inspired countless country acts and his songs have become staples of the folk and bluegrass repertoire. I thought I'd share a few of his favorite songs to honor his life and his music. 

I was introduced to the Louvin brothers about a year ago by a musician friend at the University of Arizona. One night, while sitting around jamming with a few friends, a left handed guitar player struck up and sang a beautiful traditional song, Katie Dear, that the Louvin Brothers performed on their album, Tragic Songs of Life. This became one of my favorite traditional songs and is special to me as the first Louvin Brothers song I ever heard.  Disarming in its lyrical simplicity, the song conveys the tragedy of impulsive young love with their trademark 'high-lonesome' harmonies.   I also found a nice rendition of Katie Dear on the newest Seldom Scene, the bluegrass recording legends, album.  Seldom Scene headlined the 2010 Pickin' in the Pines festival in Flagstaff, Arizona this past September. 

The Louvin Brothers created a tight sound that did not find immediate success in the commercial world.  It wasn't until they started to include secular songs in their repertoire that they began to get on the charts. Another one of my Louvin Brothers favorite, My Brother's Will, is a great story song that paints a harrowing scene of a man's final wish, to have his brother marry his love and take care of her.  What I love about the song is the way the short, concise lyrics skillfully convey the complicated life circumstances that can block our wishes. 

Despite their commercial success, their gospel songs remained a central part of their music and would help to define the bluegrass-gospel genre. There is an interesting article here on the fervent faith of Charlie and the role of his Christian spirituality in his long career.  While many of their songs might seem tongue-in-cheek to listeners (the chorus line to their hit Broadminded goes "that word broadminded is spelled S-I-N"), they created their own brand of sincere, but self-conscious gospel. 

Louvin Brothers cd, Satan is Real
The Louvin Brothers win the award in my book for the best pre-photoshop album cover. Their cover to their gospel album, Satan is Real, depicts Charlie and Ira in white suits singing in front of a giant fire, a cartoonish looking devil looming behind them.  The story behind the cover is even better than the image itself.  Charlie described the terrifying effort they undertook to make the cover:

"Ira built that set. The devil was twelve feet tall, built out of plywood. We went to this rock quarry and then took old tires and soaked them in kerosene, got them to burn good. It had just started to sprinkle rain when we got that picture taken. Those rocks, when they get hot, they blow up. They were throwing pieces of rock up into the air."

Luckily for the two brothers, and the rest of the world, their artistic ambitions were not their undoing. Had they burned in an out of control tire fire, smothered by a twelve foot satan cut-out, I'm sure they would have still made their way into countless country singers' repertoires, but luckily we can enjoy the fruits of their music-making and pyro-impulses. Charlie's life and music are an inspiration to musicians everywhere, especially this one in Mexico who enjoys an old radio country hit every once in a while to remind him of another place and time. Rest in Peace Charlie. 

You can read a nice biography in honor of Charlie's passing at I'll leave you with a cover of the Louvin Brother's song, Atomic Power, by the band Uncle Tupelo, a country-folk rock band new to me but prominent during the late 80s and 90s.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A year half over is a cup half full

Today is January 28th, 2011, the exact mid-point of my Fulbright experience. I arrived to Zacatecas on August 28th, five months of books, trips, and meetings ago.  A lot has happened during the past five months. I thought I would share a few thoughts from the mid-term reflection I submitted today to the Institute of International Education.  Reflections are a demanding but very valuable exercise.  I always emerge more focused, more appreciative, and humbled by reviewing the joys and challenges of a part of my life.  A friend once told me that an awareness of time is a fundamental aspect of being human.  I agree, but have learned that there are multiple ways to look at time.  While focusing on the fleeting nature of time can render us depressed and trepid, when we probe our past for growth and challenge, the wheels of time become an engine propelling us into the future.
I decided to apply for a Fulbright grant to Mexico because I thought the experience would be a meaningful way to follow up on my undergraduate years.  During my four and a half years at the University of Arizona, I learned Spanish, studied migration in southern Mexico, spent a semester in Argentina, and wrote a thesis on the political economy of immigrant remittances.  A Fulbright project in Mexico on microfinance and migration seemed a good way to synthesize these experiences; I could see a new part of Mexico, keep developing my Spanish, and apply the international studies and economics lessons I learned in college.  Looking at the spectrum of my undergraduate experiences and finding a way to apply those experiences was a way to guide that uncertain step forward, beyond the commencement podium with diploma in hand.
In my Fulbright application, I combined four central goals.  My primary goal is to deepen my understanding of microfinance in Mexico.  Paired with this goal is the desire to learn more about the financial, economic, and developmental aspects of Mexican migration to the United States.  I want to carry out a project that is of value to migrant communities in Zacatecas and the Federación Zacatecana de migrantes en los EEUU (Fedzac).  I measure the value of my project by the potential impact of the ideas and research, thoroughness and integrity of my investigation, and uniqueness of the project among the related literature. I will compile my research into an academic paper, a document for in-house use of Fedzac, and a presentation of my results at Fedzac in May.  Some of my more personal goals include learning about the culture, history, and people of Zacatecas; advance my level of Spanish fluency; and share my Fulbright experience with family and friends through emails, blogs, videos, and music.  On top of all of these, I strive to make my research available and accessible to the wider public.
Outside of the Development Studies Department, UAZ
     My central motivation in applying for a Fulbright grant was to gain an on the-ground perspective of the economic factors behind Mexican migration to the U.S. and carry out a project that strengthens the economic development of sending regions.  While this motivation has not changed, my project has shifted to match the local needs and opportunities in Zacatecas.  Midway through my grant, my project focus is well refined and has already provided many meaningful cultural experiences, improved my Spanish, and taught me much about Mexico, microfinance, and the nature of research.
     In August, my advisor, Dr. García Zamora, introduced me to Fedzac, the federation of Zacatecan migrant clubs in the U.S., and communicated an opportunity to collaborate with Fedzac on a research project.  Fedzac wanted to explore the possibilities of creating a migrant-funded microfinance bank in Zacatecas, and my professor suggested I make this my research focus.  The opportunity was close to my original interest in financial needs of migrant communities and I eagerly agreed to dedicate my year to this project.
     From August to October, I spent my time reading literature about the global state of microfinance and the microfinance sector in Mexico.  This time was a period of focusing my project and deepening my knowledge of microfinance and migration.  In November, I attended the People’s Global Action conference on Migration and Development in Mexico City.  At this conference, I met with the president of Fedzac, Efraín Jimenez, and connected with Leila Rispens-Noel, a Senior Advisor at a global microfinance network.  Following the conference, I accompanied Leila and Efraín on a trip to visit 3x1 projects in Zacatecas. This trip was a turning point towards realizing my second goal: to shape and carry out a project of direct benefit to migrant communities in Zacatecas.  This trip to a rural area was also a unique opportunity to experience the ‘charro’ culture of Zacatecas, eat new food, and learn regional words and songs– all part of the cultural exchange I hoped to experience on my Fulbright year.
     From November to the end of the year, I worked with Fedzac to develop an outline of a feasibility study to explore the possibilities of a new micro-bank.  In January, I have been writing and distributing surveys of financial needs to migrant clubs in the U.S.  Meanwhile, I am reviewing the microfinance sector in Mexico and organizing visits to key organizations for February.  I am also beginning my fieldwork in the most promising community for the new bank, Nochistlán de Mejía.  I am well on track to complete my primary research, field interviews, and compile these projects into a paper.
From one angle, I am a White (non-hispanic), Under-25 Male with a Bachelor’s Degree but no Graduate Work researching Economic Development in Mexico.  From another angle, I am me.
Feria Nacional in Zacatecas
     My efforts to get to know people in Zacatecas and the culture were facilitated by the presence of the state fair my first few weeks in Zacatecas.  I went to the fair regularly, listening to Banda music, learning to dance, trying different local foods, and meeting many return migrants eager to practice their English.  In general, I strove to be open to new experiences, conversational, and put myself in as many new situations as I could to experience a different part of the city.  My first few weeks, I regularly visited the museums in Zacatecas and studied in different locations.
     I also learned a great deal about Mexican culture and language from my Spanish courses. I enrolled for three weeks in the Fenix Language Institute with small classes and excellent teachers. We went to hear local concerts together and talked daily about the history of Mexico, Zacatecas, and local culture - all peppered with common regional phrases and sayings.
     I also had the good fortune of joining a basketball team a few weeks into my grant period.  The tortilla shop owner a block away from my house invited me to join his team, Tortillería Guadalupana.  We play every few days in three different leagues, and I’ve been practicing regularly in pick-up games at the parks.   This athletic outlet has been a great way to make friends and learn about the regional customs for basketball.  Sports are a language that transcends borders.

Fulbright Researchers in Zacatecas 2010-2011
with Efraín Jiminez (left) of Fedzac
I should mention that I feel very fortunate to have two other Fulbright researchers living with me in Zacatecas. It was a coincidence that all three of us applied not only to work in Zacatecas City, but with the same advisor, Dr. Rodolfo García Zamora.  Our advisor has been excellent at working with each of us separately and equally and we all feel like our institutional support is fine.  We each have desk spaces at our university and meet regularly with our professor. However, there has been a great benefit in having fellow researchers and friends to share our Fulbright experience.  We now live together in an apartment, sharing a passion to experience Zacatecas and carry out meaningful projects. The three of us have been able to host several parties for our friends here and connect with a larger community of researchers and foreigners living in Zacatecas City.  If it weren’t for having two other Fulbright fellows here in Zacatecas, I would not have access to such a strong community of friends and social network.
View of Avenida Juárez in Zacatecas, Mexico
     I feel welcomed in Zacatecas and adjusted quickly to life here.  Many of the changes were logistical adaptations. I’ve never had to ride the bus regularly and here the bus is my principle means of transportation.  Learning all the bus routes, fares, and customs for public transport took a bit of effort.  It also took me a good three weeks to learn the layout of the city.  With so many winding streets defined by the hills and slopes, Zacatecas is a confusing city to navigate.  However, the streets and plazas have now become places to me and I can easily find my way.  I have also adjusted my eating habits in line with local culture.  I now eat lunch at the Mexican hour of 2 or 3 PM and enjoy this schedule.  When I returned home for Christmas, it felt like a late breakfast to be eating lunch at noon.
Food stand where I buy fruit, standing
The customs and traditions of Zacatecas have also changed the way I live and eat, though.  I have enjoyed exploring the culinary traditions of Zacatecas.  I cook regularly with different chilies, nopales, prickly pear fruit, tomatillos, and eat everything with a corn tortilla.  I enjoy listening to Banda music and have found a new love for tamborazo and Joan Sebastian. I can’t hear Banda music or tamborazo without immediately being carried back to the state fair in my mind and dancing a little Banda two-step.
Being a gringo in Zacatecas is a unique experience because so many people have lived in the United States.  I’ve grown used to hearing, “Hey dude!” or “What’s up man?” when I am out at night.  I’ve come to expect these short interactions and enjoy the unique bridge they make between perfect strangers.  I am here to study migration and these kinds of exchanges are welcome and interesting.  The recently returned migrants always finish by saying, “Welcome to my city. I hope you enjoy yourself.” I thank them, and say that I am.
My first five months have provided a valuable lesson in the nature of research.  I have learned a great deal about a new field and about Zacatecas.  But more importantly, I have learned that uncertainty and perseverance yield confidence.  By wading through doubt, struggling to define my project, and gaining confidence in my skills to carry out research, I have learned a greater sense of patience, humility, and respect for time.

Happy New Year from Mexico!