Reflections on Ethiopia

Friday, March 27, 2009

Posted by Phillip Garrott

I'd like to share with you all a portion of an email that I sent the day before I left Ethiopia, on December 6th, 2008.

"There have been many times that I have been extremely lonely, but it has been an excellent lesson in patience and understanding. Loneliness is inner emptiness, and understanding that lets you gain a perspective on what to fill yourself with. It has been a lesson learned over a long time, and I admit that I have been broken in order to reach the position that I am in now. But I am thankful for it. We really must learn how to be alone if we are to be with people in a safe and meaningful.

Companionship and fellowship with people my own age has been severely lacking – even amongst some of my Ethiopian friends. Amharic is a very tough language to learn, and most people don’t speak but a little bit of English. Please, please, please…cherish the friendships that you have surrounding you, and the friends that are always there for you. There may come a time when you have to branch out on your own away from everything that you know, and live without those around you. They may not understand you always, and you may disagree on who should be President or where to go to dinner – but relish that! It hurts really badly when they are gone. Now may be the only time in your life that you live in such close proximity with so many people. Even though it can be tough, be strong and know that you will look back on these days with smiling faces.

Now, I know that for me, all of this is exacerbated by the fact that I am living in a foreign country. I also want to emphasize that I am not completely alone over here. Just over the fence (less of a fence actually…more just concrete) is an American Family working for the same Adoption Agency. They are two parents (Ryan and Abby) in their late 20’s early 30’s which three kids, two adopted Ethiopian children, Marta (12) and Enoch (2), and Baby Ezra (7 months). I have essentially played the part of the elder brother to them in the time here, and younger brother to the parents. This experience has taught me much about the importance of family, some lessons which I should have learned a long time ago.

I’ll just say this too - for the most part I've worked with infants aged 0-2 years old. I’ve been doing developmental charts with them 2-3 times a week, essentially writing down things that they can and cannot do, taking their picture, and sending it to soon-to-be-parents. Babies are smelly and dirty, cry a lot, never cooperate, can’t tell you anything about what they want or don’t want, and generally are just unpleasant to be around…but those few shining moments when they flash you a smile, and you see that they aren’t just blobs but are the most perfect form of innocence and beauty that have ever seen, all that other stuff goes away. They are also a gift. To give a child to a parent who has never had children before, and was told time and again by doctors and lawyers that they would never, ever have children…I can’t describe that moment in words.

Life runs at a different pace over here, one that I hope to emulate and show you all when we get back. If I have realized one thing, it is that the United States forces us to “move, move, move” until we can’t move any longer. That, in Ethiopia, is simply not the case. One is never too busy to take time for a coffee break with friends, or a walk outside. It’s those things that keep us sane. To be constantly moving means to neglect the opportunity to sit and relax. I DARE you to plan a Saturday with nothing, or take a walk once a day. Be human! There is more to life than books and studying, and the relationships that you have with each other are mere vapor in the air, a mist in the morning. Soon, it will be gone. Learn from each other, we have so much to teach each other.

Ethiopia has taught me much, but it is nothing that can't be comprehended and examined back in the states. It may be easier to draw your mind away from the commonplace and routines that frequently suck our time away, but it is possible - dare I say necessary. Just take a trip to the coffee shop with a good friend and discuss. Read a book that makes you think. Stay away from things that tell you how you should think, and what to believe. I came to the realization the other day about the question we used to ask in high school and before: “Why do we have to know this?” It’s not so much the material, but teaching yourself to develop the skills associated with that certain discipline. If you just start to consider things on a different plane, from a different perspective, then your true interests will emerge, your real passions will become exposed, and you will be far more excited and driven towards your goal. "

United Nations

Friday, March 20, 2009

“Get the US out of the UN”. This sentiment, sometimes seen on bumper stickers, runs counter to the leadership role we need to play in a fractured world.

During the time I lived in Connecticut and worked in New York, I volunteered with the Christian Mission to the United Nations Community, an NGO (non-governmental organization) working within the structure of the UN.

As a result of that experience, I want to defend the UN…… sort of.

First, after meeting with hundreds of diplomats during my 10-year involvement with the Christian Mission, I am convinced that the UN as an institution and the large majority of the diplomats who serve there are well-intentioned. Well-intentioned and hardworking, but not always effective.

Second, I believe the UN is widely misunderstood in the US. It is viewed as a counterweight to our power. Although not stated this way in their charter, I’m convinced that the real purpose of the UN is to give a voice to the marginalized people of the world, and that is a noble purpose.

The day-to-day activities of the UN are carried out through a handful of large committees that range from peacekeeping to economic development to global health. One of these committees covers human rights, including children’s rights. This is where the UN intersects with the mission of Gladney.

The International Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and is considered a binding treaty among member nations. Its provisions focus on the rights, the dignity, the welfare and the protection of the child, as well as the preeminence of the family. It states: “The child should grow up in a family environment” and with respect to inter-country adoption, “the best interests of the child should be the paramount consideration”.

What if the world really operated this way ? What if these provisions were actually enforced ? We can dream, and we can try and work with the relevant UN agencies. Which brings us to UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). UNICEF is part of the solution and part of the problem. UNICEF has done wonderful work around the world for the benefit of impoverished children. Sadly though, they are not inclined to see inter-country adoption as part of the solution to the millions of children in orphanages and on the streets. Nor do they give much credence to the efforts of adoption agencies to invest in the countries where they work, which Gladney does extensively.

The UN and UNICEF are not perfect, far from it. However, I am convinced they are well-meaning and capable of change. At Gladney, I encourage collaboration and Gladney has taken initiative to foster more collaborative behavior with other adoption agencies. My hope is that the US will begin to work more collaboratively within the walls of the UN, and that UNICEF and international adoption agencies would not work at cross purposes, but instead would collaborate effectively to improve the lives of children everywhere, especially the millions who have no concept of family.

Live TV

Friday, March 13, 2009

I may have a new career opportunity. Two weeks ago, I made my TV debut. I was interviewed live on the Not So Perfect Parent segment of Good Morning Texas, which is broadcast on the ABC affiliate to the Dallas-Ft Worth Metroplex.

The interview is the second of the 2 links. The segment began with a video that wove together our adoption story of Phillip, our oldest, with his work for Gladney in Ethiopia.

I've been debating whether or not to post this to my blog, but since I did not have any "deer in the headlights" moments, I decided to go ahead.

However, I have not received any calls from agents looking to manage my TV career, so I guess I'll continue in my present role at Gladney.

Financial Crisis

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I am 12 years removed from the banking world, but I have an opinion on the current financial crisis, and since this is my blog, I’m going to share it.

So, how did we get into this financial mess ? Greed ! Now there’s a startling revelation. TIME magazine recently identified 25 people to blame. It’s a compelling list. Certainly, we can cast blame toward regulators, government leaders, rating agencies and the consumer, but I would lay a disproportionate share of the blame at the feet of the money-center banks and the investment banks.

I worked for one of those banks for most of the 90’s and can perhaps offer an informed, if somewhat dated, perspective. This perspective predates the housing and mortgage crisis, but seeds were sown well over a decade ago that I think gave rise to the current crisis. The story I relate here was multiplied tens of thousands of times over. Nothing illegal or unethical; just out of control and short-sighted.

My role at the bank was credit underwriting and business development (more the latter), working with large multinational corporations. We were encouraged to market everything the bank had to offer, except loans. All other products besides loans were fee-based income. One such product was derivatives, which in the case of my clients back then, were primarily interest rate swaps and foreign currency swaps. These instruments were initially designed as protection against interest rate and foreign exchange volatility, essentially insurance policies. Seems kind of quaint now; even archaic. Here’s the irony – the very products designed to minimize corporations’ risks became highly risky themselves.

What happened ? Corporations, specifically their treasury departments, were seeking other income streams. Many had become profit centers. They began to see these financial instruments as ways to make risky bets with potentially large pay-offs rather than prudent hedges. The banks were only too happy to oblige. They formed teams of math geniuses whose job was to design increasingly complex derivatives to satisfy the appetite of the more aggressive treasury departments, enabling them to make these bets. So, the banks greed fed the greed of the large corporations and vice versa.

Many years ago, when the banks first dealt with interest rate swaps and other derivatives, they focused on a matched book – ensuring counterparties were on the other sides of transactions to minimize their exposures to interest rate fluctuations. Eventually banks moved away from this conservative position and began to trade for their own accounts rather than simply on behalf of their clients, putting huge amounts of capital at risk. All designed to boost profits, because core lending was unprofitable or marginally so.

Were the investment banks any different ? Not really, except they weren’t as regulated. As a result, they weren’t as well-capitalized as the commercial banks. They had less margin for error. Their cultures encouraged outrageous risk-taking, resulting in outrageous bonuses in the good years. It’s no surprise then that as this system imploded, investment banks suffered disproportionately more than the commercial banks.

How does this relate to our current mess ? The same institutions that were designing and marketing high-risk financial instruments 15, 20, 25 years ago became more and more creative and aggressive with their financial engineering in the equities and mortgage-backed securities markets. Different set of products, different buyers, but the same mindsets, same cultures, same motivation – greed. One man’s opinion.

How does this relate to Gladney or adoption or families or children ? It doesn’t. It just feels good to vent.