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History Repeats Itself- Write It down and Process It!

As we ring in the New Year I will address something that's a bit unusual for this space. Keeping your perspective. The "directions" are simple. Write things down on paper. Store. Re-read. Repeat as often as necessary. Below, I share some insights from writing things down for over 25 years.


Taking a pen and paper can be powerful. There is significant research about the way we learn best and it still points to reading on paper and writing things down by hand. The physicality of the extra processing steps is important. I have been reading some blog posts from some young people I know who have done great work abroad and the experiences feel under-processed, perhaps because that extra step between thinking and handwriting wasn't taken in between. If your notebooks are only filled with todo lists, grab a pen and write more. Keep track of your conversations, thoughts and ideas. Make connections between these ideas and what is happening in the world. Something incredible happens when you stare at a blank page with a pen in hand.

Over the course of the last month, I have been re-reading old notes and papers. When I started working in microfinance in Chile in 1990, the United States was in the process of consolidating its neoliberal economic model and exporting it in a post-cold war era. With my notes is a small piece of cement marked "Berlin Wall" that my sister sent me from Germany in 1990. This is a crucial piece of the puzzle. My notes about microfinance suggest that this would be one development model that is compatible with neoliberal ideals and easily exportable through a development aid model. It was financial, self-sustaining, and promoted pulling yourself by your bootstraps "entrepreneurship" that symbolized the ideals of the United States. But I noticed that there was an inherent contradiction in the model that had to be subverted. Microfinance had some other, less neoliberal benefits that included female empowerment, collectivism and organization. These were harder to promote in the context of a business model framed by profit and entrepreneurship. If anything, I noted that women's empowerment might challenge the traditional family structure and put pressure on already weak labor markets by adding more people to the ranks of the unemployed. Over 25 years later we often ask how microfinance missed great opportunities to build civil society. Alas, microfinance today is touted as lacking sufficient impact to be a compelling development initiative. But leafing though my notes, I am reminded that the survival and expansion of the sector was predicated on what we might identify as weakness today- its narrow sustainability-focused mission. Some of us knew this and bet on it anyway, hoping that some collateral benefits would stick.

If my microfinance example hasn't convinced you to write things down, perhaps a more timely issue might. In the early 1990s, George Bush Senior was President of the United States and busy sending troops to defend U.S. economic interests in the Middle East. There were fear mongering photos of people with gas masks waiting for retaliation from Iraq throughout the Arab world. My notebooks are filled with news clippings of stories of discrimination against muslims in the U.S. as a result. I was concerned about the fabric of society in the U.S. About the exclusion of religious communities and the backlash and anger that this would set off. Reading this saddens me, but reminds me of how little we think today about how we got here.

Finally, a word on storage. Some might resist the idea of taking pen to paper for fear of losing the product over time. I may have saved some good stuff digitally over the years, but alas, transitions from floppy disks (seriously!) to CDs to external drives have led to most of that getting lost. I suppose the cloud will save us from losing things in the future, but I wouldn't count on it. The company that owns your stuff on the cloud today may or may not exist in 25 years. The records that I have sorted through are kept in small diaries, sketchpads, and yellowed print outs from word processors and early desk tops. Some are going on the cloud this year, with the knowledge that that might be the last I see of them. Below is an excerpt from 1990 on savings accounts in Chile. Plus ca change!

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