Through the eyes of immigrants

      HUNDREDS OF guests and speakers from all over the Northeast gathered together at Washington Square Park on April 3, 2009, with NYU Wagner’s student group The International Public Service Association (IPSA).  The event was IPSA’s spring conference, “Living Migration: Spanning the Local & Global Divide.” It explored how local experiences in New York City, quintessential American city of immigrants, are enmeshed in global migration patterns.

      Following a welcome delivered by Wagner Professor Paul Smoke, Professor Natasha Iskander opened with how the lived experience of migrants often spans the segmented conversations that typically separate local and global concerns.  Iskander stressed the importance of understanding the lives of individuals in  addition to the aggregate picture of population flows.  Indeed, the only effective way to accurately examine migration is by exploring the stories of immigrant lives.

     Iskander moderated a morning panel featuring a trio of leading experts: Janice Fine, an organizer of worker centers for low-wage immigrants; Devesh Kapur, who explores the social and political effects of global remittances, and Michael Piore, a definitive voice on migration, labor and political economy for more than 30 years.

     The commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Guillermo Linares, gave a heart filled keynote speech about the past, present, and future of immigrants in New York City, addressing, as well, many of the citys recent policy initiatives designed to help newcomers.  

      Linares came to America at age 15, supported his family and put himself through school working in a bodega and as a taxi driver.  He was the first Dominican elected to public office in the U.S. when he won a seat on the New York City Council in 1991.  

       Ten of New York City’s leading practitioners and academics who work closely with immigrants led afternoon workshops, facilitating discussions about their daily challenges and opportunities.  The highly participatory groups each explored different themes: labor organizing and rights, citizenship and legality, and transnational connections.  

        Workshop leaders included:  Ana María Archila (Make the Road New York, Latin American Integration Center), Héctor Figueroa (32BJ SEIU), Victoria Hattam (The New School), Monami Maulik (DRUM – Desis Rising Up & Moving), Maritsa Poros (CUNY), Haeyoung Yoon (CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities), and Saru Jayaraman, Fekkak Mamdouh, and Sekou Siby (all of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United).

       IPSA concluded the conference with a fun-filled reception, featuring the soulful musical stylings of Beatriz Maass (a Wagner student) and Paula Restrepo (Wagner alumnus) and accompanied by the migration-related visual graphics of Arya Iranpour (Wagner student).  

‘You know, it’s a wonderful place, with security’

     “ONCE YOU KNOW Israel, go there, live there,” Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gabriella Shalev said. “You know it’s a wonderful place, with security.”  Ambassador Shalev on April 30, 2009, discussed the condition and challenges of Israel at its 62nd anniversary at an intimate forum sponsored by the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University, JeWPA (Jewish Wagner Professional Association), Hagshama, the Israeli Consul General and the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.
       Her discussion focused on the historical and current relationship between the UN and Israel.  Though both were established at about the same time out of necessity for preserving Jewish and other minority communities, the conversation has been at times hostile, as when Zionism  has been likened to racism in UN forums. While the UN has criticized Israel’s actions in conflicts with Palestinians, Israeli society often views the world body as “nonsense” and anti-Israel, even though the UN also works with Israel on problems such as those in Gaza.  Diplomatic confrontations while attempting to change the perception of Israel in the UN (as well as the world) has made Ambassador Shalev’s job difficult.

         Shalev stressed the need to see Israel as a country facing global issues just like any other nation (such as swine flu, climate crisis, and terrorism).  Iran, she said, is a global threat, not just a problem for Israel and the US. While Israel is facing all of the same global problems, its problems are magnified by being a small state surrounded by enemies.  On top of it all, Israel struggles in the global public eye, often singled out in international debate.
      “It is like pushing a big rock up hill at times,” she said, adding that over the long term, education and persuasion might be the only way to improve public opinion on Israel’s legitimacy as a nation.

       But the ambassador reassured the audience that all Israeli leaders strive for the same things as everyone else in the world: peace, happiness, and a good life.  At the UN, every nation should speak out about their national agendas with greater transparency so that all countries can work together to improve our globalized society and, too, eliminate the threat of terror.  Indeed, she said, borders matter little anymore.

       She also showed that there is a new sense of worldwide hope given the Obama Administration’s fresh involvement with UN and international affairs; the hope is felt worldwide.  Obama is the personification of youth and hope, and his main prerogative of engagement is hugely needed for global cooperation and collaboration, said the ambassador.

      Shalev also said she believes women are at the forefront of achieving a modern and equal global society, including in Israel.  She holds herself as an example, as its ambassador to the UN.  Perhaps, given all Shalev said, Israel and similar nations will appoint more women leaders to work together to ease cross-border conflict and tensions.

‘Fear can be paralytic, but it can also be a great motivator’

     GOOD MANAGEMENT is good management, and the current fiscal and economic crisis has the potential to impel nonprofit organizations toward making the tough decisions they should have been making all along, according to consultant Jack Ukeles, founder and president of Ukeles Associates, Inc.

      The Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner welcomed representatives from philanthropies, nonprofit organizations, and the general public to a March 4, 2009, forum where Ukeles and Barbara Cohn Berman discussed “Doing More With Less: Can Jewish and Other Nonprofits Turn Crisis into Opportunity?”

      The particular characteristics of the nonprofit field–such as a tendency to diffuse authority, the difficulty of measuring success, and dependence on outside sources for funding– mean that nonprofits require a particular approach in responding to a society-wide economic recession/depression. If a nonprofit can manage in a crisis, manage the crisis, and use the crisis to improve management, it has the potential to emerge stronger than ever. Ukeles shared tactics for applying these strategies, with a focus on management improvement: streamlining operations, setting priorities, managing performance, and examining restructuring options. Cohn Berman emphasized the importance of gathering information from all possible sources, including clients, and of keeping interested parties invested in the process.

       Ukeles and Cohn Berman’s counsel grows out of significant experience in the field. Ukeles advised the New York City government during the 1975 fiscal crisis, and has consulted for hundreds of nonprofit organizations. Cohn Berman is Vice President of the National Center for Civic Innovation and its sister organization, the Fund for the City of New York and the founding director of their Center on Government Performance. Her focus is on helping the government and nonprofit organizations manage change.

      To make their expertise available to a wider audience, the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner has published “Doing More With Less: Can Jewish and Other Nonprofits Turn Crisis into Opportunity?” and it is available on

How the Bottom Billion Get By on $2 a Day (Hint: It Takes Savvy)

MANY OF US HAVE a mental picture of the world’s so called Bottom Billion — or 40 percent of the planet — as a desperate, hand-to-mouth population. And that’s understandable, considering that one of the most common poverty thresholds in developing countries is an income of $2 a day — what many people in developed countries might pay for a latte.

But those who take the time to read the new book “Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day,” written in part by economist Jonathan Morduch of NYU Wagner, are likely to come away with a far better understanding of the financial lives of the world’s poor — and the notion that their financial lives are, in fact, surprisingly complicated.

The book, newly published by Princeton University Press, has particular relevance for the development and anti-poverty community, and tackles the fundamental question of how the poor make ends meet. The work is based on the financial diaries of more than 250 families in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa compiled from bi-weekly interviews over the course of one year. 

On May 7, 2009, Morduch launched the book — which he wrote and researched with Daryl Collins, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven– at an event cosponsored by New York University’s Africa House and the Financial Access Initiative, a research consortium that Professor  Morduch heads. Other participants included Professor Rogan Kersh, associate dean at Wagner, Matthew Bishop, chief business writer/American business editor for The Economist, Bill Easterly, NYU professor of economics and author of “The White Man’s Burden,” and Yaw Nyarko, NYU professor of economics and director of Africa House.

The book refutes the assumptions people often make about the very poor, such as that they fail to plan for the future or save for a rainy day. The opposite is true. In their case, necessity is the mother of financial savvy — which, as Easterly noted (and The reported) far exceeds that of some of the celebrities and aid workers who speak on their behalf. “Portfolios of the Poor” finds that the poor are active money managers. People in South Africa, for example, participated in informal, locally operated savings club, in part to help them fight the temptation to spend in the short-term or because they lacked access to traditional banking. Other households, as in Bangladesh, used shopkeeper credit, saved with a money guard, accepted interest free loans from relatives and friends, and relied upon remittances.

In addition, the authors found that the poor don’t usually earn a steady $2 a day as many might imagine. Rather, the book reports that the more typical income stream at the lowest economic strata includes many unpredictable highs and lows, also a lack of  basic financial tools to help them manage those ups and downs.
Morduch and Collins shared stories about Hamid and Khadeja, a Bangladeshi couple who earned only $70 a month but were active money managers. Another voluntary financial diarist, Pumza, a sheep intestine vendor in South Africa, never knew how much she would sell on a daily basis, and was forced to use informal and often unreliable financial tools to address her irregular cash flows. Still another interviewee, Nomsa, an elderly South African woman supporting her five grandchildren on a government old-age grant of $115 a month, managed to save $40 a month using informal mechanisms.

In other words, the poor are doing all they can with what they have. They are saving, borrowing, managing risk and looking toward the future. But they could do more with better financial tools. It’s not financial savvy they lack, but access to financial services

To some, such as Easterly, who made brief remarks, “Portfolios of the Poor” shows that the microfinance strategy to alleviate poverty has limitations in its current incarnation, since the carefully amassed anecdotal evidence of the book shows that micro-loans are used for day-to-day living purposes rather than entrepreneurship.

The book puts forth new ways to think about poverty; broaden the scope of microfinance to deliver loans for general purposes; enable savings; add meaningful consumer protections; and ultimately create the next generation of banks for the “bottom billion.” Through the ongoing work of Morduch and the Financial Access Initiative ( a new, 21st century vision for microfinance may evolve, grounded upon a careful review of its notable successes, potentially expanded use (as in insurance), and limitations. Enlarging our understanding of the real lives of the poor is an important first step .





In Abu Dhabi, ‘Can Planners Get it Right?’

WITH PLANS AFOOT to create a car-free, zero-carbon community dubbed the world’s “greenest city,” and with construction proposed or under way on two famous museum franchises and a first-class NYU campus, Abu Dhabi has a unique opportunity to become the newest “Global City,” according to panel members discussing the desert city’s future at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School for Public Service.
 “Abu Dhabi is set up to be a test case,” said Hilary Ballon, the deputy vice chancellor for New York University Abu Dhabi. “Right now the story in Abu Dhabi is a good story…The question will be, can planners get it right.”

NYU’s planners will be included among those under pressure to “get it right” as they prepare to open the first full degree-granting campus of a “Western-style” university in this traditionally conservative Middle Eastern culture come the fall of 2010.
The NYU Abu Dhabi campus and the future of the Emirate were among the topics discussed April 20, 2009 during a panel moderated by NYU Wagner Dean Ellen Schall that included Ballon; Mark Gordon, director of design for the NYU Office of Strategic Assessment; Jamie Greene, founding principal of ACP + Planning; John Livingston, president of Tishman Construction Corporation; and Jeffrey Raven, director of sustainable planning and urban design for the Louis Berger Group. The discussion was called “Spotlight on Abu Dhabi: Challenges and Opportunities in an Emerging Global City.”
To start off, Schall described what is expected of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, saying the inaugural class will contain up to 100 “of the best high school students from across the world.” For the first year, she said, there are to be approximately 35 faculty members, creating a one-time, extraordinary student-to-faculty ratio of nearly 2-to-1.
For the first few years, the NYU Abu Dhabi will be housed at a downtown campus,  before moving to permanent buildings on Saadiyat Island (which means the Island of Happiness in Arabic).
Over time, she said, the enrollment is expected to climb to an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 students. Al Bloom, the outgoing president of Swarthmore College, is vice chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi.
“This feels like among the most extraordinary moves that a higher education institution can take,” Schalll said, adding it’s “not without its risks and not without its complications.”
Ballon said one of the single biggest challenges for the enterprise was ensuring that NYU maintain exceptionally high hiring standards, and not presume that any top-tier academic talent would be resistant to relocating.

The treatment of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates was also discussed.

John Livingston, president of Tishman Construction Corp., whose company has been doing business in Abu Dhabi for the past year, said that many laborers in Abu Dhabi are from Pakistan and India, earn an average $150 a month, and are housed in what he described as work camps, where they pay for their food but are not charged rent.
“I’m told it’s not terrific, it’s not squalor but it’s not terrific,” said Livingston.

Ballon said the University will work with its partners in Abu Dhabi to provide the workers constructing the NYU Abu Dhabi campus with working and living standards that are among the highest in the region.

For years, nearby Dubai was immersed in an unprecedented building boom, such as its indoor ski resort, that lacked a cohesive plan. But the global recession and credit crunch coupled with a drastic drop in oil and natural gas prices and tourism have prohibited or stalled billions of dollars in construction projects there.
Jamie Greene, whose firm has been doing work in Abu Dhabi for the past 18 months, says that not only is Abu Dhabi much wealthier than Dubai, but unlike its neighbor Adu Dhabi has an integrated design program for its urban planning called “Estimada,” which means “sustainability” in Arabic, as part of the overall “Plan of Abu Dhabi 2030″ that ostensibly should prevent some of the planning problems currently besetting Dubai.
When the panel was asked to predict what Abu Dhabi might look like in the future, Greene offered that, if nothing else,  Abu Dhabi will have “one of the most impressive public transportation systems in the world” including water taxis and high speed rails. The biggest question mark on the area’s potential for growth, Greene said, surrounds the ability to find a sufficient water supply.
Livingston said he was somewhat skeptical about whether importing culture will work but on the other hand, having all those great institutions in the same city is “pretty cool.”
“I’m not sure it’s going to be another Rome or New York or Shanghai but it might still be a great city,” Livingston said.

Raven said that the “ambition of the place is just awesome, you got the Guggenheim, you got the Louvre.” Dean Schall then gently reminded him, “you’ve got NYU.” 
Mark Gordon was asked for his opinion. “Wouldn’t it be exciting if it turned out to be the city that finally got it right?,” he said.