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Haiti to Uganda to Colorado: Eichengreen seeks intersection of community and economy

Jacob Eichengreen, right, walks with Tadeo Santonino in Uganda.“WHEN A villager opens a small shop in their rural area in Uganda, the shop might bring in about one to two dollars a day. If the shop grows, their profit might increase to four or five dollars a day,” says Jacob Eichengreen, 24, vividly recalling the challenges facing rural East African villages.

Eichengreen spent time in Uganda during his undergraduate years at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., where he earned his BA.

“Villages can meet their basic needs better with this income because it enables them to buy more food and send their children to school.

“These small shops sell basics such as soap, toilet paper and toothpaste.

“The business usually plateaus partly because so many others are selling the same items. Fundamentally nothing substantive changes to help these families emerge from poverty.”

Recently awarded a Fulbright Program scholarship, Eichengreen will travel in August from his family’s home in Colorado Springs to Uganda to continue the research he began as a student.

In March, 2010, during his freshman year, Eichengreen volunteered in the aftermath of the disastrous earthquake in Haiti. In Port-Au-Prince, he assisted emergency and aid organizations.

He recalls sitting in a UN meeting listening to aid professionals. “I was surprised to see confusion and ambiguity over which aid organization was going to focus on which humanitarian problems.

“This was all new to me since I had never helped out in a huge disaster with large aid organizations. Over $6.4 billion in aid was devoted to the crisis from government and private funds. Humanitarian aid is an industry, not just a do-gooder type of non-profit organization.

“For me, that was the a-ha moment which sparked my interest at a deep level. The complex challenges in the aftermath of disasters can bring about conflicts of interests between those who want to help out. Large organizations don’t always pay attention to the real needs of the people who are suffering.”

In Haiti, Eichengreen met families who had alredy lost their homes and livelihoods also “get lost” in the bureaucracy of aid organizations. This led him to research the economic complexities of Uganda — a country plagued by civil war — and the business of aid organizations.

Ultimately, Eichengreen’s discovered that many of the popular financial tools used to facilitate new small businesses — sometimes hailed as “the solution” to economic development in poor countries — can limit growth and undermine the foundations of the local culture.

EICHENGREEN RETURNED to Uganda for a program on post-conflict development through the School for International Training (SIT).

“My eyes were opened to many issues,” he says. “I stayed in the village of Gulu, in a rural area, and had a unique opportunity to talk with a group of elders.

“Somebody asked an elder, ‘What is the biggest difference you’ve noticed from before the war versus after the war?’ Answer: Before the war, they were socialists; thus, their neighbors’ problems were their own problems. Now they’re capitalists, where we benefit from our neighbor’s misfortune, concluded the elder.”

This change in mindset gave Eichengreen the context to understand the cultural and ideological changes in Uganda.

“You can get distracted by the terminology like socialism, but when you start digging into the way people’s lives have changed, it’s startling.”

Eichengreen says that before the civil war, communal life in villages was stronger and more interdependent. “In the context of a society of communal farmers, everyone had to help one another plant crops, harvest, feed their families,” he says.

Every adult female is viewed as a mother to all of the village’s children and is called mother. Similarly, all adult males are considered fathers. The collective adult population raises the children in the village.

When shops were established, the culture changed. Even though they all sold the same thing, “competition emerged,” Eichengreen says. For example, if one shopkeeper closed his shop due to illness, other shop owners  weren’t so willing to help them as they had done in the past.

“This was a huge cultural shift in the rural villages.”

F ollowing his time in Uganda, Eichengreen devoted two years to building companies and economic communities in the US with Venture for America in Las Vegas. It matches young professionals with start-ups in emerging cities,. Eichengreen also started his own project to rethink finance in East Africa.

With his Fulbright scholarship, he will test a new lending model designed to foster vertical integration in local economies.

In 2014, Eichengreen began working for Entrepreneurial Ecosystems at Nor’wood Development Group in Colorado Springs.

His work there focused on the re-use of existing buildings in downtown Colorado Springs to develop the physical and human infrastructure to promote entrepreneurial momentum, economic diversifi- cation and business growth in the Colorado Springs area.

“The challenge is really about building an urban core for the city, so it can attract young professionals, new companies and thrive long-term.”

At Venture America,  Eichengreen was operations designer for the now-closed SHIFT by Project 100, a carshare program seeking alternative transport methods.

Also in 2014, Eichengreen founded Bloom Micro Financial, a micro-lending organization in rural East Africa, and is currently COO.

Eichengreen believes that microfinance is an excellent tool to help people grow their incomes via its opportunity for banking in small amounts.

In many less developed countries, micro lending and micro saving are tools to help people get out of the “absolute poverty,” he says.

“I’m very excited about going to Uganda with the Fulbright Program because it will give me the chance to do a project with nine months of research.

“I like doing research, testing theories and finding out what works. If I’m able to contribute at the most basic level through this program, it will be meaningful. Hopefully, I’ll be moving along a slow thoughtful, purposeful road with this type of work.”

CONNECTIVITY WAS part of growing up in Colorado Springs’  Jewish community, where Eichengreen felt the close-knit, friendly, warm relationships in the fabric of Jewish life.

His mother, Jody Alyn, is an inclusion strategist and cultural change expert, consulting and facilitating organizations on change, diversity and conflict. Eichengreen’s sister, Courtney Eichengreen, is a CU Medical School graduate.

He recalls that “spending the Jewish holidays together with family and friends was a foundation of my upbringing which helped me experience a true sense of community.

“My Jewish experiences influenced me in college, in start-up companies and, ultimately, in my work striving to improve the global community.”

Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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