Kiva, Marketised Philanthropy and the Mythology of the Poor

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I have been reading some pretty interesting articles that look at Kiva and the whole concept of democratised microcredit as development from a different angle. In my opinion the articles bring up some good points, and from the lectures it seems that most people are pretty keen on Kiva, so I thought that for the discussion post, I would present my take on these views and see what people’s views are.

The two main articles I have based my argument around are Marketized Philanthropy: Kiva’s Utopian Ideology of Entrepreneurial Philanthropy, by Domen Badje, and A Critique of the Discourse of Marketized Philanthropy, by Patricia Nickel and Angela Eikenberry.

Marketised philanthropy is the adoption of free market principles in the field of philanthropy (Eikenberry and Kluver 2004). This can be seen in the case of Kiva, where loans, not unilateral, non-contractual donations are provided for poverty alleviation (Bajde 2013).

Marketised philanthropy tends to narrow the discussion of what social progress is, and how it could be achieved, thereby limiting it’s ability to provoke comprehensive social transformation (Edwards 2010).

Mythology of the “Working Poor”

Kiva’s slogan is “We let you loan to the working poor” (Barry 2012), and Kiva’s story is on in which our ideas about the hopelessness of poverty are replaced with the triumphant imagery of impoverished individuals using microloans to “lift” themselves by their proverbial bootstraps, out of poverty (Bajde 2013).

Philanthropy is an inherently ideological exercise, as philanthropic acts bring about a sense of empowerment and identification in philanthropists, it is through these acts that they can attempt to implement their moral vision of what constitutes a “good society” (Friedman and McGarvie, 2003).
Bajde (2013) argues that Kiva is incredibly ideological in it’s approach, the ideology of entrepreneurial philanthropy, which presents with a strong reliance on entrepreneurial values and beliefs, and contractual (economic) arrangements. This ideology promotes a flattering representation of Kiva lenders as socially aware, and of the lender-borrower relationship as a dignified, equal business partnership, as opposed to an undignified benefactor-recipient relationship. This egalitarian relationship promotes Kiva as morally superior to traditional forms of philanthropy.

Two years ago I traipsed through Kenya and Tanzania and I saw something that shattered the images the media always show us to portray the region (violence and passive helplessness): really hardworking people limited only by their means. I want to help. Not out of guilt or a sense of North- South fairness, but just because I hate to see human potential go to waste.’ (Louis-Eric, male, Canada)
I have been a business owner and entrepreneur for many years and firmly believe in the talent and optimism of the individual . . . I am anxious to see the results of my lending and look forward to passing the word and changing the world – one person at a time! (Shirley, female, Canada)
I believe one’s appetite for work should be the only barrier to success and consider it a privilege to put some of my capital out there to make a difference for a few enterprising people. (StevePPS, male, USA)

The above examples in Bajde (2013), show how lenders identify with the borrowers’ entrepreneurial qualities and see the loan as an affirmation of their personal moral beliefs.

In her 2010 TED conference talk, co-founder Jessica Jackley, in describing her reasons for creating Kiva, describes the traditional way of approaching poverty alleviation, such as foreign aid, as being about helplessness, dependence and imperialism. In contrast she presents micro lending as hopeful and facilitating agency, a way for individuals to lift themselves out of poverty with just a little help.

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Jackley contrast beggars with the ‘working poor’, the ‘working poor’ are presented as worthy individuals, who have a strong work ethic, and entrepreneurial prowess, they are not looking for a hand out, they are now business partners (Bajde 2013).

“Imagine how you feel when you see someone on the street who is begging … Imagine how you feel. And then imagine the difference when you see somebody, who has a story of entrepreneurship and hard work … somebody with full hands, with something to offer, not empty hands asking for you to give them something.” (Jackley 2010)

Jackley is equating morality with specific values, the “working poor” are hard working, they have jobs instead of being beggars on the street. However does this mean that people living on the street are immoral or somehow less worthy?

From our learning this semester we are all too aware that microfinance doesn’t reach the poorest of the poor, and language like that which Jackley uses reinforces the neoliberal view that people who are experiencing hardship have somehow done something to deserve it, that there is enough wealth to go around, and if only the poor had a more entrepreneurial spirit, they wouldn’t be in the situation in which they find themselves (Bajde 2013). Making a blanket call that aid is patronising and ineffective, and linking entrepreneurship and worth, betrays a lack of understanding about the structural causes of poverty and inequality.

David Roodman (2013) in writing about Kiva’s misleading practice of presenting the loans as person-to-person, when in fact the loans had been approved before appearing on the website, admitted that

Kiva has thrived while mythologising the power of microcredit because storytelling works.

Despite the knowledge that we have now as a result of our learning this semester, about how microloans are often spent on day to day expenses and that the effects on poverty are varied and rarely result in significant improvements. Kiva tells an easy story, the borrowers are poor, but they have the “entrepreneurial spirit”, which makes them better somehow, and our loans, which we give so altruistically, “lift” them out of poverty.

The Problem With Marketised Philanthropy

Nickel and Eikenberry (2009) place our discussion about microcredit within the larger neoliberal global capitalist system, the push for smaller government has put more responsibility on the private sector and now individuals to solve larger social and environmental problems, such as poverty and inequality, while celebrity endorsement of philanthropy has led to greater awareness and desire for individuals to become involved.

However when we as individuals want to engage in social or philanthropic action, we find that the only space in which we can do this, is the market, which I would argue is one of the major causes of inequality and social problems. The lack of alternative spaces is not because of a lack of benevolence, but because of the encroachment of the market into all spaces in which profit can be made. Thus consumerism becomes the most common means of expressing political action (Ibid).

The idea behind marketised philanthropy is as that we cannot overcome the global capitalist system, but by engaging with it we can cause positive change, for example by buying certain products which donate to charity. However as Agger (1989) argues, one must have distance from that which one would critique in order to imagine alternatives.

The crux of Nickel and Eikenberry’s (2009) argument is that the most important aspect of philanthropy is it’s potential for social transformation, and that marketised philanthropy depoliticises the issues by removing negative associations between the market and social problems, which strips philanthropy of it’s transformative potential.

Marketised philanthropy is insidious as it gives the lender the impression that they are giving back, when in fact they are engaging with the structures that take away. Philanthropic products, such as Kiva tell a story of the benevolence of the market, however if we are to engage capitalism in the championing of causes that aim to eradicate poverty, we must recognise that capitalism created the need for such philanthropy in the first place (Ibid).

Nickel and Eikenberry (2009) argue that without the political element, philanthropy does not recognise that social and environmental problems are rooted in inequality, and therefore is not a viable means toward meaningful social change. Furthermore, that the best way to end suffering is not to provide money, but to give voice to those who suffer, they evidence labour organising (Caesar Chavez), political leadership (Eugene Debs and Jane Addams) and social movement leadership (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) as being more in line with transformative philanthropic alternatives.

What do you think? I would argue that we cannot affect large scale structural change through microfinance alone, and I believe that there is certainly an element of futility in attempting to change problems of poverty and inequality from within the structures that cause poverty and inequality.
However does this mean that the impact that microfinance has is piecemeal? And if so, would it be worthwhile focusing on alternatives?
Are loans and debt and capitalism and free trade the only means that we have available to help people? Should we be raising our voices and stamping our feet to give voice to those who have less than us? Or is money the best way to exercise our voice?

Sources:

Agger, B. (1989) “Fast capitalism: A critical theory of significance”, Urbana, University of Illinois Press

Bajde, D (2013) “Marketised Philanthropy: Kiva’s Utopian Ideology of Entrepreneurial Philanthropy” Marketing Theory, 13(3), pp. 3-18

Barry, J (2012) “Microfinance, the Market and Political Development in the Internet Age” Third World Quarterly, 33(1), pp. 125-141

Eikenberry, A. M., & Kluver, J. D. (2004) “The marketization of the nonprofit sector: Civil society at risk?”
Public Administration Review, 64, pp. 132-140.

Friedman, L.J. and McGarvie, M.D. (2003) Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nickel, P. M., and Eikenberry, A. M., (2009) “A Critique of the Discourse of Marketized Philanthropy”, American Behavioural Scientist, 52(7), pp. 974-989

Roodman, David “Kiva Is Not Quite What It Seems” in Centre for Global Development blog accessed 8 May 2013 <http://www.cgdev.org/blog/kiva-not-quite-what-it-seems&gt;

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One thought on “Kiva, Marketised Philanthropy and the Mythology of the Poor

  1. Hi “Sweet SJ”,
    Thank you for your very powerful post! I am sitting here reading it for the third time now and am enjoying the way you have structured your argument, and also included me in the process with your poll and the questions you ask at the end. So, my question follows your last question of asking if money is the best way to exercise our voice – what would you identify as alternatives? Do you think that because we have technology that facilitates moving money efficiently, such as the Kiva model with online loans and compelling narratives, that the same model would apply with another offer that is non-monetary?
    from
    zen

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