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Kiva, Marketised Philanthropy and the Mythology of the Poor


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.


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?


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 <;


Opinon Post: Microfinance, Gender and Poverty


Microfinance = poor women’s empowerment, correct?

When we think of microfinance, what comes to mind? Something like the image above?
Poor ‘third world’ women, taking small loans from benevolent credit agencies, breaking down the confines of their entrenched poverty! Sending their daughters to school! Standing up to their oppressive husbands! Creating social change in their communities! Empowerment! Women’s rights! Yes!
It’s a beautiful image isn’t it?

It’s also simplistic, hiding the huge variety of experiences of women living with poverty in the global south, and ignores the many cases where microfinance has had a negligible or worsening effect.

Women and Poverty

Women, like any group, are not homogenous, and within this range, poor women also experience poverty on a scale ranging from living close to the poverty line, to what is described as the “hardcore” or “core” poor (Hulme and Mosely 1996, Nawaz 2010). Whether or not their lives will be transformed for the better, as a result of engagement in a microfinance program depends on many social and economic factors (Kabeer 2005).

As a social group, women are more likely to be poor, as Kabeer (2005) argues, gender norms in south Asia construct women as subordinate to, and dependent upon, men. Accordingly, women tend to carry out domestic tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, child rearing and carrying water, which are under valued and do not earn an income (Vonderlack and Schreiner 2002). This economic dependency leads to what Kabeer (2005) terms “patriarchal risk”, in which women are at risk of destitution if they are widowed or abandoned by male guardianship.

Microfinance ostensibly protects women from this risk by providing them with the means to an outside income, and in some cases, savings. The underlying assumptions are the following:

  • Women will use the money for their own enterprises
  • They will have control over income earned from these enterprises
  • Greater involvement in economic activity will lead to female empowerment and better social conditions
  • Women are more likely to use their income to better the lives of their children, especially daughters, and especially in the areas of education and health (Hulme and Mosely 1996, Kabeer 2002)

However, in reality outcomes are not necessarily always positive.

As demonstrated by Hulme and Mosley (1996), despite loans being provided to women, it is often the men in the household who end up controlling the money. When women do control the loan money, they are typically engaged in “traditionally female” activities, which do not earn very much money.

1) The low earning potential and small loan are  unlikely to have a large impact on level of poverty.

2) Despite high ideals about transforming women’s subordinate position in society, the microfinance program either fails to be used by women, or reinforces existing patriarchal ideas about gender roles (Ibid).

Vonderlack and Schreiner (2002) argue that for poor women, it is access to savings that is needed, not loans.
They argue that in order to protect poor women from the vulnerabilities associated with domestic violence, ‘patriarchal risk’, and to meet day to day subsistence needs, safe deposit boxes are vital. Women are able to stash away cash, or in kind items, such as jewellery, away from male family members, so that they can accumulate savings safely, to buffer against risk. Savings are lower risk than loans, and if they are secret, cannot be appropriated by men.

Women’s Empowerment and Improvement of Social Position

A main argument in favour of microfinance is that involvement improves the social standing of the female members. However as Kabeer (2002) demonstrates, the achievement of these benefits is dependent on a variety of other factors, and in many cases, are not achieved at all.
There are many areas in which the level of women’s empowerment can be measured, due to the short nature of this post, I will only be able to discuss rates of domestic violence, and the education of children, especially girls. However, it should be noted that other areas are also important, such as: decision making power within the household, participation in politics and protest and income of the household.

  • Domestic violence
    Results were varied, some studies reported an increase (Goetz and Sen Gupta 1996, Rahman 1999), and others a decrease (Hashemi, Schuler and Riley 1996, Kabeer 2001, Murthy, Raju, Kamath 200
    Potential reasons for decrease:

    • “Increased awareness among family members that the women now had a public forum in which to discuss previously private matters” (Kabeer 2002)
    • Easing of economic stress
    • Women holding better bargaining position, able to withhold cooperation if husbands were violent
  • Education
    Varied results, Khandker (1999),  Kabeer (1999) and Kabeer and Noponen (2004) found that women’s involvement in a microfinance organisation with wider social goals meant an increased likelihood of children’s, including girls’ attendance in school.
    However, Todd (2001), and Cortijo and Kabeer (2004) found that women’s membership in microfinance, while increasing boys’ attendance, had no effect on that of girls, and in fact, girl’s very likely to be engaged in paid labour.

    • These results were found in Andhra Pradesh, which exhibits the highest levels of child labour in India, Cortijo and Kabeer (2004) argue that microfinance has had a positive impact in the area of education, however the endemic poverty and widespread child labour are not problems that can be fixed by women’s involvement in microfinance alone.

The general assumptions about microfinance paint it as a sort of ‘magic bullet’, that will lift ‘third world’ women out of poverty, and redress gender imbalances.

However in reality the lives and needs of poor women vary, poor does not simply mean poor, there is a great range of poverty within the descriptor, and as many women fall into the category of ‘hardcore’ poor more must be done to engage with this oft ignored group.

Simply providing women with access to small loans will not improve their lives, a mixture of broader social programs alongside microcredit, savings and financial advice, that take into consideration the cultural context appear to deliver the best outcomes. Development organisations need to be aware of this if they are creating their microfinance programs with the aim of fostering social change and bettering living conditions for women.


Cortijo, M J and N Kabeer (2004): ‘The Wider Social Impacts of Microfinance in Andhra Pradesh: A Case Study of SHARE Microfinance Ltd’, draft paper, Imp-Act Programmes.

Goetz, A M and R Sen Gupta (1996): ‘Who Takes the Credit? Gender. Power and Control over Loan Use in Rural Credit Programmes in Bangladesh’, World Development, 24 (1) pp. 45-63.

Hashemi, S, R S Schuler and I Riley (1996): ‘Rural Credit Programmes and Women’s Empowerment in Bangladesh’, World Development, 24(4), pp. 635-53.

Hulme, D and P Mosley (1996): Finance against poverty. Routledge, London.

Kabeer, N (1999): ‘From Feminist Insights to an Analytical Framework: An Institutional Perspective on Gender Inequality’ Institutions, Relations and Outcomes. A Framework and Case Studies for Gender Aware Planning, Kali for Women, New Delhi and Zed Press, London.

– (2001): ‘Conflicts over Credit: Reevaluating the Empowerment Potential of Loans to Women in Rural Bangladesh’, World Development,  29(1), pp. 63-84.

-(2002): ‘Is Microfinance a ‘Magic Bullet’ for Women’s Empowerment? Analysis of Findings from South Asia’, Economic and Political Weekly 40(44/45), pp. 4709-4718

Murthy, R K, K Raju and A Kamath (nd): Towards Women’s Empowerment and Poverty Reduction, Lessons from the Participatory Impact Assessment of South Asian Poverty Alleviation Programme in Andhra Pradesh, India, mimeo

Nawaz, S (2010): ‘Microfinance and Poverty Reduction: Evidence from a Village Study in Bangladesh’ Journal of Asian and African Studies, 45(6), pp. 670-683

Todd, H (2001): ‘Paths Out of Poverty: The Impacts of SHARE Microfinace Ltd in Andhra Pradesh’, Imp-Act report.

Vonderlack R. M, Schreiner, M (2002) ‘Women, Microfinance and Savings: Lessons and Proposals’ Development in Practice, 12(5), pp. 602-612