Today, we had a great discussion at Kiva with Martin Burt from Fundación Paraguaya about how microfinance is working in Paraguay and how Kiva is affecting that. He started off with a question his team has been investigating lately which is “Why does microfiannce work?” He pointed out that many simple things have struggled to succeed such as education, food programs, and housing projects. So he asked why does microfinance, a very complex concept that is nontrivial to implement, work where so many other projects in the same region have failed. His theory is that microfinance works because it assumes poor people are smart.
Burt suggests that most charitable programs are structured in a way that assumes that the poor are needy because they are less capable of solving their problems that those offering the solution. So education, medical care, or food is given to people in a way that, although not intentional, takes from their dignity. He offered an interesting contrast to the theory of giving that sets microfinance apart form other kinds of aid. He said many people think that by offering someone a $100 loan and asking for $118 (loan+interest) in return, you’ve taken $18 from that person. In fact, at Fundación Paraguaya, they see things very differently – instead you have entrusted $118 of value to the intelligence and integrity of this person. By contrast, a client who is given 5 pieces of bread is being taken from by every loaf. The gift often assumes he is not capable of finding a way to feed himself and thus steals from his dignity. It creates an imbalance of power, a sense of something owed by the recipient of aid, and, eventually, works in streaks of racism. The loan, on the otherhand, assumes the borrower (though poor) is smart and worthy of trust and investment.
He went on to explain that his team is working on other programs that preserve this basic assumption of microfinance – that the poor are smart and able to help solve their own problems. They are applying this to education and they are seeing fantastic improvements to graduation rates compared to free programs based on government or other funding. These solutions often have a genesis with a loan. After loans, the person is no longer poor. They need food, they can buy food. They need medicine, they can buy medicine. They want education, so they begin to invest in it. The programs preserve the dignity of the people trying to bring necessary change to their lives.
I had imagined that after brining loans to the poor, one of the next steps for Kiva might be to bring their products to the lenders (eg, coffee from an entrepreneur sold to Americans via the web) – to close the loop in the give and the take. While this isn’t necessarily a bad idea it might be the wrong approach to helping the people advance themselves as a society. Maybe what is needed are more choices for people beyond loans, more opportunities for them to invest in their own quality of life. In that sense, we’d be bringing more high-quality and affordable products to them, offering more tools from which to choose to solve the problems they face. I’ve always heard it said that microfinance is traditional finance turned on its head – offering money to those most deserving (read: in need, yet responsible) rather than those offering the lowest financial risk. It is exciting to think about how other problems in developing regions could be solved by a similar inversion of the traditional approach.