I’ve written about Kiva before – They allows individuals to make loans starting at $25 to low-income entrepreneurs in the developing world, also known as microcredit. By doing so, you can provide affordable working capital for the poor (money to buy a sewing machine, livestock, etc.), hopefully empowering them to earn their way out of poverty.
However, Kiva may not work exactly like it suggests on their website. You’ll notice that they post up pictures and stories of people needing loans, and you get to pick the exact person you want to lend to. Back in 2007, I thought I loaned $25 to Vitolina:
Vitolina owns a set of beach fales that she rents out to back-packers or picnickers passing through the village and works hard to keep the structures in good condition. Fales are simple, small open huts with thatched roofs built in the style of the traditional Samoan house. Vitolina?s fales are situated on a white sandy beach on the Samoan coast. She readily welcomes guests and provides them with a simple roof, unbeatable views, and home-cooked meals. She will use the loan to renovate the beach fales.
However, chances are that the person you clicked on already got the loan months ago. Your money is simply going to the microfinance institution (MFI) who already lent to that person, and will use that money to lend to another future person or general project. The direct “person-to-person” link does not exist like it does, for example, at LendingClub.
After reading the posts and several follow-ups, it does make practical sense that Kiva can’t actually match a lender to a specific borrower – it would take too long for the borrower to get the loan. However, it does show that “good stories” do matter. Remember those “Save The Children” commercials where you’d get a letter from the child you helped? Same deal. Your money goes to the general organization, not any specific child.
As a result, Kiva has changed how it explains their loans and their homepage tagline went from “Kiva lets you lend to a specific entrepreneur, empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty.” to the more generalized “Kiva connects people through lending to alleviate poverty.”
The other common variable that is somewhat hidden away to new visitors is that while you loan money at 0%, the actual MFI will likely go on to loan money to the entrepreneur at around 30% APR. The difference pays the operational expenses of the MFI and may partially subsidize defaults in order to maintain the advertised tiny 0-2% default rates.
None of this means Kiva or microcredit is bad. Sure, it’d be nice if I could lend at 0% instantly to a borrower in Cambodia who could pay 0% interest too, but right now that’s not possible. I still plan on lending at both Kiva, but will no longer get the “warm fuzzy connection” feeling from Kiva and may direct more funds towards Microplace or Grameen Foundation.