The Case of the Faceless Lender
By Taylor Akin, KF9, Togo
Last week, I spent two mornings making the rounds of the six WAGES branch offices that participate in Kiva. Accompanied by the Kiva Coordinator, I met with loan officers and branch directors to refresh their memories on the importance of transparency, clarity of photos, and detailed profile information. Most of all, I wanted to give Kiva a human face. While Kiva lenders are well aware of the person-to-person (P2P) connections Kiva aims to establish, the direction of this gaze is often one-sided. Kiva lenders are informed of the employment, location, and even marital status of the entrepreneurs they help. Yet, from the ground looking up, it is easy to see Kiva as a faceless, impersonal backer behind their partner MFIs. Kiva is often simply thought of as an organization that lends money to MFIs, which allows the MFIs to lend to their clients. While this idea is not inaccurate, it is certainly incomplete. I was disturbed by the thought that P2P connections were created between lenders and borrowers, but not between borrowers and lenders.
Armed with printouts of borrower and lender profiles, I was able to show a number of WAGES employees that Kiva is made up of individual lenders who all contribute to a single loan. While the loan officers seemed interested in seeing the final product of their hard work, they all expressed a common concern: Many WAGES entrepreneurs are resistant to having their photo taken and posted on the internet. The Kiva Coordinator and I enthusiastically explained the importance of photos in establishing P2P connections. When I drew attention to the images of lenders also on the Kiva site, I had a horrible realization – about half of their photos were anonymous. My argument was immediately undermined, and I was disconcerted by the message this anonymity sent.
When photos are taken of Kiva entrepreneurs, there are clear and strict guidelines to be upheld. The borrower’s face must be clearly visible, the photo must be taken in the entrepreneur’s workplace, and it is preferable that they are smiling at the camera. Simply put, without a photo these clients cannot qualify for a Kiva loan. Admittedly, Kiva does offer the option of censoring the borrower’s eyes and maintaining the confidentiality of the borrowers’ name, but these measures are often considered a last resort among partner MFIs. After all, Kiva is supposed to promote the idea of individuals connecting through the act of lending.
Lenders, on the other hand, are not bound by the same logic. While many lenders have posted pictures of themselves on their lender profiles, these images are rarely taken in the spur of the moment at their work place. In many cases, the picture is taken from far away and the lender’s face is not visible. Some lenders prefer to post pictures of their pets instead of themselves, and still others opt for the anonymous outline of a head. I began to worry about this danger in fostering a paternalistic gaze – one where the lenders can see the borrowers, but not the reverse. The P2P connections encouraged by Kiva are meant to be based on equality – individuals connecting to individuals. But can these connections really be fostered through anonymity? Moreover, can anonymous loans be based on equality?
In the midst of all this processing, I found myself staring at the WAGES bulletin board outside of the Baguida branch office. I browsed the posters describing WAGES’ financial services and mission statement when something caught my eye – something written in English. Right at eye-level was an email to WAGES sent by a Kiva lender. He had written to them in April 2009 personally thanking them for the financial services they provides to Togolese entrepreneurs. He referred to WAGES specifically as “a bright spot of hope” and expressed his gratitude for their commitment to microfinance and financial training. He then signed off with the following phrase, “I am a stranger to you, but I am proud of you, and I thank you for your service.” I was flabbergasted. Here was a Kiva lender who had taken P2P connections to a whole new level. Not only was he supporting WAGES entrepreneurs financially, but he was showing his appreciation in a personable and sentimental way. WAGES, in turn, demonstrated their appreciation by having all their branch offices post a copy of this email on their bulletin boards. The actions of this Kiva lender made one thing abundantly clear: Lenders can take the initiative in maintaining equally transparent P2P connections.
By way of encouragement, I ask that you upload a photo of yourself and post at least your first name on your Kiva lender page. Take some time to describe the work you do, the family you support, and your motivation for lending. This kind of transparency can help ensure that the P2P connections are based on equality, not anonymity. When you’re done, I look forward to seeing your smiling faces on the WAGES lending team and proudly supporting WAGES entrepreneurs on kiva.org.