The Case of the Faceless Lender

20 February 2010 at 08:31 19 comments

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.

Would you lend to this entrepreneur?

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?

The WAGES bulletin board outside the Baguida branch office

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

Entry filed under: Africa, blogsherpa, Togo, WAGES. Tags: , , , , , , .

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  • 1. Troy  |  23 October 2011 at 08:27

    The blog post says: “This kind of transparency can help ensure that the P2P connections are based on equality, not anonymity.”

    Equal doesn’t mean identical. The borrower’s photo is meant to show their commitment to the business. The lender pledges money to accomplish the same thing.

    Whether lenders have photos doesn’t affect your argument that borrowers should. The borrower could establish trust through other means, like by posting collateral or detailed financials. The lender establishes trust by having cash.

  • 2. matthias aka melliecarma  |  6 March 2010 at 19:58

    hi taylor,

    just wanted to say i changed my photo to one showing myself. i also added my first name while keeping my net id (melliecarma). this was in part due to your post, part to my own thoughts i had some months before.

    i envision borrowers, not just mfi staff, become social investors/lenders themselves. this would take kiva to the next level of experience. it might release a wave of enthusiasm if this takes off and former borrowers become lenders. imagine a mfi offering each borrower a gift certificate after succesfully paying back his 5th loan – as an incentive to further loans, as a way of further promoting direct person-to-person loans, and most of all, as a pleasant surprise!

  • 3. anonymous  |  28 February 2010 at 22:25

    Oh, and one last point. The fellow who thinks that remaining anonymous to avoid stalkers let’s the stalkers “win” has clearly never been in a violent relationship or had his life threatened.

    It’s not a game. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about staying alive and safe.

  • 4. anonymous  |  28 February 2010 at 22:18

    I will never show my photo. I believe in anonymous lending, not self-aggrandizing. I make loans through Kiva because it is a convenient way to provide working capital to small business entrepreneurs in the (mostly) global south. I do not participate to connect socially or to make friends; like my anonymous donations to local charities, my loans are intended to make a difference in someone else’s life not so that other people can see how generous I am and be forced to admire me or act grateful.

    I have my right to privacy. I don’t even allow my photo to be shown on the corporate Intranet of the large blue company I work for.

  • 5. Burkhard  |  28 February 2010 at 13:38

    The Kiva ToU regarding IP are indeed atrocious (and they seem to be plagiarized from the Facebook ToU, which is rather ironic) The sort of thing I use as examples of bad practice in my IT lectures, maybe its Kiva’s turn…

    Having said that, while there is an imbalance, it is an inevitable one. Since the lender takes the risk, giving him/her more information than the borrower is not unjustified – put differently, i don’t care about the liquidity, business model, profitability etc of my credit card provider, but they do about mine. With my savings account, things are the other way round.

    Personally, I don’t care about photos of borrowers one way or the other – pictures of their business are much more relevant, and I look in particular where applicable if animals look well catered for. Kiva ought to be more flexible on this, but should warn borrowers that they take a risk when not supplying one, as it may deter some lenders.

  • 6. Martin Foreman  |  28 February 2010 at 11:47

    I sympathise with the motives of those who don’t want to show their faces, but I don’t come to the same conclusion.

    In terms of stalkers: hiding oneself is an admission that the stalker has won – s/he now has some control over when and where the stalkee shows their profile.

    In terms of Kiva’s “use of content”: do I really think Kiva is going to use my face for nefarious purposes? No, they’re just covering themselves from people who think the law is a game and any excuse to sue anybody for any reason is valid. I’m personally not so sensitive that I care how my ugly mug is used.

    It’s interesting that lenders are forced to show their face, borrowers are not. Lenders who show a face, show a human connection – a face says “I am like you. You have shown me your face. I show you mine.” Hiding oneself creates a power imbalance. It says: “I have the money; I have the power to hide myself from you.”

    Borrowers surely want the money irrespective of whether there is a face behind it. But a face brings us much closer than an animal, a symbol or anonymity does.

    At the end of the day, my view is: If your primary concern on Kiva is yourself, then remain anonymous. But if your primary concern on Kiva is the people you help, then shake off your fears and show yourself. Your decision, your choice…

  • 7. Denise  |  28 February 2010 at 06:52

    As someone who has had a stalker in the past (IRL, not online fortunately), I am extremely reluctant to post personal information about myself online. I never use my full name or a photo.

    Sorry, but that’s the way it’s going to be for me.

  • 8. Ben Finney  |  23 February 2010 at 15:44

    I find that I agree with several conflicting opinions here.

    First, I think a primary justification for lending through Kiva is to *empower*, as directly as feasible, the working poor in troubled areas of the world. From their standpoint, it certainly makes sense that they will be better empowered by better understanding who is lending to them and why.

    So from that point of view, I would support a strong expectation for lenders to put into their profile their real photo, clearly showing their face. Seeing the faces of borrowers is a powerful enabler for me as a lender, and I know no reason why the reverse should not also be true, perhaps even to a larger extent.

    Second, I agree that putting one’s personal information and photograph online is not something to do without care that it will not be misused. The Kiva AUP does seem very over-reaching in this respect.

    I would support demands from Kiva users that the terms under which we submit our information would be much more restrictive on Kiva, spelling out more clearly what the organisation is and is not permitted to do with the information. The terms should more clearly restrict uses that are either unrelated to Kiva’s mission or are to the person’s detriment.

    So, two goals in conflict: I want Kiva to have the lenders’s true information (including face photos) for parity with the borrowers; but I want Kiva and its partners to be legally restricted in use of that information to protect individuals against bad decisions or negligence.

  • 9. Nick Malouin  |  22 February 2010 at 09:24

    Great blog post Taylor, about to go update my profile!

  • 10. Thomas Gold  |  22 February 2010 at 02:49

    I was recently made the following remark : What if today’s borrowers (or their children) once get out of poverty and start using Internet as we do. When searching for their names, they’ll likely find their previous Kiva (or whateverelse p2p lending website) profile as a top result. Isn’t that a littlie belittling?

    All Kiva borrowers do not sign a waiver form or have a deep understanding of what that means

    In my opinion, photos should only be displayed for anonymous profiles.

    On another hand, I think that most of experienced lenders do not really pay attention on the photos anymore, and start looking more carefully at how is the money spent ? How does the MFI work (what kind of loans does it disburse, does it make profits, does it provides other kind of services…) and in which environment is the borrower living?

    Photos are certainly one of the reasons of Kiva’s success and rapid growth (it did catch my eyes on my first loans and visits on the website), but I think that it’s time to start thinking on ways to shift the lenders focus from photos to other more interesting matters as the ones described above, as we want to increase the lenders base awareness on what really i s and does) microfinance.

    What about trying to post profiles without photos? or just business photos without faces ??

    Btw, great post Taylor! Cheers to all my KF9 classmates, I keep enjoying reading your (and KF10) articles !!


    • 11. matthias aka melliecarma  |  6 March 2010 at 20:18

      i would NEVER EVER invest in someone i can’t see. no photo means no investment. if i want to invest in businesses i can do so on myc4, with a high risk of loosing money, at least with certain providers. i invest with joy in my heart if the person on the photo wins me over with a smile or laugh, if i see their children, if i see a happy family. take all this away and i wouldn’t even bother to use the site. take the fun out of it and i’m away! take into account that i alone have spent 1735 usd, plus 72,98 euro on 70 microloans (most of them on kiva, but also some on,,, and this goes for the period of time from july 4th last year, so roughly about 7 months. i want to point out that i’m just an ordinary manual worker with a net income of about 1300 euros a month. i don’t have a car and i don’t have to pay rent as i own the flat i’m living in. i don’t think that you spend a comparable amount of your net income every month. so you shouldn’t feel too inclined to spoil the kiva experience for others! (if you want to read the charts go to the financial times or faz and buy shares…) what makes kiva different is that borrowers have a face and that i can relate to them and thus feel connected to them and their story.

      i want to make clear that i’m not into self-agrandissement. i only want to express the fact that without the borrower’s photos none of this money had been spent on this people. i’m here for the people i believe in. i wouldn’t feel comfortable if anyone of them would point me out as being “rich”. i’m not, quite the contrary. still, i’m proud of what i’ve achieved in so short a time. thanks for reading.

  • 12. herbie  |  21 February 2010 at 09:20

    To Show One’s Face or Not

    For myself, I have trouble recognizing faces, and seriously do not like to show mine in photos. I feel it puts me at a serious disadvantage that could even be somewhat disturbing. I feel using a photo of my motorcycle puts me on a more level playing field with those who do recognize faces readily, they may not be into bike and have more difficulty there.

    I also do not look at borrower’s photographs, other than to get an idea of the size of the group. I also prefer small groups up to about 5 people max, and I spend a lot more time and interest on the type of business, and the background of the borrower, to have a sense of how successful that person is likely to be. Photos? Who needs them anyway?

    Just my $0.02

    ‘Bye for now

  • 13. Wolfgang  |  21 February 2010 at 02:44

    Thanks, Taylor, for your post –
    I am one of those lenders referred to by Jan who is on the “other side” of showing a face on Kiva.

    I removed my “face” when Kiva changed their Terms of Use regarding lenders photos on their website to this:

    “If you post any messages or other information on the Website, you agree that such messages and information shall be considered Content, and you agree to grant, and shall be deemed to have automatically granted to Kiva an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, fully-paid, worldwide license to: (a) use, copy, perform, display and distribute such information and content; (b) modify, alter, prepare derivative works of, and/or incorporate into other works, such information and content; and (c) grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing. You represent and warrant that you have the right, power and authority to grant the foregoing license.

    To the extent you upload or post any photographs of yourself on the Website, you agree that such materials shall be considered Content for the purposes of the foregoing paragraph, and you agree to release, discharge and agree to hold harmless Kiva from any and all claims or liability, whether known or unknown, including any and all claims in connection with the publication, production, processing, distribution or exploitation of such materials, including any claims of infringement of any rights of publicity or rights of privacy.”

    I am not prepared to grant Kiva a license to use, sell, edit etc. my photo in any conceivable way they wish – something they couldn’t do with borrowers’ photos according to their release (as far as I know). As soon as these Terms of Use change and respect and take into consideration the lenders’ concerns (e.g. by restricting use to Kiva-related activities and promotions without taking the photos out of context or editing them other than resizing or cutting them), I will “show my face” again. (And yes, I had voiced my concerns with Kiva CS back in June 2009, as have several other lenders – to no avail.)

    Best wishes,

    • 14. waywardcats  |  22 February 2010 at 10:01

      Thank you Taylor for an excellent post. While I agree with you in principal and would like to show my photo on my Kiva lender profile, I share Wolfgang’s strong objections to the unlimited license that is currently granted in Kiva’s TOU.

  • 15. Sierra Visher  |  20 February 2010 at 12:04

    Hi Taylor,

    I had the same experience in the field (KF6 and 7) when showing outlines of people’s heads to Kiva borrowers and trying to tell them, that they were the recipient of a loan from individuals. Um…from Mars? In the U.S. even our cats have money to lend?

    Great writing though to make the issue salient, and an awesome post. I agree with Jan and John that we have to start facing each other (literally and figuratively) if we going to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

    Thanks for writing!


  • 16. Jan & John, KivaFriends  |  20 February 2010 at 11:29

    Thanks for your post, Taylor, I am one of those who choose to lend based on eye contact with the borrower when I can. We are also proud to have our faces shown to the people we lend to. We also try to comment on each loan as it is funded. I never actually thought of writing to the MFI. hmm…
    This topic of ‘pets lending to people’ has been under discussion at Kiva Friends for a long time and there are strong opinions to both sides of showing a face on Kiva. I don’t understand but then too, I have never been burned by any kind of internet scams and probably don’t understand people’s fears.
    I personally think we need to trust more if we want toconnect our world together person to person.

  • 17. JD  |  20 February 2010 at 11:28

    Way to go, Taylor! We’re discussing your post today in the Kiva Retreat.

  • 18. Jeff  |  20 February 2010 at 11:21

    I hadn’t considered that; it is very thought-provoking.

    Many would say that they don’t want to flaunt their giving, maybe even don’t want others to know how much money they are contributing to the cause. With anonymity they can achieve these ends.

    But on the other hand, many feel that borrowers should not have to expose to the world the fact that they need to borrow. Certainly that’s the way most people think about charity (and by using this as an example, I am not saying that micro-finance is a charity).

    Personally I am proud of the fact that I am making Kiva loans and have my first name and photo on my profile. But I realize that others may have a different approach.

  • 19. David  |  20 February 2010 at 10:33

    Thank you Taylor for a very good post!

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