Growing pains for Kiva

Call it Web 2.0: The African version. The online microfinance lending site stumbles, but doesn't get knocked down

Published July 17, 2008 6:27PM (EDT)

I continue to be fascinated by the evolution of Kiva, the online microfinance lending site that allows you to pick and choose exactly who gets your loan.

My first loan, made back in December 2006, was paid back in full, and I promptly rolled it over to a new recipient. But the friend of mine who had originally alerted me to Kiva's existence, reported a month ago that his first loan had defaulted.

The problem, it turns out, was not so much with the loan recipient, but with Women's Economic Empowerment Consort, one of the on-the-ground field agencies Kiva was working with in Kenya. The founder of the organization died suddenly in 2007, and the group appeared to lose its way afterwards.

Matt Flannery, the founder and CEO of Kiva, posted in his own blog yesterday about some of the troubles Kiva has encountered in Africa. Kiva has been forced to shut down operations with five different local field agencies, three in Kenya, one in Cote d'Ivoire, and one in Uganda. The reasons have ranged from mismanagement and misrepresentation to outright fraud, but Flannery writes that there is something of a common theme:

Behind each of these break-ups, there is a story. Usually, there lies a patriarchal figure who viewed his organization as an extension of himself and a Kiva which was way too naive.

Kiva's experience neatly encapsulates the larger narrative in which Western development agencies have encountered so much difficulty in ensuring that aid to Africa is effectively distributed and efficiently deployed. The difference with Kiva, is, again, the incredible transparency of each step in the process. Ironically, I feel more confident about making future loans through Kiva after reading about the organization's missteps and naivete in Flannery's blog.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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