This post was written by Eva Wu, Kiva Fellow in the Phillipines, and posted here on 5 December 2009 on the Kiva Fellows blog… Though Eva talks about the tough side of working in microfinance, I think her writing and the comments shared by Kiva lenders after her post are the best demonstration I have seen of what it Kiva is all about: transparency, honesty, hope, and heart. It’s about connections, human dignity, and empowerment. I’m thankful for Eva and the other Kiva Fellows for sharing on the blog all of their amazing stories about the face of microfinance on the ground.
“Every time I come back from the field, I’m weighed down by videos, photos, barely legible notebook scribbles. Stories from Kiva borrowers, the good and the bad. As I turn these stories into journals I try to imagine what it would be like to be a Kiva lender on the other side, receiving an update on the Kiva borrower that they chose to fund. There’s a lot of joy in sharing the good, the success stories, a cause for celebration. Why we’re proud to be lending through Kiva. But what about the bad, stories of something gone awry? How does it feel, as a lender, to receive those updates?
What do Kiva lenders expect to hear from Kiva borrowers?
This question has been in the back of my mind for a while now. Particularly since, as lenders we browse through borrower profiles on Kiva and feel a degree of certainty. I’ve decided to lend to the fish vendor or the sari-sari variety store owner in the Philippines. But since I’ve started my fellowship, I’ve found that this certainty doesn’t always hold. In the months since the loan was disbursed, the borrower might have switched businesses or used the loan for other purposes. This could happen for a multitude of reasons. The seasonal nature of certain businesses may mean that, during certain times of the year it’s no longer possible to support one’s family just by peddling fish. So the fish vendor turns into a sari-sari store owner. Other times, the borrower might still be selling fish, but a family member has fallen ill and so the loan funds had to be diverted towards medical bills.
Near the beginning of my fellowship, I remember holding off on posting these “hard” journal updates until after I’ve finished the “easy” ones – where the borrowers’ stories still matched their profiles on Kiva, where borrowers used the loans on their business, where borrowers said that receiving this loan was really helpful to their businesses and family. But as time went on, I came to accept that the difficult stories reflect hardships and choices that Kiva borrowers face on a daily basis. Life is not easy. Neither are these stories. But that is the challenge for Kiva Fellows, to paint the complex human landscape behind microfinance and shine light on these issues with honesty and respect.
Sometimes though, I turn up stories that leave me completely staggered.
Here are two such stories from a recent field visit which prompted this bout of introspection:
We visit a Kiva borrower who starts crying and cannot stop. Later that evening, her HSPFI project officer told us that this borrower’s husband is having an affair with another woman. The borrower had four children with her husband; the other woman is now pregnant. Microfinance can be very personal, but this goes beyond the pale of what I thought project or loan officers at MFIs would have to deal with. My Western mindset breaks down; the solution that I naturally and quickly jump to (divorce!) is a non-option here in the Philippines. The HSPFI project officer is kind, compassionate, and has clearly gained the borrower’s trust. I know that the project officer will continue to encourage and be there for this Kiva borrower. But what’s the right thing to do? I don’t know. I don’t know how this story will end.
I met another Kiva borrower who peddles vegetables. Cradling her baby, she sets down on the wooden bench a handful of okra, a small bunch of kangkong. Something in her eyes, her face prompts me to ask if she’ll be taking out another loan. I’ve never asked this question before. I’ve heard many borrowers declare that they are good payers and that they would like to get bigger loans from HSPFI – sometimes prompted by the fact that I’m visiting them on behalf of Kiva, a foreign funder. I’d smile, mentally acknowledging the nature of business transactions, thank them for their time. This Kiva borrower shook her head, looked down. When asked why, she said simply, “Kapoy.” Tired. Weariness hangs over her like a persistent veil. I catch a glimpse of the limp kangkong leaves, brown edges crinkled.
The project officer added that this Kiva borrower will still keep her HSPFI savings account. I hope she finds it useful – a helpful benefit from a thoughtful MFI. But again, another story with an unknown ending. I wish I knew.
These are the stories that are hard to share. Maybe they’re equally hard to hear. What we hope to learn is not always what we actually learn. I’m uncovering more and more questions that don’t have straightforward answers, but I’m continuously humbled by the almost brutal honesty of both HSPFI staff and borrowers. The harshness that dogs transparency. A different face of the truth from the ground.
What would Kiva lenders hope to hear from these Kiva borrowers?
1. Ms. Nonny | 5 December 2009 at 22:09
John Lennon had it right: life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. And this happens to ALL of us, lender or borrower. Speaking as a lender, I am always ok with hearing the truth, the real story, no matter how sad or discouraging or shocking it might be. No story is so bad that it would make me stop lending. My fervent hope in those situations is that the borrower not lose faith in him/herself, that they continue to fight the good fight. I certainly continue to have faith in our borrowers, and that is why I continue to loan.
2. Ed Coambs | 5 December 2009 at 23:15
Great post. Very important to share the challenges of life. I encourage you to continue to open those hard questions and face them with intrigue. They will teach you more about life then you can ever learn from a book. That is why we are here. Let’s take on the hard questions and hard stories.
Keep it up!
3. Amanda in CA | 5 December 2009 at 23:40
It’s great that you ask these questions. It’s funny because one of my loans I did exactly what you descibed. I said, “Yes! I am loaning to a shephard! Look at that great picture of her with her sheep.” And then came the update… She had invested in clothing, choosing to drive to the big city and stock up on clothing to sell back in her village. And I was, I was disapointed. I had wanted her to invest in animals. Yet at the same time, it was a reality check. Life doesn’t always go as expected, and she needs to support her family. So don’t worry about painting a rosy picture! Give us the cold hard truth, cause it’s important to know the true stories.
4. Gavin | 5 December 2009 at 23:44
This is brilliant. I have struggled with the same issue – sometimes the stories aren’t simple, encouraging and heartwarming. The circumstances of borrowers’ lives are much more complex ‘in the field’ than a photo and 2 or 3 paragraphs on the website can capture. I hope lenders understand they are getting a snippet only and can accept that not every loan ‘changes a life’ for the better. Like many things, the deeper you go into it, the more complex it becomes. A much needed post. Thank you, Kiva Love Gavin
5. danny | 6 December 2009 at 06:38
For US$25, I do not expect miracles. As in any other business transaction, my expectation is for honesty. This is about changing reality at a very granular level. Lessons learned helps to bring focus on where a project like this can make a difference and highlights what is missing for others.
Also, wanted to say that “kapoy” has entered my vocabulary.
6. Judy | 6 December 2009 at 10:23
Minute details of personal difficulties I do not need; I have respect for the borrowers privacy in the family situations described. Hearing the story in an anonymous fashion is okay.
I know the people lead difficult lives: i can see it in their faces and I can fill in between the broad strokes of basic personal data and their cultural setting. My ESL students testify to the life situations in their home countries; for instance, verifying that street vending of medicines in El Salvador is usual and profitable.
Bottom line: are the borrowers able to complete their loans, even if a bit late? Different seasons and changing economic realities call for flexibility, and I applaud the entrepreneurs who can react responsibly. Their bottom line is the survival of their families and food on the table, and that reality coupled with their integrity and understanding of the use of credit will repay loans.
Ultimately, we as lenders rely on the field partner to assess the integrity, abilities, and potential of the borrowers to meet their goals. I have seen more difficulties from field partners’ lack of integrity!
I loaned to a silk weaver; but the margin of profit for her was squeezed by the broker and she resorted to roof thatching. The episode was reported in a journal, and I responded with a note cheering her on. I am glad to know that the lenders’ notes are read, as my attempts to e-mail field partners direct have been less than successful.
Thank you for a helpful posting!
7. evacwu | 7 December 2009 at 17:24
Thank you all for your thoughtful and generous comments! I feel proud to be a Kiva Fellow and proud to be a part of this wonderful community.
Judy (and waywardcats) – I definitely agree with you on privacy, especially as the borrower didn’t share her personal/family situation herself – so details won’t be mentioned in journal updates where she’ll be named. When writing journals I rely mostly on what the borrowers said in the video interview and in the follow-up Q&A, to respect their voice and what they choose to share with Kiva lenders.
8. Doug Nelson | 6 December 2009 at 14:30
I’m new to Kiva and reading this post has strengthened my commitment to the organization. Frankly, I consider it near miraculous that I can get *any* news about what’s actually happened with the small amount of money I’m lending. Giving lenders a true picture of the results of their efforts leads to greater conviction and more action, perhaps even beyond simple lending.
So of course you need to share the hard stories and the bad news, for our sake. This needs to be a two-way conversation, not a one-way transaction. Thank you for bringing us closer together through an honest depiction of the challenges we’re facing.
9. waywardcats | 6 December 2009 at 16:05
Thank you for the great post Eva!
I do not lend through Kiva to be led up a garden path, hearing only the good news. I lend to empower others, to allow them to build a credit history at the very least and hopefully to help them build a safety net for themselves and their families.
I agree with Judy above, I do believe that the entrepreneurs are entitled to some privacy, and if that is possible, I do hope that can be given to them.
But I also do not want you to feel that you should carry the burden of the difficult stories on your own. Tell it like it is. That’s why I’m here reading the Fellows blogs, because I know life is much more complex than most of us imagine. You are our witness, please do not try to protect us from reality.
Thanks for your thoughtful post and your hard-work and dedication.
10. Jan & John, KivaFriends | 6 December 2009 at 20:38
Over time, I have learned that we are all different and yet we are all the same. Life is all about choices and dignity. Though I like to feel ‘connected’ to the borrowers, I realize that only the borrower knows exactly where and when and how the loan will make a difference in their lives. That being said, I *love* getting the journal updates and wish, wish, wish for more. And yes, the sad as well as the glad. We cannot be fools and ignore the realities of life. jan
11. Ben Kim | 7 December 2009 at 00:05
We may face same problem in some days.
We are preparing a p2p site like Kiva.
but I don’t know how to gather lenders to our site.
What shall we say to the lender?
and what shall we say if the borrower can’t repay?
anyway we can think of our future.
12. Peter Cowie | 7 December 2009 at 02:11
I am a very new lender and like other posts all i expect is the truth and its encouraging to be seeing this happen. Life isnt always all roses and yes at times plans need to be readjusted. My drive behind lending is that maybe, just maybe it will help someone to a slightly better life and that is reward enough for me.
Thanks for your post Eva and i look forward to reading more from you in the future.
13. marydear | 7 December 2009 at 04:05
You rock Eva – great post. A lot of very thoughtful feedback – great link to Dennis’ old post!
Yours in Emo-ness,
14. Julie | 7 December 2009 at 07:33
Wonderful post Eva!
15. Greg Brady | 7 December 2009 at 10:28
Good for you. Keep up the good work and keep up the spirits. If things were easy, nobody would need help.
16. Charity | 7 December 2009 at 17:37
I think I echo others in saying we want to hear both the good and bad stories. I have gotten a few journal updates where the entreprenuer has invested in something other than the original loan post, and a few reporting illness in the borrower, or loss of their business or family members through violence. In the world of Kivafriends (www.kivafriends.org), they have rallied and fundraised or researched for borrowers based off journal updates. At the very least it gives us lenders some feedback and to have the opportunity to leave a message we hope gets back to the borrower. I think in cases where the loan use has changed it really helps to have at least a brief reason why. Even just saying the borrower ultimately felt they could make more money in one way than the other makes a difference – communicating that there was a legitimate reason for the switch, not just false advertising. Thanks again for all your work!
17. moshawaf | 8 December 2009 at 05:56
You could probably tell from my last post, but we’re definitely on the same page about the sometimes messy nature of loans and their impact. You brought it to a really interesting level though when you framed it about how it shows up when condensed to a 2 paragraph journal. Really thoughtful post, Eva.