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Stuff You Should Know -- About Making an Impact with Microlending

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My Stuff You Should Know podcast co-host Chuck Bryant, our producer Jeri Rowland and I aren't completely unaware of ourselves. As such, we do feel a bit uneasy toasting an effort that ultimately has to do with buying an ox to help plow a small, cold field or a motorbike to drive as a taxi 100 hours a week. But then there's the million dollars. A million dollars most decidedly does have a natural bent toward toasting with champagne. And so the three of us will drink it.

We're celebrating because on March 22, the team our podcast started on Kiva.org passed the $1 million mark in amount loaned, placing us behind just ten or so teams -- monstrously large-sounding, amorphous teams like The Kiva Christians, GLBT Kivans & Friends, and Team Europe.

In 2009, Chuck, Jeri and I recorded an episode of our podcast on microlending, which is this brilliant idea from a Bangladeshi economist named Muhammad Yunus who, appropriately, won the Nobel Peace Prize for it in 2006.

Yunus had a simple but sweeping idea: Put capital, in the form of small, manageable loans, into the hands of those people who have customarily been denied access to traditional lending channels. Ostensibly, using this money to build or expand a small business (and frequently this means small on the order of something like buying reusable plastic shopping bags to sell at a local market), the borrower has the chance to pull himself from poverty. Should this occur on a large enough scale, then, hypothetically, problems associated with poverty -- crime, disease, lack of access to clean water -- should fall away and the developing world may democratize at an accelerated pace. (Here's a deeper dive into the subject of microlending on HowStuffWorks.com.) The jury is still very much out on whether Yunus' hypothesis actually works in practice, but we and our team have bought into it hook, line and sinker.

This is not to say that the 6,276 people on the Stuff You Should Know Kiva team are rubes. Most of us are aware there are very real criticisms about Kiva and its opaque system of Web lending and disbursement. The interface that lenders use to loan in increments of $25 can be misleading. While you seem to be selecting a Ukrainian farmer or Nicaraguan taxi driver to loan to directly, the money users contribute goes into a big pot. Instead of directly lending to these individuals, we are re-injecting capital into the microlending banks that have already issued the loans to them, essentially paying off the loan so that these banks can make more loans while the borrowers pay off their debts. Some of the lending institutions have even been criticized for exploiting borrowers by charging exorbitant interest rates in the neighborhood of 100 percent or more on microloans. Yet we still loan, and for good reason. The people we aim to help are still receiving the help we give.

When we open that bottle of champagne to celebrate $1 million in loans by our team, we will toast the borrowers of these loans; each of those people is the reason for this whole thing, after all. We will toast Glenn and Sonya, the unofficial team captains (and the people who sent us the bottle). We will toast Blake, whose last name we don't know yet but who we admire for adding a couple hundred dollars in loans to his credit card to get us past our last goal. We'll toast Josiah and Janelle, a couple of Americans teaching in Korea who have loaned $10,000 of their own very real money. We will toast those people who have loaned far more than Chuck, Jeri and me. We will toast all 6,276 other members of our team.

But, probably more than anything else, we will toast Kiva. Because of its flaws, it reminds us that things aren't black and white; we are not rewarded with purity and simplicity in our important decisions; and, in spite of its flaws, the good it ultimately does -- its potential to do good -- is vast and worth exploring.

Around the Web

Kiva - Loans that change lives

HowStuffWorks "How Microlending Works"

With Credit Tight, Microlending Blossoms - NYTimes.com

Small change: Does 'microlending' actually fight poverty? - The ...

Microloans helping Bronx businesses take it to the max - New York ...