With a mournful voiceover pitching us to donate to the number on the T.V. screen, the camera pans to half-dressed little children drinking dirty water. The poverty charity reminds us about the desperate plight of the poor in their squalid villages. As human beings and as global citizens, we are simultaneously moved to action and justifiably suspicious of hucksterism.
Melanie Moore Kubo, CEO of See Change, notes in a useful blog, "much individual giving in this country, and even that of organized philanthropy, still follows this basic pattern: Image. Story. Emotion. Action. This causal chain is seared into our DNA."
With 3 billion people in poverty around the world, we already know the need is great. What we don't know is whether this or that particular nonprofit or cause is effective, well-run and making a real difference. We want to do good, but we don't want to be played for saps.
Ever since Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mohammad Yunus pioneered micro-banking for the poor in Bangladesh (tiny business loans to impoverished people, mostly women), this highly-leveraged anti-poverty program has been growing in public support. No over-wrought T.V. commercials needed.
However, recently microfinance has come under criticism for rapacious profiteering, a lack of transparency and enigmatic economic development results. Into the debate enters Freedom from Hunger, an international microfinance organization with a reputation for fact-finding, commitment to scientific evaluation and open knowledge sourcing:
"There are various levels of "knowing" the value of microfinance... We cannot ignore the personal experience of development practitioners who have decided that microfinance is worth their time and effort. Not all of us were born thinking positive thoughts about microfinance or trained from professional adolescence to do nothing but microfinance. Therefore, we do not have a vested interest in microfinance being the "silver bullet" against poverty."
Indeed anti-poverty gunslingers with silver bullets don't exist. Just smart, decent people, fighting a massive wave of misery:
"Many of us have decades of experience in fieldwork with the poor. Perhaps we've seen disheartened agriculture extension agents who could not persuade farmers to adopt new technologies that would assure enough food for the family throughout the year. Perhaps we've noted that mothers bring their kids into primary health care clinics only when they are far-gone with preventable illnesses. Perhaps we've trained budding entrepreneurs for months only to see their businesses flounder in the face of competition..."
"And then, perhaps we saw a group of women come together in mutual support to borrow [microloans] or just save for their own purposes, at first very uncertain and then over time getting more and more self-confident and evincing a palpable sense of hope, opening up to possibilities like flowers opening to the sun."
Microfinance borrower keeping track of her microloan payments:
Thanks, Freedom for Hunger, for the honesty, balance and hard-earned testimonial. No silver bullets, just the truth-telling we have all learned to expect from you.