Shiny Happy People

One unfortunate side-effect of my disengagement from network TV is that I’m woefully unaware of what’s going on. Some of this is alleviated by my periodic scanning of world headlines on the Manchester Guardian’s website and some by my loyal viewer-ship of both Russia Today and Deutsch-Welle but this is only good for a general knowledge of events. My finger is not on the pulse of culture or American attitudes. When I do happen to be snagged by something on the big three (we don’t get Fox) I typically sit bemused rather than hypnotized, and I still find myself offended by a good portion of what’s made available for my viewing pleasure.

If I was dedicated enough I might be able to suss out the hearts and minds of America through alternative channels such as youtube but that window into attention-depraved desperation failed me in a recent attempt to secure an IBM commercial recently dragging its lumber-some, neanderthal fists through the cathode spectrum. There’s an older guy and a younger guy. The younger guy is talking about some online reality where avatars represent people and virtual money flows like water. The older guy asks about real money and the younger guy balks. This virtual reality took a lot of innovation to create he says sulkily. The older guy says, “Innovation is for making money”.

The jars on my desk with their segregated coinage populations notwithstanding, I lost my thirst for wealth some years back, now attempting to make my way through life by requiring as little as possible instead of acquiring as much as possible. I’ve not been very successful in my personal endeavors but I try to make do and I do alright. There’s a world of people better at this than me, just as there’s a world of people who don’t just skulk around the corners with their eyes on restaurant dumpsters but with their eyes on an inner vision. The good old DIY ethic may have been subverted and sold back to the internet generation like every other identifiable cultural identity but true-blue individuals continue to thrive, continue to make things happen on their own terms, surviving through willpower and a sense of community

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that banks and loans and IBM can never understand because it’s not economically quantifiable.

But as I said, every attempt is made to take the concepts of “the underground” and spin them into a product for the cutting edge, left of center liberal who’s registered Green. The most obvious and contemporary example is what’s happening to the organic foods movement as Walmart, Safeway, Costco and their factory farm suppliers have found a profitable niche waiting in the parking lot. They attempt to dilute the legal terms of what qualifies as organic and they skirt the edges of the concept to maximize production with no regard for the grey areas which were never originally an issue when the scale was smaller and more localized. Sustainable? Crop rotation? Transportation? No, they’re busy trying to find a way to have certain pesticides pass the FDA’s rules and fussing over which multi-billion dollar marketing team has the best idea to sell this new rage.

Another marginalized institution of the past has begun to percolate into the popular consciousness as of late– non-profits are booming. However it seems the days of food drives and volunteering at the soup kitchen aren’t sexy in the modern era and now we have tech-driven companies luring the cash for whomever is deigned impoverished and worthy. In particular there has been a movement in the world of finance to incorporate more “socially responsible” investment plans into the capitalist world. I’m on the fence about the purity of this since I a)have this slush fund of death in my name I never did anything with and b)think the only way to invest money in something is to hand it to someone and hope they make a movie instead of buy cocaine.

An old co-worker of mine, after some conversations in the past, told me to check out one of the hot new school feel-good responsibly companies, a local non-profit known as kiva.org. It was exciting and worrisome at the same time, to think of a San Francisco couple founding a charity of sorts contrary to common sense and self-interest. Basically kiva.org began in 2005 after Jessica Flannery traveled to Africa, a place steadily becoming the world-wide destination for wayward, middle-class, college educated 20-somethings set to replace Latin America as soon as Hugo Chavez begins machine-gunning dissidents and broadcasting puppet-shows on his own TV station. Her husband, a programmer at TiVo, listened to her stories of beautiful people struggling to remain their inherent dignity under crushing poverty and together they pooled their pennies and designed a method of allowing other wayward, college-educated 20-somethings to help these beautiful but impoverished people HELP THEMSELVES.

Oprah loves em’, TV loves em’, you probably love em’ too. Kiva, Swahili for “agreement” or “unity” according to their FAQ page (gag, gag), basically works like this. In the third world there are poor people, most of whom could probably get a good solid job at McDonald’s but they’re lazy and would rather watch TV all day and have lots of babies. Despite looking uncool, however, there are people scattered throughout the land who really want to get off the couch and make something of their lives. They try to start their own businesses but, being poor, they have no start-up capital. Some have managed to scrounge and save enough to buy a yak with which they can exploit for milk to sell at inflated prices in the market but most are either unable to take that first step or are unable to get more yaks because the money lending is generally handled by sharks who charge exorbitant interest rates and have the tendency to react poorly to late repayments. What ever shall they do?

Fortunately the third world is dominated by people of a darker-hue and white people, particularly those with good-breeding and a cultured education, love that shit. It’s exotic. You’d love to bring one home for the den but your friends might think it’s tacky. Anyways, the white people want to see these hard-working yak milkers succeed by the sweat of their brow and whatever innovation they can afford from IBM. However, international financing is a little difficult because white people don’t really wanna spend any more time in the third world than is necessary to drink a lot of cheap booze, hook-up with other whites hanging out there and defile ancient cultural artifacts with their banal chatter and snapshot interest. But white people love the internet because it’s really leveling the playing field for the people of the world AND you don’t really have to actually interact with the third world. It’s also a great way to send money!

Loan Cycle

So kiva has these partners referred to as microfinance institutions. These MFIs exist throughout the third world, tho how they got the money to become anything like an institution is not readily discussed. Perhaps they were really good at milking yaks? Anyways, these MFIs provide small loans to impoverished people so that they can go do what they do to stop being impoverished. The loan officers meet with potential applicants and if their business plan is sound they approve them of the loan. Meanwhile on the malaria-free side of the world kiva receives colorful and exotic snapshots of these applicants and compiles an informal but personable dossier on who they are and what they wanna do. These profiles are put up on the website and shiny happy people can use the power of the internet to make a small donation to the exotic native (officially referred to as “entrepreneurs”) they choose. If that’s not enough the exotic natives even correspond with their “Kiva lenders” and update them on the progress of the yak milking or whatever. Back in poverty the MFI loan officers come knocking once a week to collect a percentage of the loan back. When the loan is paid off the “donor” is free to reinvest their money in another colorful native with a different business plan or withdraw their initial investment. Or, as rarely occurs, they lose their ten bucks.

The loans are repaid with interest which covers the cost of loan officers and, I guess, a portion goes to maintaining kiva itself. While a lot of leg-work is being done by interns or shiny happy people off to the hinterlands to get wasted and fuck Germans, there are still sixteen employees and an office in a very expensive city to consider. It’s no longer that romantic bedroom operation of, uh, a couple years ago. Then again, looking over the titled employees (no indication of what kiva -specific name they have) they might just live off dividends. Former google, Paypal, MIX, Barclays people and not working the mail-room mind you. There’s probably some corporate underwriting and, surprise, Paypal even waives the transaction fees for kiva donations.

In a nutshell… And despite the inherent offensiveness of .com hangover-styled new-wave monied liberals on the loose I think it’s a good company who’s really trying to make a difference in a way they were uniquely capable of doing. I obviously wanted to unearth the dirt, Cayman accounts or tobacco investments or mink stoles at the Wammies, but they just seem like normal people who you might run into at Whole Foods if you were so clueless as to buy that over-priced and mass-produced green-washed dreck. My real problem is vague and uneducated– the emphasis on creating a “My First Capitalism” relationship. Welfare is the nasty word that keeps floating around– it’s not a hand-out! I’m not sure that welfare is such a bad thing in its own right– American poverty is its own beast (to paraphrase PJ O’Rourke it’s the only place you can be poor and own a color TV) so comparisons to central Africa seem a little irresponsible. I mean, places where milking yaks is a good job makes you wonder who the fuck is buying the yak milk, where is the wealth trickling down from? God knows, but there’s probably some machine guns involved, and we don’t wanna know. So there’s yak milk flowing and cute little native things being made to sell to tourists and people can feel good about pulling themselves up by the boot-straps and contributing to their community. Building wells and schools is no longer sexy; earn it people. It’ll be the land of yak milk and honey until desertification strips the pastures, the military junta rapes and pillages and everyone dies of AIDS while drowning in the floods brought upon by global warming.

Kiva.org didn’t invent microfinance; Muhammad Yunus is credited by most as the father of the concept. Back in the 70’s in Bangladesh (not the land of yak milk and honey by any means) he was just a middle-class guy teaching economics in a university when, on a field trip to have his students poke poor villagers with sticks, his heart opened up and he made a small personal loan to someone to better their lives through innovation and hard-work. The habit continued for many years until, in 1983, he founded the Grameen Bank, the first MFI. People thought he was crazy but now MFIs have opened throughout the world and the repayment rate averages at 95% across the board. Not only the initial concept of small, direct loans has trickled down but also the idea of loaning predominantly to women (who tend to stay sober and watch the kids) and often to groups of women (group pressure to keep the money on the straight and narrow) have become industry standard. The interest rates on loans are high to cover the amount of work which goes into the small loans but the size of the repayments are still small enough to keep people from being overwhelmed and the repayment cycles are short, presumably for reasons that make sense but I’m not remembering what those are right now. While I’m sure he’s done alright for himself Yunus does seem to genuinely care about people and the Nobel hippies thought so as well.

One woman is a little less angelic when it comes to microfinance, even tho she traveled on her 1st world credit cards to investigate this Grameen Bank for a couple of months. Tracey Pettengill Turner graduated from Stanford business school where she learned about the small loan practice but was disappointed that only large companies were able to invest globally leaving penny-ante stock market gamblers like herself out in the cold. She wanted a piece of the action and thought that having her own online MFI, one that paid out dividends, was her doorway to emasculating the financial world, or whatever her sick motivations might be. This is all best summed up with this snippet stolen from MicroPlace‘s own history page:

Upon her return, Tracey discovered that the capital markets in the United States were beginning to view microfinance as an attractive investment opportunity. However, only major financial players like institutional and high net worth investors could invest. An everyday investor like Tracey had no way to participate. That insight led to the vision of MicroPlace: a company that enables everyday people to make investments in microfinance.

When eBay executives heard about MicroPlace, they were excited by the synergies between eBay’s mission to provide economic opportunity and MicroPlace’s vision to empower the world’s working poor. They saw MicroPlace as an ideal opportunity to put eBay’s assets to work in a way that could be truly world-changing. Powered by eBay’s expertise in connecting people, creating marketplaces and processing online transactions, MicroPlace could deliver on its vision to significantly impact global poverty.

Yes, you just read “synergies”, but the differences between kiva.org and MicroPlace don’t end there. Kiva may as well be a granola retailer, or maybe a manufacturer of lotions for people allergic the everything except butterfly wings and puppy kisses. MicroPlace looks like every company that has spawned in the internet age that’s predominantly a non-internet concept. Kiva unites the world through pictures and essays while MicroPlace has a bunch of pictures of people probably found using google-images. There are no direct investments– the money is given to a stateside investor which then deals with MFIs of its choosing around the world. You get their assurances that they’re investing soundly in yak milking and love, not oil. What is reassuring about MicroPlace is that there’s little patronizing– this isn’t about making the world a better place as much as it is making an investment you don’t feel guilty about because it’s supposed to be the right thing to do and you don’t even have to watch it happen. Kiva.org has designs on someday being able to offer investment with payouts but, for their sake, I hope they never get SEC clearance to do this– I’ll take my mildly aggravating, clueless, middle-class metrosexuals donating, not profiting, thank-you.

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