By Eva Wu, KF9 Philippines
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?