“Greetings from Tororo Uganda in the name of our lord Jesus Christ . . . Your money changed the life of my family,” the blog post begins, dusting off for the Web age that classic 20th century epistolary form—the letter of embarrassingly effusive thanks from a Third World charity case to a First World bleeding-heart sponsor. But if the rhetoric remains the same, the charity itself—online “microfinance” start-up Kiva—is a creature of harder-nosed times. With Kiva, you sponsor a business, not a family, and it’s no donation you make, but a loan. The loans pay no interest, but even so, if you’ve ever wondered what it might have felt like to be in on Google’s first round of financing, Kiva’s probably as close as you’ll come. Just log in, choose from among business prospectuses ranging from Simon Okiror’s “God Blesses” medicine shop to Joseph Opio’s “Awasi Goat Keepers,” pony up as little as $25 toward the typical start-up cost of $500, and bingo: You’re a venture capitalist.
If on the other hand this all sounds too much like a rotisserie baseball version of neoliberal transnational finance for your taste, relax. Kiva simply democratizes access to a worldwide microfinance movement that has been empowering the working poor for two decades, bringing affordable credit, savings, insurance, and other forms of financial leverage to millions whom traditional banks wouldn’t have touched with a 3,000-mile-long data connection. For Kiva borrower Christine Awora, that leverage made her rural East African restaurant profitable enough to pay for the first blankets she and her husband had slept on in 12 years of marriage. For her sponsors, it secured a promise no old-school thank-you letter would have made: “When time comes for you to visit Uganda, we will be able to serve you with very delicious food like Red Lobster . . .”