Poverty Isn’t Always Pretty

Wrapping up my six month fellowship with Kiva, I’m not sure how to express that thought any more artfully.   On balance I’ve been inspired by the people I’ve met who, with only meager means, must spend long days at arduous tasks in order to support their families.   But I’ve also had to confront the reality that a life in poverty often means making hard choices every day.   The temptation to judge these decisions can be tempting until you realize that in many cases people have few good options on the table.

In Tajikistan I spent many days in the bazaars and was initially surprised at the number of school-aged children pushing carts or making change.   Why are they not in school working toward a university education and a good job? The easiest answer is that there are no good jobs in Tajikistan.   In a past blog post, I explained the challenges faced by Tajiks seeking to pursue an education or more viable jobs.

One day Sulton Kurbonov stopped at the MicroInvest office to make a loan payment and I had a chance to meet with this soft-spoken father of seven.  He explained that he had taken out a loan to purchase a color television set and my initial reaction was one of disdain.  You’re struggling to make ends meet yet you’re taking out loans to buy a television?

After some reflection I realized what a patronizing attitude I had taken.   Here’s a man who has lived honestly and worked hard for more than 30 years for little reward other than the sustenance of his family.   Is he entitled to allocate some of his income for entertainment?   And is he really much different than those of us who finance a car we couldn’t afford to buy in cash?

Having been overseas for six months, I missed out on many of the lesser news stories happening in the US.   This was actually a welcome circumstance.  After being in the US less than a week I happened across an article on the “Octomom.”   The what?  I was quite surprised at the level of vitriol directed at this new mother for doing nothing other than reproducing.  But after being bombarded with endless details on her, it became apparent that the crux of the issue was that this woman was receiving public assistance.

I thought back to my experience with Sulton.  I judged him because his loan was provided in part because of my efforts.  Maybe a little tiny piece of me felt like I somehow owned him or at least his decisions.   And perhaps I thought that his poverty was a reflection of his capabilities.   That may or may not be true, but the essence of human dignity is the ability to make choices – good or bad.  Immanuel Kant said, “morality, and humanity as capable of it, is that which alone has dignity.”

The greatest thing I see in Kiva and its lenders is the ceding of decisions to the borrower.   Making a loan in essence conveys a trust in the borrower and preserves the dignity of the relationship.   But it also means that borrowers may make decisions at odds with your own thinking.

A recent borrower in the Philippines took a loan to raise fighting cocks.   This is a very popular and legal activity which provides an income for many families throughout the country. While many lenders may not want to fund such a loan (and exercise their own free will through such a choice), is it appropriate to deny this borrower access to Kiva since we may not agree with how she chooses to legally pursue her livelihood?

This is one of the more difficult questions we face when we engage in charity of any sort.   Do we give with the expectation of control?  Or do we give with the acknowledgment that we are empowering others?


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