By James Allman-Gulino, KF11 Uganda
It’s now a little more than a week into my Kiva fellowship, and I’ve settled into my work at BRAC Uganda and gotten well-acquainted with Kampala. The city is a great place – it’s bustling and full of energy, and the populace is very welcoming and outgoing. Kampala and Uganda in general also enjoys a fantastic climate, and offers a huge variety of great produce – bananas, avocados, cassava, you name it.
But an area that Kampala doesn’t do so well in is public infrastructure. Electricity and internet connectivity are both spotty, but the condition of Kampala’s roads definitely sets the low bar. Even major thoroughfares are poorly maintained, and since paving is inconsistent, frequent thunderstorms create enormous potholes throughout the city. Sometimes portions of already-paved roads are torn up for no reason and then never repaired, as recently happened to a street near where I stay (shown below). An ex-Ugandan civil engineer who I rode with from Entebbe to Kampala complained that there are plenty of resources for improving Kampala’s roads, but that they never get fixed because money is siphoned off for other interests and projects are mismanaged. He also thought that low quality roads were the single biggest impediment to commerce in Uganda.
This discussion got me thinking – if roads are this bad in Uganda’s capital, what are they like in the interior of the country? And how does this affect the rural business owners that make up the bulk of Ugandan borrowers on Kiva? I believe strongly in the ability of microfinance to empower the world’s poor and support their productive enterprises; but what happens when these entrepreneurs can’t even get their products to market because of poor road conditions? Is microfinance just a tease when the things really keeping people poor are big-picture collective action problems like maintaining roads, effectively using natural resources, and addressing public health issues?
That line of thought also got me thinking about possible roles for Kiva to tackle such problems. Could Kiva also serve as a place to post large-scale projects – like a village soliciting funds to build a road or medical clinic – that lenders could choose to fund? Such capital-intensive projects would benefit greatly from Kiva’s zero-interest funds, and the ability of many lenders to contribute would help disperse the risk of big projects. But conversely, would such a change take Kiva too far away from the peer-to-peer connections that are at the core of our model? And would it stray into unfairly usurping the work of public institutions, even if they are ineffective? I’d be curious to hear people’s ideas about other ways Kiva could try to address the challenges of global poverty, or whether such changes would lead the organization too far away from its core model of microfinance. A very happy Mother’s Day to all the moms reading!