This post is provided by guest blogger Domen Bajde, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Faculty of Economics (FELU) at the University of Ljubljana/Slovenia. He is also running a personal blog at bajde.net.
In one of his depressingly amusing anecdotes Ronald Reagan suggests that in the US ‘War on poverty’ (declared by Lyndon B. Johnson two decades earlier) ‘poverty won.’ In the decades that followed, Reagan’s smug conclusion has resonated with many who have either lost faith in organized political/governmental action against poverty or have altogether refused to conceive of poverty as an issue of governance. Similar qualms have been raised in regard to nonprofits’ and charitable organizations’ ability to effectively besiege poverty. Not surprisingly, the ‘foot soldiers’ of the anti-poverty regiment (i.e., regular citizens/donors) are often overwhelmed by the endless charity appeals and a profound sense of hopelessness.
In our collective efforts to discover (create?) ‘fresh’ champions in the ongoing war on poverty, many heads have turned to business. Philanthropy-business hybrids, such as venture philanthropy, philanthrocapitalism or social entrepreneurship, have become central to contemporary pursuits of poverty alleviation. These hybrid alternatives are often depicted as an unproblematic marriage of economy (self-interest, resource management) and philanthropy (social values, charitable giving). Due to their supposedly apolitical and non-ideological nature they appeal to individuals of varied political convictions and domiciles (globally, so to speak).
Supposedly is the operative word here. In my research on Kiva, the paragon of micro-finance charity, I explore the ideological contours of Kiva’s appeal to the global audience of charitable givers (lenders to be more precise). As is often the case with business-philanthropy hybrids, Kiva’s appeal relies heavily on inspiring visions of poverty, progress and giving. Despite the research project being in its early stages, one thing is clear. Kiva’s success is (at least in part) owed to what Holt and Cameron call cultural innovation, i.e., its founders seizing an ideological opportunity presented by the tensions described in the introductory paragraph.
For instance, Kiva offers an alternative (positive) view of poverty (seeJackley’s TED talk), which substitutes the traditional depressing images of the helpless poor with the colourful stories of the ‘working poor’ (in Yunus’ terminology the ‘bonsai’ entrepreneurs), waiting to be unleashed by micro loans. Kiva masterfully weaves several microfinance myths into a compelling yarn of ‘Entrepreneurial charity’ (EC) – an ideological conception of charity that heavily draws upon entrepreneurial mythology (e.g., visions of heroic individual entrepreneurs as agents of socio-economic progress). In Kiva’s case EC ideology is triply inscribed: 1) in myths of Kiva’s origin (Kiva as the quintessential child of social entrepreneurship); 2) in depictions of the poor (the working poor entrepreneurs), and perhaps most interestingly, 3) in Kiva’s construction of charitable giving (lending).
Jackley, one of Kiva’s founders, suggests that: ‘Kiva.org democratizes philanthropy, allowing the average individual to feel like a mini-Bill Gates by building a portfolio of investments in developing world businesses.’ Her words echo the utopian ideology of EC which has inspired many (in Kiva’s case 579.144 persons and counting). By inviting regular donors to become (mini) venture philanthropists and by ‘retelling the story of poverty and charity’ Kiva joins the ranks of successful charity ideologues that are likely to play a crucial role in how poverty, charity and governance are/will be envisioned. What worries me, as I continue to analyze Kiva lenders’ thoughts on poverty and charity, is the profound lack of political and systemic considerations and the overriding conviction that entrepreneurship is the panacea (and never the germ) of poverty. ‘Democratisation’ of philanthropy? OK. But what kind of philanthropy?