The GiveWell Blog

Not our last word on the Kiva controversy

Nathaniel Whittemore writes that it’s “time to move on” regarding the recent Kiva controversy. I disagree.

It’s true that Kiva handled the criticism admirably, and made significant changes to its website to improve clarity for donors. It’s also true that Kiva has a stronger case than many for being generally transparent and impactful. Finally, it’s true that those of us who have been blogging about Kiva are a bit tired of the subject.

But none of this changes the fact that many (I would guess the vast majority) of Kiva’s enthusiastic users don’t know how it works, and would be upset if they found out. If you doubt this, just look at the reaction to the recent New York Times story that brought this issue to the attention of people outside our corner of the blogosphere. We may be “over” this issue, but most people have still never heard of it.

The common perception of Kiva – repeated to us by supporter after supporter – is that it enables people to (a) make interest-free loans to (b) the entrepreneurs they personally select. In fact, Kiva users are effectively making gifts (since the loans are interest-free for them, but not for the borrowers) to microfinance institutions. If they knew this, they might prefer giving directly to microfinance charities instead, especially since they’d then be able to get a tax deduction and give significantly more. Or they might prefer another gift entirely – perhaps a health program that offers great impact but no “personal connection,” or perhaps a DonorsChoose project that offers “real” personal connection but arguably little impact.

The time to “move on” should not be based on Kiva’s “handling” the situation or our growing tired of it – it should be based on Kiva’s supporters, by and large, understanding how Kiva works. We think we’re nowhere near that point. We urge those who know the truth about Kiva to continue spreading the word.