Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Changing small pieces of the world

By Donna Andrews

As I'm writing this, it's late Sunday night at the Left Coast Crime convention hotel, and I just found an email reminding me that I'm at bat tomorrow for the Sisters in Crime blog. I suspect my fellow board members are probably hoping I'll post something profound about some of the contentious topics facing the organization, but I'm juggling post-convention exhaustion, the dregs of a cold, and a touch of altitude sickness, and I'm not sure I can do justice to any weighty issues. And I'm kind of talked out about books and writing for the time being. I thought I'd talk about something else instead-- not unrelated to SinC, I hope.

A few months ago, I was listening to an interview with someone from The Hunger Project. He said that they had determined that there was no technical reason why hunger couldn't be eliminated from the world, and they set out to figure out what was keeping this from happening. And they found that the main reason was the low socioeconomic position of women--if they could find ways to change that, they could make a real impact on hunger. And that one of the most effective ways to change women's lives was through microfinance--small loans made directly to women to help them change their economic situation. The old "teach a man to fish" premise.

Made sense to me. That's why I was so excited when I discovered Kiva.org. My writer friend Toni Kelner said it best: Kiva is like eBay for charity.

You go on the Kiva site and you can see pictures of entrepreneurs--people who are asking for small loans to help them start or expand a business or make some other improvement in their lives, like repairing their houses or paying children's school fees. The working poor. When you see one that touches you--the smiling Peruvian women who wants to buy more yarn so she can pay her son's secondary school fees with her expert knitting, or perhaps the wistful nineteen-year-old single mother from Mexico who is hoping to support her toddler by starting a food stall in the market--you can click a button and put a loan of as little as $25 in your Kiva basket. When you check out, you can pay with Paypal. And when enough Kiva lenders like you have offered their $25 loans to your entrepreneur, the loan is funded.

Assuming your entrepreneur is able to make a go of it and pay the loan back—loan terms range from three months to two years--you will eventually get your money back, and can take it out of the system or reinvest it in another entrepreneur. And repayment rates are currently in the high ninety percent range, probably because Kiva has partnered in each country with a local organization that vets each entrepreneur’s business plan and keeps in close touch with them to ensure payback.

No, you don't earn interest. So the benefits aren’t direct and personal to me. But there is an intangible but very powerful payback. Today, I look at a map of the world and I see it very differently. When I look at the map of Africa, I think of my tie-dye maker in Sierra Leone, my fishseller in Benin, or the school in Togo whose classrooms I'm helping to outfit. When I hear dire news from Kenya, I think of the two determined and resourceful women there whose medical clinics I've helped to fund, and hope they are still alive and well. Other continents have also come alive for me--I've helped fund a clothing stall in the Ukraine, a flower grower in Cambodia, a kindergarten in Viet Nam, and an Internet cafĂ© in Peru. I seem to have a weakness for women doing needlework of all kinds--knitters in Bosnia and Peru, embroiderers in Iraq and Mexico, tailors on three continents.

It's exciting and humbling to think that a small amount of cash--what I might spend on a nice dinner when I'm traveling--can help make a profound difference in the life of a woman at the other side of the world. And I can also hope that my efforts combined with many others can eventually help make a dent in the centuries-old socio-economic disadvantages affecting women throughout the world.

Just as I hope my participation in SinC can help end the centuries-old attitudes that devalue women’s ideas and women’s work—attitudes that force women to settle for smaller advances, smaller print runs, smaller publishers, fewer reviews, and less respect at every point in their attempts to build a career in the traditional market. And yes, I’m pretty focused on reforming the traditional market for the same reason Willy Sutton robbed banks—because that’s still where the money is. And because the benefits of changes there won’t just be trickle-down but culture-changing. World-changing.

But don’t get me started on that. You’ve heard me already on the topic of "ask not what SinC can do for you, but what you can do for SinC." (Or if you haven’t, my blog on that is still available on SinC’s MySpace page: http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=161917660&blogID=286242493

I'm off to see if there are any more Kiva loans that can seduce me into funding them. Did I mention that every once in a while, you get a chance to support a bookstore or a school? Not just teaching someone to fish, but how to read . . . wow!

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