Friday, October 01, 2010

Placing Trust in Kiva

Digital rhetoric is not exclusively the domain of rhetoricians. Seminal work in digital rhetoric is appearing all the time from scholars in communication, linguistics, informatics, sociology, and anthropology.

For example, yesterday, as the annual conference for the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion began to wrap-up, Anke Schwittay and Paul Braund of the Rios Institute presented an interesting rhetorical analysis of the appeals of a popular microloan service in "'Democratizing Capital:' Digital Lending Networks, Mobile Technologies and Women’s Solidarity Groups in Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala."

As investigators, Schwittay and Braund explained that they were initially interested in the difference between what they saw as the commercialization of microfinance in Latin America and the so-called Grameen model represented in the "Bangladesh Consensus." Soon, however, they drilled down to find complex issues of trust at work and found themselves also working with meta-theories about trust from Amartya Sen, Anthony Giddens, Niklas Luhmann, and Lynne Zucker.

Case study research, netography, and ethnography were all parts of their analysis of Kiva, the online loan service for Americans who are interested in microfinance rather than charity in the developing world. They noted the importance of prominently placed faces on the website, minimal and clean on-screen presentation, and plug-ins for social network sites like Facebook as ways to engender trusts and foster a P2P illusion. They observed that the arrows connecting lender to the borrower on the Kiva web page didn't adequately represent the indirect nature of the transactions. An exposé in the New York Times that showed that Kiva was not all that it seemed, "Confusion on Where Money Lent via Kiva Goes," indicated that there was considerable backfilling of loans from MFIs and that the simplicity presented on the website masked considerable complexity.

In examining issues of representation and how Kiva is represented as an agency handling 120 MFIs in 52 countries, Schwittay and Braund also considered how their public database was structured and how it offered a way to think about credibility in the case of a "mobile credit bureau." Apparently Kiva uses a star-rating as risk-rating system to engender trust and played off familiar tropes rooted in the technology and entrepreneurship culture of Silicon Valley. The researchers gave them credit for thinking about the connection between the "back end" and the "legal end" in creating a system with 38 indicators in 10 different categories, which Kiva's Matt Flannery compared to an E-bay credibility score

Researchers studied AlSol in Chiapas, a Grameen partner that stopped being a Kiva partner because of Kiva's onerous reporting requirements in a time when revenues from artisans' embroidery were already cut by a decline in tourism during a period marked by swine flu and narcotrafficking in Mexico. Although they found interest in mobile phones as a way to cut interest rates, they discovered no awareness of Kiva among its former borrowers. Their research also raised significant issues about the privacy, given the seeming one-way nature of the interchange.

They also sought out an Kiva partner in Blimbingsari, a Christian area of Bali, which was called MUK. This Christian NGO on a Hindu island in a nation with a largely Muslim population functioned in a system of multiply contradictions in basic jurisdiction. The success that was had was credited by Schwittay and Braund to the Kiva Fellows, a group of over 600 volunteers, assigned at a rate of thirty fellows every three months, from a professional corps of Westerners with technology, finance or business backgrounds who also spurred regular media production activities showing successful loan results with blogs, pictures, and videos. Yet these borrowers engaged in raising pigs, making bricks, selling religious items, or pursuing other trades also weren't aware of Kiva's role. MUK feared that if the women knew the money was coming from abroad they would feel less obligation to pay back. Furthermore, the client waver that women signed surrendered many aspects of their privacy, because they were more concerned that their immediate neighbors not know about their financial transactions than strangers on the Internet.

Schwittay and Braund described how pressure to produce success stories about "happy entrepreneurs" generated odd discrepancies, in which women shown as busy and productive online might actually be ill or overwhelmed with problems. Stores that were shuttered were presented as open for business on the Internet. And garbage dumps that didn't match the clean image presented on Kiva were carefully omitted from the scene.

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