restricted access 5: Kiva’s Staging of “Peer-to-Peer” Charitable Lending: Innovative Marketing or Egregious Deception?
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87 Chapter Five Kiva’s Staging of “Peer-­ to-­ Peer” Charitable Lending Innovative Marketing or Egregious Deception? Domen Bajde Kiva just hit the 1 MILLION lender mark! You are now officially one in a million inspiring changemakers, pioneers, and poverty fighters! —E-­ mail message from Kiva Introduction Since its inception, Kiva has mobilized more than a million lenders with its imaginative and picturesque stories of poverty, entrepreneurship, and hope. It has brought the gospel of microfinance to the masses by advancing a flattering discourse of benevolent lending and, more fundamentally, by staging compelling user experiences. This staging has received mixed responses ranging from ecstatic praise to piercing critique, thus inviting closer examination of the suppositions and stakes at play in Kiva’s marketing. Drawing upon analyses of the organization’s marketing and the public response to it, I will examine the ways in which transactions taking place on are staged as transparent, efficacious peer-­ to-­ peer charitable lending. Their commercial successes notwithstanding, many microcredit operations continue to rely on philanthropic contributions. They have sought funding, in part, by addressing the general public through microlending platforms such as As it is not unusual for these platforms to function as sites of people’s first or primary contact with microfinance, it becomes important to ask several questions: What kind of discourses and representations of microlending are at play on such platforms? How does the public engage with the constructions of microfinance and philanthropy promoted by these platforms? What drives the appeal of platforms like Kiva, and what are the implications? These dilemmas 88 Domen Bajde spur my analysis of Kiva as a site where philanthropic lending is framed as a supposedly superior form of charity and as an enticing experience of prosocial investing. I draw on qualitative data comprised of archival documents (i.e., texts and videos released by Kiva, media reports, and blog commentary), user-­ generated texts collected in an online community of Kiva supporters, and notes detailing my two-­ year participatory observation of the platform. The user-­ generated texts that I collected from, a forum comprising more than 97,000 posts shared by close to 7,000 members,1 include 1,146 messages posted by members discussing the appeals and drawbacks of microlending on Kiva. The participatory observation data cover my contact and experiences with the platform in the period between February 2011 and September 2013. During that time, I familiarized myself with the platform, personally funding six loans to entrepreneurs in Peru, Sierra Leone, and Ghana, taking part in Kiva’s team-­ lending program, and testing out various marketing activities conducted by Kiva (free trial invitations, gift-­ certificate campaigns, etc.). Drawing on a combination of theoretical perspectives, most notably Lilie Chouliaraki’s (2012) notion of humanitarian theatricality, I argue that Kiva is best approached as an ideologically potent site where particular kinds of interactions are staged. Rather than uncritically accepting an idealized view of Kiva as a straightforward platform for peer-­ to-­ peer lending, I engage with Kiva’s ambivalent theatricality. I begin by presenting my theoretical framework and then outline both the genealogy of Kiva and the discourse surrounding it. I devote special attention to the ways in which Kiva stages interactions to support a highly consumable experience of benevolent lending. The Humanitarian Theater While all interaction is staged in the broader sense of being shaped by particular actors and actions, theatricality in the narrower sense denotes spectacle. For example, the infamous child-­ sponsoring campaigns that I will mention have been critiqued as theater in the narrow sense by those pointing out how the suffering of third world children is spectacularized to evoke an emotive response and the financial support of Western audiences. Given the substantial detachment (geographic, cultural, economic, etc.) between the benefactors and beneficiaries (as well as the obstacles and temptations involved in crossing these Kiva’s Staging of “Peer-to-Peer” Charitable Lending 89 distances), this kind of philanthropy is exceedingly theatrical and its “on-­stage” and “off-­ stage” realities can become less than compatible. Reflecting upon this paradox, Chouliaraki (2012) outlines two central problems of “humanitarian theatricality.” First, the staging of poverty weakens the truth of distant suffering, thus desensitizing the (Western) audience and provoking suspicion and apathy. Second, the purpose of philanthropic staging is to bring the distant poor “closer” and reinforce a sense of shared humanity, but, in fact, it tends to reproduce rather than erode existing global divides and power imbalances, thus restricting the potential...


Subject Headings

  • Rural development -- Developing countries.
  • Microfinance -- Developing countries.
  • Small business -- Developing countries -- Finance.
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