Micro-finance and P2P

The multi-faceted potentials of P2P continue to amaze me.

You might have already heard of Muhammad Yunus, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. His micro-credit banking model has helped millions of people in their struggle against poverty. His story is inspiring:

I became involved in the poverty issue not as a policymaker or a researcher. I became involved because poverty was all around me, and I could not turn away from it. In 1974, I found it difficult to teach elegant theories of economics in the university classroom, in the backdrop of a terrible famine in Bangladesh. Suddenly, I felt the emptiness of those theories in the face of crushing hunger and poverty. I wanted to do something immediate to help people around me, even if it was just one human being, to get through another day with a little more ease. That brought me face to face with poor people’s struggle to find the tiniest amounts of money to support their efforts to eke out a living. I was shocked to discover a woman in the village, borrowing less than a dollar from the money-lender, on the condition that he would have the exclusive right to buy all she produces at the price he decides. This, to me, was a way of recruiting slave labor.

I decided to make a list of the victims of this money-lending “business” in the village next door to our campus. When my list was done, it had the names of 42 victims who borrowed a total amount of US $ 27. I offered US $ 27 from my own pocket to get these victims out of the clutches of those money-lenders. The excitement that was created among the people by this small action got me further involved in it. If I could make so many people so happy with such a tiny amount of money, why not do more of it?

That is what I have been trying to do ever since. The first thing I did was to try to persuade the bank located in the campus to lend money to the poor. But that did not work. The bank said that the poor were not creditworthy. After all my efforts, over several months, failed I offered to become a guarantor for the loans to the poor. I was stunned by the result. The poor paid back their loans, on time, every time! But still I kept confronting difficulties in expanding the program through the existing banks. That was when I decided to create a separate bank for the poor, and in 1983, I finally succeeded in doing that. I named it Grameen Bank or Village bank. (Nobel Foundation, http://nobelpeaceprize.org/eng_lect_2006b.html)

This model goes even further, with examples like Kiva, a micro-finance peer-to-peer loaning business. For as little as US$25, a loan can be made through Kiva to an entrepreneur in the developing world. What’s also interesting is that the entrepreneur, or a local rep, would also help blog about the progress of the loan. Through closely-knitted networks made possible by the Internet, Kiva makes micro-finance highly affordable.

I think there is immense potential still, to be unearthed with Web 2.0, media technologies (think mobile blog, digital cameras, just to name a few) – all of which can be explored using the P2P model. What is most beneficial, to me, is how transparent this can be.

A case in point: the National Kidney Foundation used to be one of the most successful charity organisations in Singapore. By ‘successful’ I mean that it has an impressive track record of raising billions with every fund-raising campaign. Deep in many of us, we wonder how the funds are managed. There were rumours in the grapevines, of the CEO flying first-class and employees getting months of bonuses. I remember my days as a reporter for a community newspaper in Singapore – and there was once I had to cover a story on how the Foundation helped some of its beneficiaries. Visited the office for some interviews and can’t help gaping at the beautiful office and furnishings. All the time wondering if my monthly donations had been used to pay for them.

I was not the only one. But this is where the media is a winner with its manipulation. Images of suffering kidney patients on television. I could not get past them. It took another media giant to expose the Foundation. The national paper took the Foundation to court when it sued the paper for slander in a news report suggesting the misuse of funds. Guess who won?

I’m an optimist when it comes to the Internet and potentials of P2P. Sure; nothing is ever foolproof – but between the institution and the network, I’d trust the network anytime. I’m not suggesting that the institution is redundant – but I think the network is essential to provide the organic accountability lacking in some institutions.

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