250 Years to Catch Up?!?

“Just look around, you can see all of our problems. It will take Africa at least 250 years to catch up to the West.”

This statement comes from a Kenyan man whom I met about two years ago while traveling through East Africa. I was passing through Kisumu, Kenya, at the time and somehow got into a conversation with this man at our backpacker restaurant/bar area. He was a Master’s student in Nairobi, home for a week to visit his family, and this hour-long conversation really opened my eyes to a number of different issues.

Now I’m not the dramatic type, and I won’t lie and say that this conversation, and that statement in particular, is what drew me into development work and this Fellowship with Kiva. But it is true that I think back to this happenstance meeting from time to time. I spent a good amount of time traveling through Southern and Eastern Africa back in 2007-08 and it was rare to have such an engaging and educational conversation about the state of Africa with an intellectual who actually cared.

So where am I going with this? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I don’t have some magical step-by-step plan for how to “develop” Africa and improve the lives of the bottom billion. I think the point is that no one does, and as we have seen in even the past few decades new strategies come about while others fade into history. So is more donor aid the ultimate answer? Less aid? Increasing levels of private investment, or stricter government control to ensure economic success and stability? It all depends on who the popular economists of the day are, and how they can convince politicians to support their programs, and as we know people in the spotlight tend to turn over quite frequently.

So then, what about microfinance? If you’re here reading this blog then I’m going to assume that you have some belief in microfinance having a positive net effect on the welfare of people around the world. Where do you see the future of microfinance? Will it continually expand and soon be a much larger piece of the development puzzle, or will the UN, World Bank, and others continue as dominant funders to primarily governments? How big do you think Kiva can grow, and what impact may they have in the world?

These are questions I ask myself quite a lot, and I don’t know exactly what to expect for the future. Of course I’m optimistic or else I wouldn’t be spending 6 months as a Kiva Fellow working to expand and improve this organization, but I really do not know what the future may bring. I’d love any feedback from you guys on what you see taking shape in the next 50, 100, 250 years, and how this field can change over time. No one has the single right answer, so it’s always nice to see what new perspectives and ideas are out there.

And just to be extremely clear, I will not, and will never say that microfinance is a panacea for the eradication of poverty. It is simply a piece of the puzzle, and one that I believe does work and does make a difference. But for anyone that has been involved in this field, or has done further reading on the subject, you must realize that microfinance is SLOW, SLOW, SLOW! Is there some way yet to be developed to help speed up the process? Who knows, but it is clearly our generation who is faced with these issues, and as more recent graduates turn to fields like social entrepreneurship and get involved in more international affairs programs, there is definitely hope to be had in this crazy new era of globalization. The world is flat after all, if you listen to Thomas Friedman…

Kevin Chaissan recently completed his KF10 placement in Nairobi, Kenya. He is now working in Uganda with Kiva Partner Pearl Microfinance for the next 3-4 months in an attempt to further strengthen one of the longest running partnerships on Kiva.org.

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