By Taylor Akin, KF9, Togo
On Thursday March 4th, the second Togolese presidential elections were held since the death of President Eyadéma Gnassingbé in 2005. After 38 years of uninterrupted rule, his son Faure assumed the presidency. Shortly thereafter, he held superfluous elections that resulted in a “democratic” confirmation of his leadership. The country erupted in civil unrest under the pretense of false electoral results, and hundreds were killed in the resulting violence.
That first election of the post-Eyadéma era certainly set a precedent for fear. I quickly lost count of all the WAGES clients who reported a lack of demand for their products as a result of the elections. Countless others articulated a desire to take out another loan, but were waiting for the outcome of the elections before seeking additional credit. They did not want to be held financially responsible for defaults as a result of political instability.
On the day of the elections, everyone was advised to stay home. Although the regular work day resumed on Friday, there was a definite sense of hesitation in the air. The nation seemed to be holding its breath. On Friday night, I was officially put under house arrest. I have been graciously taken under the wing of a colleague’s family, which means I had the luxury of feeling quite safe despite the widespread paranoia. Unfortunately, I was also becoming a bit stir-crazy come Saturday evening.
That night, in a reckless act performed by someone who is beginning to feel like a caged animal, I escaped my house arrest. Before leaving with my friend and colleague, he got a devilish look in his eye and asked, “Do you know how to run?” He may have been smiling, but he was not joking. He wanted to confirm that if anything were to happen, I would be capable of running for my life. Suddenly, this Saturday night outing had become quite a loaded experience.
The main street was eerily deserted. The usually vibrating city was quiet, and the regular hotspots were closed. I couldn’t help but wonder how I would manage to run for my life wearing flip flops. Thankfully, the night was uneventful. The preliminary electoral results later confirmed that the current president would occupy the office for the next four years. In the days that followed, the opposition protested and the government resisted with tear gas in hand. Thankfully, no one seems to have been seriously injured.
I got to thinking about the link between politics, microfinance, and running for your life. As Kiva lenders, we are in constant dialogue about risk. We discuss who should bare the risk of default, we examine the risk of currency loss, and we evaluate the risk of lending to a particular MFI. When it comes to microfinance, risk is inevitable. But it’s easy to forget that Kiva borrowers also bear the risk of political instability on a regular basis. A military coup, the death of a president, and civil unrest can mean that entrepreneurs cannot open their businesses, sell their products, or provide their services until order is re-established. At times, just travelling the distance between home and work can constitute a risk too heavy to bear.
At its best, microfinance is grassroots. As such, it must be community-based, development-focused, and firmly grounded. But how stable can these institutions be when the very people they seek to serve are expected to uproot and run for their lives at a moment’s notice?
These questions are important to keep in mind. Microfinance does not operate in a void, and the risks are not strictly financial. Thinking about all the factors that impact a loan can give us a new found appreciation for every email we receive from Kiva updating us on repayments. Despite political instability, natural disasters, and weak infrastructure, it is awe-inspiring that Kiva entrepreneurs are so dedicated to repaying their loans. By the same token, considering the economic recession, large scale unemployment, and future uncertainty in our home countries, it is equally remarkable that Kiva lenders are still willing to lend. While the risks may be different on either side of loan, we are in this together. When they run, we run with them.
Take some time to give yourself a pat on the back. Congratulate yourself on taking a personal risk for the greater good in our uncertain global climate. When you’re done, get back onto the Kiva website and show some WAGES entrepreneurs that you have faith in them and their business endeavours. Then, join the WAGES lending team and show WAGES your support.