What would Maimonides think of Kiva?

(First blog Milestone reached: a blog post inspired by a reader’s comment. The next milestone will be when the same thing happens and I don’t know the reader personally).

A blog reader of mine brought up Kiva in response to yesterday’s post, which I thought was interesting – both because I didn’t mention Kiva and because it was on my mind too. So what would Maimonides think of Kiva?

In Maimonides’ discussion of charity, he says that you should not put money into the tzedakah box unless you know that the person responsible for the box is faithful, wise and trustworthy. If not, you’re not sure if the donation will help improve a person’s life.

This sense of distrust has become more common in recent decades, especially in international charity. There’s a sense, fair or not, that little has been accomplished with the $2.3 trillion the West has spent on foreign aid in the last 5 decades, since much of the world is still very poor. William Easterly in his book The White Man’s Burden has been one of the most vocal critics in this camp, explaining the many failings of international charity and international aid. On the other end of the spectrum, Jeff Sachs argues in The End of Poverty that we could end global poverty by increasing global giving.

(There’s a book’s worth of discussion that this opens up, which I’ll avoid for now and just point out that the US GDP last year was just under $14 trillion, so if my math is right the total spending on foreign aid by the West over 50 years is equivalent to two months’ worth of the U.S. GDP. Two months worth of output for .25 billion people vs. 600 months’ worth for ~3 billion people? So maybe it’s not that much after all…)

While Easterly’s focus is more on international NGOs (e.g. the World Bank), someone like my friend who raised the question about Kiva can’t be blamed for thinking, “Why would my $25 make a difference, and how can I know it’s being spent wisely?” To me this is just a step removed from the legitimate fear that the tzedakah collector is unfaithful or dishonest. The worry is that your money goes into the box with the intent of helping someone, but that someone isn’t helped as a result.

To me this helps explain why most giving in the United States is local and through religious organizations: it is much easier to feel confident that your donation will make a difference when you personally know the person asking you to give, are giving as part of an established community, and have first-hand exposure to the problems your donation is meant to address.

So what would Maimonides make of Kiva? There are lots of organizations doing international work that are incredibly effective and trustworthy stewards of people’s charity (yes, I think that Acumen Fund is one of them). The brilliance of Kiva is that it has found a way to create that personal connection and the sense of empowerment on the part of the donor, allaying the fear (conscious or not) that the $25 donation will be lost in a sea of larger donations, or will never reach its intended recipient. Kiva has used the Internet to get rid of the tzedakah box altogether, allowing the giver to “give directly to the poor without being asked” (Level 5 in terms of honorability, for those keeping score).

My own hope is that this is increasing the number of people giving and increasing people’s comfort with and habit of giving – especially by people in their 20s and 30s –and that this will lay the foundation for more generosity, education, and awareness of the problems of international poverty and the innovative solutions now available to address these challenges.

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