Joining the dots the Kiva way

An old expression, maybe, but “that idea is so simple I don’t know why I never thought of it” applies almost on a weekly or monthly basis when you’re tapped into the Silicon Valley technology/academic environment. Take YouTube. The idea seems like a no-brainer, but to take it from nothing to a $1.6 billion venture in less than two years really gets you thinking… What will be next? Can I get a slice of the action? Will Google spot me?

For a few years now I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with ways technology can be used to connect donors and recipients, and build social networks to support and sustain it. I’m convinced that people would take more of an interest in what their money does if they can give it, or in the case of Kiva lend it, directly to the person that needs it. Traditional donations are relatively untargeted and given with an almost blind faith. How many people know what happened to the $10 they gave to the Asian tsunami appeal? Has it bought someone a fishing net, or helped them repair their boat, or their home? Or is it still sitting in a bank account waiting to be spent?

Kiva is, dare I say it, such an amazingly simple yet brilliant idea it’s pretty amazing that no-one (me included!) never thought of it earlier. Kiva lets you lend to a specific entrepreneur, or small business-person, in the developing world – empowering them to lift themselves from poverty. Not only does it provide a platform to make that virtual connection, it also creates an emotional one. Furthermore, it’s a loan, not a donation, so your $50 or whatever can be used over and over again. And you get to see it working.

Kiva is relatively new – it will celebrate its second birthday around Easter – yet it continues to expand both geographically (it recently launched in France) and in reach (new microfinance institutions are coming on board the whole time). It’s a perfect example of how technology can be used in a positive, constructive way. And it’s sustainable.

Who knows what’s next. Maybe I’ll think of something. But Kiva certainly raises the bar, and long may it continue to do so.

What next for the Inconvenient Truth?

Al Gore has done an amazing job of publicising the global warming phenomenon. Road shows, documentary films and books have all at one time or another been conduits for his environmental message. And powerful it is. But the problem remains little understood, it seems, in the American press. Many of those that bother to take any interest still maintain that global warming is a myth, or some kind of conspiracy by the Greens, or just plain wrong. The truth, inconvenient as it may be, is that there is absolutely no dispute among scientists that the planet is warming. Whatever chart or computer model you look at quite clearly shows that the environment is warming, that it started to increase at an unprecedented rate following the industrial revolution, and that last year was the warmest on record (even beating 2005 which, ironically, was previously the warmest).

The dispute is whether or not human activity is the cause of this unprecedented warming, or whether what we’re seeing – or should that be feeling? – is just part of a natural cycle. But it makes a complex subject even more difficult for everyday folk to grasp when even the press don’t seem to be able to explain the basis of the argument properly. Maybe it’s another ploy by lobbyists, that strange ‘phenomenon’ that seems to dominate so much of American politics.

Today the west coast of the United States, around California, was several degrees warmer than it should have been. I had a great time chilling out in my VW camper van. Bees were busy pollinating newly bloomed flowers (not a good sign) and people were busy walking around in t-shirts, eating ice cream, enjoying the sunshine. Ski resorts further inland were shut just like many in Europe, with absolutely zero snow to speak of. And experts interviewed for one of the national TV stations didn’t seem to think it had anything to do with global warming. No wonder people on the street are confused. In a nation which more than any needs to take serious action, they aren’t even at the point of acceptance, let alone action. By all means dispute the causes of global warming, because democratic processes allow that, but don’t deny that it’s happening, please! That doesn’t help anyone.

If Al Gore was to write a sequel to his ‘Inconvenient Truth’ it should probably be called ‘Cruel Irony’. Because the cruel irony of the whole global warming saga is that it’s going to be those people, and most likely those countries, which have done least to contribute to the problem that will suffer the most. Once again, Africa looks like being particularly hard hit. But in one further twist, Australia – one of the few industrialised countries which sides with the United States and disputes global warming, and refuses to even discuss curbing greenhouse emissions – is right now suffering what many believe to be its most severe drought in a thousand years. Politicians, fueled by public opinion, increasing concern and a steep rise in farmer suicides, have finally begun facing up to the possibility that something really is happening. For many, if this is the future for Australia then something needs to be done, and fast. Better late than never.

The United States has suffered its fair share of adverse weather over the past year or so, with the destruction in New Orleans dominant in most people’s minds, and a record hurricane season to boot. But many Americans haven’t yet had their ‘Australia moment’, nothing major enough to cause a big enough shift of opinion. But how major does it have to be – bigger than Hurricane Katrina?

That change will come. Americans won’t be immune forever. But for all of our sake, please make it sooner rather than later. The clock is ticking for all of us.