Most people find the ambitious goal of ending worldwide poverty too overwhelming to tackle. But not a group of Towson University Honors College students, who are taking on the problem, one small loan at a time.
It’s important to have a global perspective, says senior Diana Goldsmith, to “learn about the world and make a change in it.”
To those ends, Goldsmith, an honors student double majoring in international studies and acting, founded the Honors College Kiva Initiative — or HoCKI — in fall 2014. The group researches world poverty and raises funds to be distributed as loans through the online microlending platform, Kiva.
“Having a name and a face to attach to the idea of global poverty, makes a huge difference.”
– SETH GITTER
A Little Goes a Long Way
The economic theory of microfinance, which many HoCKI participants learned in Associate Professor Seth Gitter’s economic development classes, supports the practice of boosting economic opportunity in the world’s poorest countries by distributing modest loans to kick-start or revitalize small businesses, improve living and working conditions, or to allow for continued education. Kiva lets individuals or groups contribute in increments as low as $25. And with a repayment rate of over 98 percent, lenders can keep funding loans with the same money and create a prosperity ripple effect.
“We thought it best to use Kiva to guide us through identifying legitimate borrowers,” says Bethany Pace, Honors College acting assistant dean, who, with Gitter, advises the group. Pace appreciates that Kiva has field partners overseeing the loans, which reduces lenders’ risk.
Another benefit of working through Kiva is that students can view the pictures and stories of the people they are helping via a Kiva website. That, says Gitter, helps participants relate to the borrowers and understand how economic theories are applied in the real world.
“Having a name and a face to attach to the idea of global poverty,” says Gitter, “makes a huge difference.”
In its first year, HoCKI raised about $1,000 through a variety of activities, including a bake sale and a “penny war” in which Honors College classes competed to collect the most coins.
This past May, HoCKI members assembled for their first “loan party” — the year’s culminating event, at which they selected borrowers from the profiles available on Kiva’s website. Goldsmith and friends chose to divide the funds they raised evenly among one borrower each in Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic and El Salvador.
One loan recipient is Candelaria, a mother of three who makes a living selling fruit and vegetables in a market stall. She will use her loan to invest in mango crops to grow her business. Another is Maria, a widow struggling to send her four children to school who sells her own hand-woven textiles. Juan is a coffee grower whose loan will help him afford solar panels for his home so that his family can have electricity.
Microlending, explains Gitter, aims to get away from the idea that the poor are stuck in a poverty trap. Small loans, he says, can help businesses take off so kids can go to school and “break that intergenerational poverty cycle.”
That’s another reason microfinance resonates with students, who refer to the loans as a “hand up” rather than a “hand out.” Kiva money enables borrowers to earn a living on their own. Plus, adds Goldsmith, “that same money comes back to you, and you get to recycle it … you’re literally investing in their future or their children’s futures.”
Beyond fundraising, HoCKI is also dedicated to learning about the countries where the loan recipients live. This year, the group focused on Latin America and the Caribbean. In weekly Sunday evening meetings, Goldsmith made short presentations highlighting the economic conditions in a country chosen from the focus region. The eight or so regular attendees then engaged in spirited discussions on topics related to global poverty.
Though HoCKI resides in the Honors College, all students are welcome to join. Anyone who shares the desire to learn about and eradicate world poverty is encouraged to participate.
After only a few months in existence, HoCKI garnered national attention when Goldsmith submitted the initiative as a proposal to the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) University. She was invited to attend the CGI conference in Arizona over spring break where she met President Clinton and other government and community service leaders.
Goldsmith looks forward to next year when HoCKI will focus its fundraising and research efforts on poverty in Africa. She plans to study in Costa Rica this fall but knows that the group will be in good hands while she’s away. The group’s student executive board plans to divide responsibilities, and expand membership and fundraising activities.
Asked why she works so hard to improve other people’s lives, Goldsmith replies, “I’ve had all these wonderful opportunities. Now it’s my turn to give back because that’s what being a human is all about.”
By Wanda Haskel.
Photos by Kanji Takeno and Kiva.
Images provided by Kiva to advance its mission of connecting people around the world
through lending to alleviate poverty.