International Microfinance

from Technology & Learning

Core curriculum skills, meet global citizenship.

Books on microfinance could inspire global poverty debate in class.

"Why do we have to know this?" Kids often complain that they'll never use what's being taught in school. So what if you could bring the real-life world of international finance into the classroom?

A non-profit startup called Kiva allows anyone with a little money—including students—to help needy businessmen and women in developing countries such as Honduras, Kenya, and even Iraq. Here's how it works: Kiva posts profiles of struggling entrepreneurs on its Web site, and individuals contribute $25 and up through PayPal. The funds go to local lenders, who manage disbursement and repayment. Once the loan is repaid—usually in 12 to 15 months—you get your money back.

Microfinancing, or lending small amounts to those who don't qualify for traditional loans, has gained popularity as a way to help the poor increase their earning power. In 2006, microfinance pioneers Dr. Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work. Since its launch in October 2005, Kiva (Swahili for unity) has sent more than $8 million to more than 11,000 people. But what's its potential for education?

Kiva could inspire a creative curriculum built around the experience of lending to a resource-strapped entrepreneur. Students can read borrower profiles on the Web site and learn the basics of microfinance while selecting a loan recipient. Right now, there are about 70 businesses listed as "in need," and each profile displays the remaining amount of money required. For example, Juana Santiz Gomez of Mexico is asking for $950 so she can build a stable for her pigs. As of June 2007, lenders had already pledged $200, and she plans to repay all the money over 17 months. Sound like an interesting math problem?

Students won't have to wait long to see results. Lenders get updates about their recipient's progress, creating an ongoing personal relationship. This relationship could spark interest in learning about the borrower's home country at students follow the long-term progress of their loan, and highlights the significance of history, geography, culture, and political events in the borrower's life.

The stories of entrepreneurs in developing countries could also provide first-hand material for a debate on global poverty. Yunus's book, Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, is a good resource for older students. Or they could discuss The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, and relate it to their personal experiences of lending.

Kiva's slogan is "Loans that change lives," but borrowers don't have to be the only ones whose lives change. Math skills and historical knowledge are essential, of course, but learning about anti-poverty initiatives may foster an equally important real-world skill: global citizenship.

Lindsay Oishi is a graduate student in learning sciences and technology design at Stanford University.