NextBillion Editor

Weekly Roundup (2/14/14): The Kiva Debate

Editor’s note: Post written by NextBillion Managing Editor Scott Anderson and NextBillion Financial Innovation Editor James Militzer.

Hugh Sinclair’s harsh critique of Kiva published on Monday is not typical for NextBillion. It wasn’t polite. It wasn’t tactful. It wasn’t the reserved, scholarly type of article that NextBillion commonly publishes. Sinclair, by his own account, is abrasive. He calls himself a heretic and there are good reasons why the label is apt.

So why did we publish it?

First, it’s important to remind readers what NextBillion is and what it isn’t. NextBillion is a media platform that offers space to a variety of guest writers to provide analysis, commentary and yes, opinion. We aren’t a traditional media outlet at which staff writers research and write the bulk the content. Instead, our editors seek out guest contributors from a diversity of viewpoints, organizations and backgrounds, and we allow their work to be critiqued and debated. Different people can have wildly different interpretations of the same set of data, which is why we insist that our contributors link to as much primary source material as possible, allowing readers to discuss and debate their findings.

When we invited Sinclair to submit an article on his views, we recognized that he is brash in his claims and in his opinions, and that his commentary comes close to the edge (some would argue that it goes well over that edge). But he does represent a constituency of people with legitimate concerns about microfinance in general – and Kiva in particular. (And while we do not typically publish posts this acerbic, NextBillion has not shied away from heated discussion. In fact, we’ve published articles that question and harshly criticize the core ideas of base of the pyramid enterprises.) Sinclair might be able to attract more flies to his arguments with honey than he does with his brand of verbal vinegar, but does that mean his views do not deserve a fair airing on our site? Ultimately, since his perspective is representative of a growing chorus of criticism on a vital issue, we decided they deserved further discussion on NextBillion.

As we do with all writers, but particularly those pushing a controversial point of view, we pressed Sinclair for direct citations to support his claims. His article went through several edits before it was posted. We also made sure that Sinclair was available to defend his arguments in the comments section. Agree or disagree with his claims, he has done that, defending his assertions and his tone in the comments thread throughout the week. And as provocative as it was, we believe Sinclair’s article represented fair criticism and fair commentary. Likewise, we believe criticism deserves equal time for a response, hence Kiva’s response post.

Prior to publication, we informed Kiva that Sinclair had authored a post for NB which was critical of their organization, sent them a brief description of his key points, and said we would provide them equal space to provide a response. We are gratified that they took us up on the offer, and believe Matt Flannery and Premal Shah’s response to Sinclair’s criticism (which he has been making since long before this NB post) adds clarity to a number of important questions surrounding both Kiva and microcredit in general.

Indeed, the two posts, and the extensive commentary around them, amount to a fascinating microcosm of the growing debate about microcredit, its impact on the poor and the most effective way to deliver it. This debate may have amplified some of Sinclair’s more inflammatory charges, but it has also undermined those that do not stand up to scrutiny. This would seem to affirm our belief that open discussion of contentious claims is the best way to arrive at the truth. It has also led to one of the most illuminating and riveting exchanges we’ve ever hosted on NextBillion.

However, we should clarify another important point about NextBillion’s approach to open discussion: We can’t stand by every claim made in Sinclair’s post, nor in his comments. Nor can we stand by every claim made in Kiva’s response, for that matter. Yes, fact checking is part of what we do as gatekeepers. But as the discussion shows, there are several facts that are hotly disputed. Indeed, for the vast majority of posts, we cannot independently verify the claims their authors make. This is why we push writers to support their assertions with sources and defend them when challenged.

For that reason, publication on NextBillion does not equal endorsement. And the opinions espoused by Sinclair and our other guest writers – who are unpaid and not members of the NB staff – are neither shared nor endorsed by the editorial staff of NextBillion. But in Tweeting out Sinclair’s post, we gave the misimpression that we shared some of his views. That’s because we didn’t attribute Tweets mentioning some of Sinclair’s claims (asking why Kiva had accumulated $82 million in a bank account rather than lending it, and why they are less efficient than other microfinance funds) directly to Sinclair’s Twitter handle. We deleted the Tweets and have Tweeted out several clarifications. We regret the error, and we apologize to Kiva for the misattribution.

This has been a tumultuous week, but in many ways it’s emblematic of what we hope NextBillion will continue to be: a site where both the good and the bad are shared openly. Where readers hold our contributing writers (and us, for that matter) accountable, and where important issues are given the vigorous debate they deserve. In short, NextBillion’s mission isn’t to tell readers what to think – but to give them something to think about. In that spirit, please add your thoughts to the comments to this post. Did you learn from this debate? Did it cross a line? And if it did, was the final outcome worthwhile? We look forward to the discussion.

microfinance, poverty alleviation