Five Great Things About Microfinance

1) It builds wealth in the poorest countries. Some problems are problems of wealth distribution. But in many developing nations, the problem is a lack of wealth, period.Looking around Kiva’s website, I see many nations where the average yearly salary is less than my monthly take-home pay … and I work in education, not medicine or law.

Microfinance can help both situations, because it helps people create and expand small businesses and farms. This means more genuine goods and services delivered where they are needed most.

And nations with strong middle classes are much more resistant to manipulation and exploitation by large corporations and corrupt government officials. These loans don’t help Exxon or Goldman-Sachs. They help families.

2) It helps women especially. In many male-dominated societies, microfinance is one of, if not the, only way for women to get the capital to start businesses. And having their own businesses, and their own money, helps put women on an even footing with men. This can have a powerful equalizing effect on society.

3) It helps children, too. Families with small businesses can often afford to send their kids to school, rather than keeping them out to work. Many of the loan requests I’ve read on Kiva mention that very thing. The more kids stay in school, the fewer end up as child brides, child soldiers, child prostitutes, or, more commonly, unskilled laborers living lives of poverty.

4) It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Because you’re making a tiny loan, and not giving a donation, the entrepreneur will repay it in time. Then you’ll be able to take that same money and lend it out to someone else. You can keep the same money in circulation or you can add more each month, creating a snowball effect.

5) It’s cheap. The cost of entry is only $25 on Kiva, the world’s leading microfinance operation. And once it’s repaid, you have the option of taking your money back. So you’ve got very little to lose. Why not head over to Kiva (or to WorldVision’s microfinance department) and check it out?

Little Hershey’s Kisses, Big Child Labor (Wrestling the Chocolate Angel)

Face of Jesus stamped onto a chocolate candy

Human Trafficking and Idolatry…it’s One Stop Shopping

My friend Billy calls my push to abstain from factory farmed meat and eggs “Freeganism,” which is a pretty cool term (he knows about these things; he’s been a vegetarian for over a decade). I’m trying to reduce my dairy consumption, too, because dairy cattle aren’t really treated any better than meat cattle. But I can only go so far so fast.

The thing is, I may have forgotten one tiny little thing in my tepid one-man animal cruelty crusade: people. You see, chocolate, dearest chocolate, is made with cocoa beans. And cocoa beans are all too often made with child labor. These are not only slaves, they’re also often slave labor (bought and sold, like they were 200 years ago here in Mississippi), and they’re often trafficked as well.

Thanks to almost ten years of consciousness-raising, boycotts, and petitions, several of the big chocolate companies are moving toward certified cocoa, which by definition does not allow child labor or slavery. But none of them are at 100%.

The question is not, “do we do something?” That’s ridiculous. As Christians, we can’t just keep paying money to support child slavery. Not once we know what’s going on.

The real question is, do we go will 100% fair-trade companies like Green & Black, or do we support the big companies who are trying to do the right thing? By ‘the right thing,’ I mean companies that have clear programs with specific dates to eliminate child labor and slave labor from their supply chains, and who regularly report on their progress in a spirit of transparency.

I’m choosing to vocally and financially support the large chocolate companies that are in process of transitioning from slave-labor cocoa to fair trade cocoa (Mars, and to a much lesser extent Nestle and Kraft/Cadbury).

This is a judgment call, to be sure, but I’m hoping that the remaining big dogs (Hershey, especially) will follow suit. I think we’re at a tipping point where they entire industry could go either way. There is already real progress, as shown by Just Act’s 2012 fact sheet.

I see this as a “necessary evil” because I’m technically still buying into a system built on slavery, but with the goal of shutting it down. If the world’s biggest chocolatiers refuse to deal with plantations that use slave labor and child labor, those practices will become economic suicide – as they should be – and will vanish.

That said, I completely understand and admire the desire to stick only to fair trade chocolate, to refuse to give any money or sanction to the evils of child slave labor. I took that same path when voting this year. Whatever you do, keep this in mind while you’re stocking up for Thanksgiving and Christmas. You can make a difference, one purchase at a time.

Why Bother? (Drone Strikes and Child Labor and Factory Farms, Oh My!)

Chickens Stuffed into Battery Cages

Sunday, I had someone ask me what I was trying to accomplish.  She was specifically talking about boycotting factory farmed meat and eggs, but I suppose the same could be said of several of my “causes,” including: Voting for a third party candidate in protest of the two major party candidates use of, and approval of, continuing drone strikes that kill hundreds of Pakistani civilians. Boycotting Hershey’s chocolate until they institute a plan to stop using cocoa farmed using forced child labor. Or, to go way back, making sure the diamond on my wife’s engagement ring was not a conflict (“blood”) diamond.

And I stuttered.  I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer.

What I finally came up with was this (and I hope I can phrase it more eloquently here than I did then).  Many of the evils we encounter in this day and age are systemic.  They are clearly above our pay grade, above the area of influence we have any power over.  And I’m talking real evil here, not policy differences (the argument whether the current welfare system helps or entraps the poor is not “good versus evil.”  Both sides have concerns for those who need assistance, they just don’t agree on how it’s done.  That’s not what I’m talking about).

When I encounter such an evil, when I become aware of it, I have a choice.  I can ignore it, pretend I didn’t see it, and by doing so, give it my support.  Or I can do something, even something small, to push back against it.

So what am I trying to accomplish here?  I want to preserve whatever shreds of my integrity still exist by not being blindly complicit with known evils.  I want to let the people around me know that these things are going on, that people (and animals) are suffering terribly.  I want to let people know that our disposable consumer culture comes with consequences, often for the weakest and most vulnerable.

And most of all, I want to remind myself.

Ayn Rand was wrong about a lot of things, but she was right about at least one.  If you can do nothing else, call evil evil.  Say it.  If you have no power to do anything else, name cruelty.  Name theft.  Name murder.  There is power in just saying the truth.