Kiva is a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 and based in San Francisco with a mission to alleviate poverty by facilitating microloans as small as $25. Visitors to Kiva.org can browse the stories and profiles of impoverished borrowers around the world and choose those they want to support. Kiva claims to have attracted 980,099 lenders who have loaned $466,594,475 in 72 countries with a repayment rate of 99.01%.
Kiva lenders often form teams based on mutual interests. One of Kiva's strongest teams is its GLBT team, founded in 2008. It consists of 6,025 members who have lent $2,883,800 in 102,786 loans. Team members communicate with each other via a message board on Kiva's website. Because it is dangerous for poor entrepreneurs to self-identify as gay in many of the countries where Kiva operates, the GLBT team tries to discern recipients who may be gay given the information they make available in their profile.
A few years ago, my husband gave me 100 Kiva dollars as a Christmas gift. I made my first loan to a young barber in Lebanon who has since repaid every cent of that loan used to expand his business. By joining the GLBT team, I have been proud to participate in other loans and I have encouraged friends to join Kiva.
Last week, I was surprised to learn via the team message board that Kiva had gotten into bed with Strathmore University in Kenya in order to offer tuition loans to its students. Strathmore is a private college run by Opus Dei, the anti-gay, secretive and archconservative Roman Catholic organization that received worldwide attention through Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code; the book depicts certain Opus Dei members as enjoying "mortification of the flesh" by self-flagellation. Opus Dei priests, including those at Strathmore, can be heard and read in articles and videos condemning condoms, homosexuality, women's rights, abortion, and a host of other equal rights issues.
Clearly, Opus Dei is an enemy of Kiva's GLBT team, and also of Kiva's even larger and stronger "Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious" team consisting of 32,991 members who have lent $12,080,775 in 483,231 loans.
I contacted Kiva's media representative, Jason Riggs, for an explanation of why Kiva would form a partnership with Strathmore Unversity/Opus Dei. I apprised him of the growing number of Kiva GLBT team members who had stopped making loans, left Kiva, or were threatening to do so unless Kiva severs its ties to Strathmore. His written response was disappointing. Riggs wrote,
"Strathmore University is one of the leading private chartered universities in Kenya, and is a privately owned, not for profit institution. On the spectrum of religiosity among Kenya's universities, Strathmore resides among the less religious[...] Opus Dei is distinct from the daily operations of Strathmore, and they are not involved in setting curriculum. They do provide a chaplain for those students who want to speak to him, though no one is required to go[...] Cancelling Kiva's partnership with Strathmore University would ensure that it becomes much more difficult for dozens of hard-working, dedicated students from impoverished backgrounds to attend university in Kenya."
A quick scan of Strathmore's website, its chaplain's Facebook page, YouTube videos of Opus Dei priests speaking at Strathmore and railing against condoms, and letters from Opus Dei priests active at Strathmore to newspapers in Kenya saying that "sodomy is a sin" prove otherwise. The only chaplains allowed at Strathmore are Opus Dei priests. There is no gay or gay-straight student organization. Strathmore's equal rights protections statement contains no mention of sexual orientation. Students are encouraged to do volunteer work and internships, but volunteering or becoming an intern at the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) is not acceptable at Strathmore.
Members of Kiva's GLBT team wrote to Kiva's community coordinators protesting the partnership with Opus Dei and received answers they characterize as patronizing and dismissive. In response to one member's concerns, Laura Piper, Manager of Community Support, wrote, "We have found no evidence that this university is preaching or instilling any type of discriminatory or homophobic practices with their students." Ms. Piper seems to have no sense of the subtlety practiced by Opus Dei in its educational indoctrination. It is incredible that she continues her response with, "I know that some people feel as though Opus Dei's stance on gay rights must be strongly promoted at the school, but we haven't found any evidence of the sort."
On the message board, many members tried to figure out who in Kiva's leadership might be at the root of its alliance with Strathmore University/Opus Dei. The name most often mentioned is Kiva's regional manager in Africa, Cher Jacques. My research disclosed that she has personally lent funds to students at Strathmore, and that she is a graduate of a Catholic preparatory school and has fondly described her involvement in Catholic ministries in an alumni publication. Indications are that she personally advocated for and established the partnership with Strathmore University/Opus Dei. Ms. Jacques has not responded to my requests for information about her enthusiasm for the partnership.
For the moment, it seems that Kiva leaders found a willing partner in Opus Dei and were seduced by the vision of helping poor Kenyan youth receive an education -- even if that education is tainted with anti-gay and anti-women's rights hatred. Kiva is currently unwilling to admit and rectify its blunder. Kiva's defense of its partnership with Strathmore University/Opus Dei seems to indicate a supposition that our protest will soon blow over and that we will resume making loans through its agency.
The organization may be naively unaware of the power of LGBT advocacy and activism that has of late brought down "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Proposition 8 and DOMA, and has successfully trumped the efforts of anti-gay religious groups that would deny equality in many countries. Unless Kiva is pleased to be associated and identified with Opus Dei, it should end its fledgling partnership with Strathmore University and seek to establish healthier partnerships with other Kenya organizations such as GALCK.
I have encouraged my Kiva teammates to wait for a formal response to our many requests before reaching a decision to quit or remain with Kiva. Meanwhile, many members of the Kiva "GLBT" and "Atheist, Agnostic, etc" teams have stopped making loans until a satisfactory response is issued.
: This report first appeared at sfgn.com and will be in print at
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