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Habits of Living Thinkathon — Day 2 Live Blog: Radhika Gajjala Lectures on e-Philanthropy

Posted by Jadine Lannon at Sep 28, 2012 04:35 AM |
The Habits of Living Thinkathon (Thinking Marathon) is being hosted by the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, from September 26 to 29, 2012. The event brings together a range of multi-disciplinary scholars and practitioners. The aim of the workshop is to generate a dialogue on the notion of surrogate structures that have become visible landmarks of contemporary life, and to produce new conceptual frameworks to help us understand networks and the ways in which they inform our everyday practice and thought.

Today, Radhika Gajalla gave a lecture about a body of work which she called as "Emerging forms of Surrogacy, E-Philanthropy and Digital Globalization through Online Micro-transactional Platforms". It looks at online micro-transaction platforms. She ran us through some of the history of micro-finance theory, from Yunis' methods of female empowerment to micro-finance as a profit-generating activity, and the newer online micro-finance platforms like KIVA, microplace and CARE's online micro-finance portal.

Radhika also spoke about labor organization and supply chains forming for handicraft micro-enterprises in India. She identified two categories of platforms that entrepreneurs could use: sites that link buyers directly to producers, like Etsy and Ebay, and mirco-finance websites that solicit (usually Western) donors. In some cases, resources like Ebay cannot be used in India (or couldn’t in the past) because of barriers like the banning of paypal, and there is more demand for the micro-finance platforms from lenders (Westerners); these forces have worked to make the empowered entrepreneur a much more legitimate and accessible image for lenders.

Consequently, Radhika begins to identify the politics of imagery on online micro-finance platforms, and identified two aspects of the images common on these online platforms: the empowered receiver (who is being directly empowered by the loans) and the empowered giver (who is being made to feel good by being enablers for these receivers). The images being used by the MFIs are strategically used to create the sense of connection or the belonging to mutual networks with the lenders — an example of this is individuals in the West who weave seeing a picture of an Indian weaver and want to fund her not just because they interpret her as poor but also as a fellow weaver. This philanthropic model of giving also uses guilt relief as a motivation — the return on the loan is the relief of guilt.

In the participant discussions, it was pointed out that the images also spur lending through the promise of improving lives. Also, this concept of using moral responsibility to prompt giving can be paralleled with the movement in Western business spheres of social responsibility.

Another participant brought up the idea of mobilization, and asks us to think about what mobilizes individuals or groups to give in to these micro-finance organizations? Is it really hope, or is it shame? To what extent can these really motivate us?

Further, participant interaction caused us to wonder if, on websites like KIVA, both lenders and receivers become nodes and entry-points into new networks, or even the sites of new network creation.

As for my own thoughts, I was particularly interested in a point that one participant made on the expression of poverty in the images on KIVA: they do not showcase destitution. While they are images of poverty, they are also images of hope — the colours are bright, the subjects are smiling. Are these images much more powerful as motivators for Western donations because Westerners are desensitized to images of destitute poverty? Or are they just more accessible to Western viewers?

While destitution suggests a rigidity of causal structures that cannot be altered by either the subject or the viewer, the image of the smiling Indian woman standing in front of the spinning wheel expresses the concept that poverty is escapable using the inherent tools and skills possessed by the subject, to the only thing missing that is capital — an idea that is much more accessible to the Western donor. It is also possible that the movement in international aid and development media from images of destitution to images of hope impresses upon the donor that there has been progress in the Global South, possibly progress that can be attributed to actions of Western development initiatives, which legitimizes the donation by implicating that improvement is possible and currently taking place.

Continue to follow our live blog of the Thinkathon for more thought-provoking discussion!

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