Different Worlds: Two Perspectives on Borrower Privacy from Indonesia and Ukraine

Heather Sullivan | KF17 | Indonesia
Chris Paci | KF16 & KF17 | Ukraine

When not sampling local delicacies or fording swollen rivers to visit borrowers, Kiva Fellows occasionally find themselves stuck in the office, chatting on Skype and sharing experiences (both raucous and ruminative) from the field.  In one recent conversation, the two of us, Heather and Chris, discovered that we were facing nearly opposite sets of problems surrounding the issue of borrower privacy. While Chris’s field partner in Ukraine was finding it hard to convince suspicious borrowers that sharing their photos and stories on Kiva would cause them no harm, Heather was struggling to convey to her Indonesian MFI’s clients that perhaps they shouldn’t be so nonchalant about how their information might be shared. What follows is a joint blog exploring some of the roots of those cultural differences—and their consequences for Kiva and its partner MFIs.

Ibu Masripah from Indonesia

Ibu Masripah, a VisionFund Indonesia client, was delighted to report on the success of her kiosk and participate in an impromptu photo shoot.

I’m Ready for my Close-Up! Heather Sullivan | KF17 | Indonesia

During my three-plus months as a Kiva Fellow in Indonesia, I have been struck by borrowers’ consistently blasé attitude toward privacy. Whereas most Americans, I think, would balk if their bank or mortgage lender proposed to post their photo and profile on the internet for all the world to see, Indonesian microfinance clients hardly bat an eyelash. Borrowers here don’t seem fussed about Kiva and, indeed, some enthusiastically embrace the chance to publicize their ventures. Clients rarely hesitate to sign the Kiva waiver and not a single Kiva borrower I’ve met has expressed concern about the use of their personal information on the Kiva website.

Intrigued, I have tried to probe clients’ understanding of what protections exist to prevent improper use of personal information and photos.  Might the MFI circulate photos of clients on flyers? How about billboards?  What if the MFI were to publicize an individual client’s delinquency? Feeling particularly bold on one recent visit, I pressed a client to imagine abuses of trust by the MFI, posing a scenario in which the MFI used client photos for commercial uses unrelated to microfinance. She indicated that the MFI could use her photo for any purpose, provided it was being used for the good. So cigarettes?  No, she demurred, not for cigarettes.  How about shampoo?  “Sure. Why not?”  (I admit that the lawyer in me may have gotten carried away with the hypotheticals…)  The client’s trust in the MFI was broad and explicit.

So, if Indonesians are especially relaxed about privacy, what cultural and historical factors may be at work? It’s hard not to notice that Indonesians are quite sociable and accustomed to living in tight, communal spaces. That said, there are many places in the world where people, by choice or necessity, live in close quarters and where the whole village is constantly aware of your comings-and-goings. The fact that individuals are not afforded much privacy in their personal lives does not necessarily imply that they don’t value privacy. It also does not mean that they would be comfortable sharing their personal stories with a broad audience.

Indonesia is famously diverse—religiously, linguistically, and ethnically—so “Indonesian culture” is hardly a monolithic concept. Traits and norms vary significantly across the archipelago; it’s risky to generalize about Indonesians—including their attitudes towards privacy issues. The openness of borrowers could reflect entrenched cultural norms and an appetite for connectivity—Indonesian are WILD about Facebook and seem to post photos with abandon. (These may include photos taken with the random foreigner on the street.  Being photographed with total strangers is a near-daily occurrence for “bules” in these parts…)

The apparently relaxed (or indifferent) attitude toward privacy might also reflect more broadly on the limitations to Indonesians’ attention and access to individual rights.  As I observed in a previous post, the legal obstacles to recognizing individual rights may be both formal and practical.  Without strong institutional mechanisms for safeguarding individual rights—that is, without effective rule of law—the value of formal rights is compromised.  Rights may exist in theory, but if there is no will or institutional structure for vindicating rights, it’s no surprise that the average citizen is unaware of, or indifferent to, such protections.

While the “why” may be interesting to ponder, the more practical concern for Kiva and its MFI partners relates to consent and client protection. In order to appear on the Kiva website, a borrower must provide written consent in the form of a “client waiver.”  The sophistication of borrowers varies tremendously.  Borrowers need not acquire a deep and thorough understanding of Kiva, but they should be provided with adequate information to support informed and meaningful consent.  In obtaining client consent, MFIs should explain to borrowers how Kiva works and how the borrower’s personal information will be used by Kiva. The MFI should also explain that appearing on Kiva is not a condition of obtaining the loan (a borrower may “opt out” and still receive a non-Kiva loan).

Additionally, informed consent implies some understanding of what constraints burden Kiva and the MFI in their use of client photos and personal information.  Some uses are impermissible, waiver or no waiver. Returning to my goofy hypothetical, neither Kiva nor the MFI can use client photos to sell shampoo.  An MFI may not disseminate client images or date in a manner intended to shame or intimidate a borrower.  Ideally, a borrower will understand the limited nature of the client waiver and realize what rights she retains against Kiva and the MFI.

While some universal principles concerning client protection apply within the microfinance industry, MFIs are also, of course, subject to the specific laws and regulations governing the jurisdictions in which they operate.  Without addressing the substance of those principles and restrictions—particularly the murky contours of Indonesian law—I would ask readers to consider what affirmative obligations MFIs should bear in terms of educating their borrowers about their rights.  If a borrower seems content to waive her rights (including her right to receive a non-Kiva loan should she decline to sign the waiver), should the MFI expend any effort to press the issue and explain the limitations of that waiver?  If a borrower is keen to take on a loan without fully understanding the product or the consequences of delinquency/default, what disclosures or explanations are adequate?

The MFIs I have worked with in Indonesia, VisionFund Indonesia and TLM, benefit from the openness and trust of their clients.  Although I am convinced there are broader societal factors at work, I also think that the clients’ trust reflects positively on the culture of my MFIs and the warm relationships that they have fostered with their clients. That trust is a great asset for the MFIs but it also creates a particularly fertile opportunity to educate clients about client protection principles. I’m not suggesting that MFIs proselytize to their clients about legal rights and ethical protections surrounding privacy.  However, achieving “informed consent” may actually require more deliberate effort in an environment where borrowers practically queue up to have their pictures taken.

Unless borrowers are educated about the ethical and legal standards governing MFIs (and other institutions), it is unlikely that they will insist that such standards are followed.  This raises difficult practical questions about the role and responsibilities of an MFI. As an organization committed to social impact, does an MFI bear a greater onus to educate and inform clients of rights, rules, and consequences?  If so, is that brand of paternalism desirable or patronizing?  These are difficult questions in practice, and the goal is not to fetishize privacy, particularly if doing so increases the already-high operating expenses of an MFI (resulting in increased interest rates).  Each MFI must treat a client’s private information responsibly and sensitively, but what that entails “on the ground” might look very different in Indonesia than it does for an MFI operating  in the shadow of the former Soviet Union….

Yekaterina from Melitopol, Ukraine

Yekaterina, a HOPE Ukraine client and Kiva borrower from Melitopol, Ukraine, seems uneasy with the camera being pointed at her face.

Get That Camera Away from Me!  Chris Paci | KF16 & KF17 | Ukraine

For the past two months, I’ve been pinballing all over the country of Ukraine as part of my work with one of Kiva’s oldest field partners, the faith-based MFI HOPE Ukraine. My two main projects here have been 1) to train HOPE Ukraine’s loan officers on Kiva policies and procedures, and 2) to help it refine its processes for collecting the borrower information it posts on Kiva.org. Pretty simple, right? Yet there’s a snag, one that has turned a straightforward set of deliverables into a perplexing cultural conundrum. Due to their discomfort with the concept of the Internet, with sharing personal information about themselves, and even with simply posing for a borrower photo, quite a few HOPE Ukraine clients are frankly scared of Kiva and reluctant to be featured on our website at all.

The reasons behind Ukrainian microfinance clients’ discomfort with Kiva are many-layered and have sparked some of my most fascinating discussions with branch managers, loan officers, and ordinary Ukrainians. Foremost among them is the fact that most HOPE Ukraine borrowers are older market vendors who have never used the Internet, don’t understand what it is, and distrust what they don’t understand. Ukrainian society in general has an odd relationship with the Internet; Ukraine is, sadly, a center for sex tourism, trafficking in women, and the mail-order bride industry, so many people see the Internet primarily as a venue for shady activities. It is understandable, then, that many HOPE Ukraine clients are hesitant to have their photographs and personal stories posted on Kiva.

There’s also the fact that Ukrainian culture ascribes a certain degree of shame to taking out a loan. Due to the country’s Soviet history, the roots of entrepreneurship here are still shallow. Many people understand a loan to be an admission that your family can’t support itself, or, worse, that you lack the famed Ukrainian resourcefulness and stolidity that helped this beleaguered people pull themselves through every awful trial the 20th century threw at them. I’d presume the bulk of HOPE Ukraine’s clients disagree with this view, understanding that a well-timed boost to their working capital can help them develop their businesses and permanently raise themselves up. But the social stigma can be so strong that many HOPE Ukraine borrowers want to keep their status a secret. They don’t want their loan officers visiting them at their stall in the market where everyone can see – and they especially don’t want them snapping a Kiva photo and asking awkward personal questions about their family and future goals – and they especially don’t want their picture posted for all to see on “the Internet,” an entity that many Ukrainian borrowers mistrust. For these reasons and more, some clients categorically refuse to participate in Kiva, making it difficult for HOPE Ukraine to hit its Kiva fundraising limit in certain months.

Even the simple process of collecting information for a Kiva borrower profile can be a challenge – perhaps the most fascinating one yet, and the one that reveals the most about the Ukrainian mindset. Ukrainians are a famously superstitious people who live on a thin boundary between day-to-day rationality and the extranatural forces that truly shape their lives. As part of this mentality, many Ukrainians feel that expressing too much satisfaction with the present, or too much hope for the future, is a way to ensure that everything will go awfully wrong. “If someone tells you you have a beautiful child,” my translator told me matter-of-factly, “watch out! Because that means tomorrow, she’ll fall down on the ground and cut her face. And then she won’t be beautiful anymore.” This same superstition rears its head in connection with the Kiva borrower profile, which calls upon clients to share their fondest dreams for their businesses, families, and personal lives. These are the details that really help Kiva borrowers to forge connections with the lenders who support them – but they’re also the sorts of questions that make HOPE Ukraine clients intensely uncomfortable. Dreams should be kept secret. That way, nobody can take them away from you.

While in the field, I posed the same question to every loan officer I met: How can we overcome these challenges? What can Kiva do to help you convince your clients that their presence on our website will cause them no harm? Yura, the young loan officer in the far western town of Uzhhorod, provided a blunt summation of every response I received. “Wait 23 years!” he laughed. “Maybe then we’ll have a generation that isn’t so scared of the modern world!”

A few weeks ago, I visited one of the most successful loan officers at HOPE Ukraine, Valentina, who hails from Khust on the Romanian border. As one of HOPE Ukraine’s few women loan officers, Valentina – Valya – is especially responsive to female borrowers’ concerns about having their photos taken and posted on the Internet, and goes to impressive lengths to make her clients more comfortable with the process. She told me about one of her recent Kiva clients, a clothes vendor in the local market, who was extremely nervous about having her photo taken at her business where everyone could see her. Valya worked with this borrower to come up with an honest-to-goodness play-act in which she would pose as a customer interested in buying some of her wares. “My niece would love this blouse!” she would exclaim. “But I’m not sure, she might already have one just like it…. Is it all right if I take a picture so I can show her when I get home? Can you just hold it up so she can see the patterns – that’s right –” Click. Another Kiva photo procured.

Here on Kiva Stories from the Field, we Kiva Fellows frequently write about how impressed we are by our loan officers’ deep commitment to their clients. Now, I’m proud to jump on that bandwagon. Every time you see a HOPE Ukraine borrower on Kiva.org, reflect for a moment on the unusual obstacles our Ukrainian field partner had to overcome to get them there – and on the dedicated loan officers who daily challenge Ukraine’s prevailing societal mentality to connect their clients with the lenders who want to help them succeed.

Heather Sullivan (KF17) is enjoying the final month of her “Extreme Indonesia” placement—two months in urban Jakarta with VisionFund Indonesia, followed by two months in wild West Timor with Tanaoba Lais Manekat Foundation (TLM). She has appreciated all the hugs and kisses that borrowers have bestowed upon her, but even after four months in Indonesia, she’s still shy in front of the camera.

 Chris Paci is a roaming Kiva Fellow (KF16 and KF17) who is wrapping up his final Kiva placement, a two-month stint with the Ukrainian faith-based MFI HOPE Ukraine. He is now quietly reeling at the depth and complexity of Ukraine’s history, society, and national character, and will probably need a few weeks to get his thoughts sorted out. Join the lending team Supporters of Ukraine and make a Kiva loan to a HOPE Ukraine borrower today

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