True Gift 

No to self-indulgence, yes to microlending

A few years ago, the Ghost of Christmas Present paid my family a surprise visit, just as it did to Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ famous 19th-century novel. Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present was a green-robed giant who caused Scrooge to see his life objectively. Our experience was much less dramatic. A trail of plastic gift cards attended our spirit’s stealthy arrival. Its message? We were forced to admit that gift-giving in our family had been debased. The adults no longer gave carefully chosen presents. We gave each other what Dickens would call filthy lucre. Money! Instead of a cordless drill, there was a Home Depot gift card; instead of cashmere sweater, a gift card from Macy’s; instead of the latest CD of a favorite band, an iTunes card. So much for the gifts of the magi. One of the Rasmuson children even got one from Dairy Queen.

In and of itself, the plastic card isn’t any more objectionable than a fill-in-the-blank gift certificate. You can disguise dollars in either paper or plastic, wrap them in a corporate logo, but you are still exchanging handfuls of dollar bills. I give money to my sons; they give money to me. Expediency trumps tradition, and you can do all your holiday shopping at Walgreen’s in 15 minutes on Christmas Eve.

In my middle-class family, the proliferation of gift cards is a symptom. The disease is self-indulgence. My kin and I have the means to buy the sweater, the drill and the CD, and we have become accustomed to doing so whenever we feel the urge. Come Christmastime, then, there are no wish lists, no deferred pleasures. What remains is the list of those to whom we are obligated to give a gift. The problem is that everyone on that list already owns all the right stuff, from Cuisinarts to iGizmos—pads, pods and phones. They, like me, contend with overflowing closets and drawers. There is not enough uncluttered space in garages to accommodate the family cars. Giving another gift card is the equivalent of throwing ballast to a drowning man.

We decided to follow Scrooge’s example: Influence the future by adjusting the present. Of the various options we considered, the best seemed to be a moratorium on gift-giving between the family’s adults, a pooling of the money ordinarily spent on gifts, and a commitment to using the money for some useful purpose. The adults liked the scheme for two reasons. It set a good example for the children, and it eliminated the annual ordeal of the obligatory gifts. We began to look for good uses of the money and soon found Kiva.org, the microloan Website.

I first heard of microloans in 2006 when Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist, won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was honored for his pioneering work in reducing poverty through microfinance. He founded a nonprofit bank in Dhaka, which has made loans of as little as $10 to millions of impoverished people, primarily women.

Kiva took the idea to the Internet, providing the means whereby the world’s haves could assist entrepreneurial have-nots. The Kiva Website provides details of proposed projects accompanied by a photo of the applicant. As many as 300,000 loans have already been made to people in 60 countries, including the United States. If you believe poverty is the root cause of transnational terrorism, as I do, then you can actually do something about it—right here in Salt Lake City, right now.

Kiva seemed a perfect fit for us reconstructed gift-card givers, but at the outset, we were leery about handing over money to an unfamiliar Website. We finally decided to risk $250. A few mouse clicks later, we had loaned Mrs. Thoeung Mam, a 45-year-old Cambodian rice farmer, enough money to buy a cow. Then we waited. Two months later, an e-mail from Kiva reported her first payment. She repaid the loan in 10 installments. We then rolled the $250 into a loan to another Cambodian woman. Mrs. Lonh Sean used our money to expand her poultry business. She, too, repaid the loan within a year.

Now in the third year as a microlender, our money at work in a Philippines fishing business, I felt we were doing the right thing as (affluent) citizens of the world. The same small satisfaction comes from riding a bicycle instead of driving a car on errands. Had our Kiva loans not been repaid, I would have felt otherwise, but in the main, I was pleased with the outcome. So much so that I had an unexpected reaction to the news that my fellow philanthropists Muhammad Yunus and Greg Mortenson had been targeted by investigative journalists. The reports were off-putting.

Mortenson, who has made a name for himself building schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, was taken to task by none other than 60 Minutes for fabricating parts of his books and using his nonprofit Central Asian Institute as a personal ATM. About the same time, Yunus came under attack by the Bangladeshi government after a Norwegian documentary raised questions about how his bank handled donated money. The government accused him of enriching himself on the backs of the poor.

Ordinarily, I side with journalists. This time, however, I found myself wishing they had given Third World philanthropy a pass and gone after skullduggery closer to home. There must be guys on Wall Street and K Street who make Mortenson and Yunus look like Mother Teresa. I can’t account for the change of heart. Could it be a result of the encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present? 

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