Spotlight on a blackout in Brazil

Thankfully, beyond a few muggings, last night's massive Brazilian blackout seems to have caused little lasting damage. But the international coverage of the event is probably a good preview for the Olympic host country's next six years:

Questions remained about what happened and what the fallout would be in Brazil, a nation seen as an ascending economic and political power.

"The image of Brazil, of Rio, is bad enough with all the violence," said 35-year-old graphic designer Paulo Viera, as he sat in a restaurant a block from the sandy arc of Copacabana.

Standing in an open-air restaurant where patrons were drinking quickly warming beer, Viera said he worried about how the outage might look for a city that last month was picked to host the Olympics and will be the showcase city for soccer's World Cup in 2014. "We don't need this to happen. I don't know how it could get worse."

The blackout comes on the heels of a wave of gang fighting in Rio's slums that led to violence fears ahead of the games.

"It's sad to see such a beautiful city with such a precarious infrastructure," 22-year-old law student Igor Fernandes said. "This shouldn't happen in a city that is going to host the Olympic Games."

This is a little unfair. Even Rio's mayor acknowledges that the city has a long way to go in terms of safety and infrastructure before the games, but they do have another six years, and the IOC knew what they were getting when they awarded Brazil the games. 

The problem with developing coutries hosting events like the Olympics is that while the intention is to highlight the enormous progress they've made, they're just as likely to highlight the shortcomings. . Every crime wave or infrastructure failure, or corruption scandal Rio suffers in the next six years will now be covered in the context of whether the city is ready for the games.

Just ask South Africa or Russia


Is Kiva really that controversial?

On Sunday, the New York Times published an article exposing problems with the wildly popular microfinance organization Kiva, a person-to-person lending site whose virtues Oprah Winfrey and Nicholas Kristof have extolled.

Most people thought Kiva works like this: Entrepreneurs in poor countries explain their need for a small loan on the site. Then, donors select a project they support, give an amount of their choosing, and watch the donations tally up on the page. Kiva trumpeted that "the people you see on Kiva's site are real individuals."

That was true. But it really works much differently, David Roodman of the Center for Global Development figured out. Kiva doesn't take dollars from one person and send them directly to another. All of the recipients are vetted, approved, and given loans by another organization -- then put on the site after the fact. Roodman wrote a meticulous (and ultimately complimentary) blog post debunking Kiva's story of itself and touched a nerve, ginning up thousands of comments and spurring the start-up to respond.

The problem wasn't just that Kiva misrepresented itself as a person-to-person microlender -- but that Kiva misrepresented itself as a hypertransparent organization. The information about the financial pathways was on the site, sure, but you had to dig around to find it.

Kiva has responded by changing the language on its site and clarifying the loan process. I'm happy to see it becoming more accountable and transparent, particularly as it becomes a larger organization. (Just this month, it lent its one-hundred-millionth dollar.)

But, at the end of the day, a $10 donation backstopping a pre-existing loan to a Colombian farmer doesn't seem so different to me than a $10 donation helping create a loan for that Colombian farmer. And if pooling the donated funds helps keep overhead costs down (high overhead being the main argument against person-to-person direct microlending), I'm all for that.