I was granted the opportunity, thanks to the good folks at SeaMo, to both join their party Thursday celebrating Seattle’s prominent role in the global microfinance community and to see the debut of a new documentary about this anti-poverty scheme and the Bangladeshi economist who pioneered it.
To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America turns out to be a pretty compelling film, despite justifying my critique yesterday that it dodges some of the more controversial issues and critical questions about microfinance.
After joining some of the SeaMo folks for a VIP reception at the Bombay Grill (see posed photo below), I went to the Varsity Theatre on University Ave. to “catch” the film. (The name comes from Yunus’ statement that the poor need “to get a dollar to catch a dollar” — an initial loan that allows them to gain more income).
After seeing the movie trailer, and noting the odd (to me anyway) inclusion of the self-promoting personal finance advisor Suze Orman as a participant for this event, I went in dubious. I figured this would be just a promotional film, showing all those typical “triumph over tragedy” stories with Yunus playing the part normally played by Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.
I was pleasantly proven wrong. The documentary does avoid much of the controversy surrounding Yunus and microfinance today, but it also provides an excellent view of why Yunus’ approach — and that of his Grameen Bank — may work when other approaches to microfinance fail, or become abusive.
In documenting the work of Grameen America — a project aimed at helping poor women in the U.S. start or grow their own businesses — they demonstrate how succeeding in microfinance likely depends first and foremost on establishing solid, reliable relationships. Among the borrowers, between the borrowers and their loan manager (who meets with them every week) and between the microloan bank and the community at large.
It’s not something you can do robotically, like going to an ATM machine, or demonstrate using economics lingo or in some accounting equation. And it’s not really something I can describe adequately in words. You’ll have to go see the film. You should.
A disclaimer: The goal of the film is clearly to raise support, and funding, for Grameen Bank’s expansion in the U.S. (with last night’s post-film panel discussion, weirdly, also plugging Orman’s new book). I’m agnostic on that. But the documentary, despite its flaws, is well worth seeing to give you a good sense of both Yunus and how microfinance works.
And speaking of relationships, here’s the folks at SeaMo having a good time at the Bombay Grill: