New microfinance movie aiming to inspire, ignores the cage fight

Tonight, all around the country — 7:30 p.m. at Seattle’s University District Varsity Theatre — is the debut of a documentary celebrating microfinance, its Nobel Prize-winning creator Muhammad Yunus and a look at how it could work for the American poverty market, if you want to call it that.

Robert Deniro, Matt Damon and other luminaries will be there with Yunus (virtually, on a webcast) for a simulcast discussion accompanying the film’s premiere.

Here’s the website for To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America and the film trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjv52-Ieeuo&feature=player_embedded#at=107

Now, there’s an awful lot going on right now in microfinance, the anti-poverty strategy that – depending upon your point of view – is either one of the best ways to help the poor or one of the most disguised, devious and greedy ways to further exploit them.

I suspect that, like most things, it may be somewhere in between the polar extremes. And, based on what I’ve read about this film, little of this crucial debate will be mentioned in To Catch a Dollar.

For a sense of the current state of affairs in microfinance, here’s a quick survey of the landscape by the Chronicle of Philanthropy Nicole’s Wallace, reporting today out of the Skoll World Forum in Social Entrepreneurship going on right now in Oxford, England.

Here’s my own earlier take, on the five reasons why microfinance is in crisis.

A few quick highlights:

That last trend – which includes players like Citibank and MasterCard — is taken either as a sign that microfinance has finally proved Yunus’ claim that the poor are a good risk or that microfinance has been transmogrified into the latest scheme by Wall Street to make an easy buck.

Muhammad Yunus
World Economic Forum

Yunus has been a pretty outspoken critic of the profit-maximizing and more traditionally commercialized approaches that some fear are overtaking the social mission of microfinance. I’ve noted before that nobody ever seemed to have much problem with the Bangladeshi economist, until he started criticizing those in the financial industry who have taken to microfinance like “loan sharks.”

And the political firestorm around Yunus back home in Bangladesh didn’t really catch fire until an earlier, less-complimentary documentary called The Micro Debt aired. In it, microfinance is portrayed as largely an abuse of the poor — driving them further into debt — and Yunus as basically a financial manipulator who’s guilty of fraudulent business practices.

Most experts have dismissed the film, by Danish film-maker Tom Heinemann and which aired on Norwegian television, as fairly inaccurate and biased.

Perhaps the best, most recent overview and, well, defense of Yunus is by David Bornstein in the New York Times, Microfinance Under Fire.

I bet you had no idea that something as boring sounding as microfinance could get so exciting.

Tonight’s installment in this ongoing struggle for the soul, and the very definition, of microfinance could be called the battle of the two documentaries. It could be, except for the fact that To Catch a Dollar sounds like it will likely avoid all of the more critical and controversial issues.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • http://profiles.google.com/katie.gruver Katie Gruver

    Tom, excellent description of the current struggles going on in the microfinance industry. As always, the polar ends of this debate are flawed in their simplistic analysis of the triumphs of microfinance and of the problems that certainly will crop up in an industry that is serving millions of people. I appreciate you calling that to attention and digging deeper into the debate.

    I’m particularly curious about what you thought of the film and of the hypothesis that microfinance can (and is?) working in America. My personal opinion is that the more we shine a light on the issues effecting the poor (around the world and in our own country), the less likely it is for them to be forgotten about. Even a hearty disagreement breeds, at the very least, a greater understanding about the problems that still need to be addressed (or addressed differently).

    Thanks again for the nice article,
    Katie Gruver