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Tom Heinemann’s film “The Micro Debt” has received a lot of flak from the microfinance community. The documentary, posing a sharp critique of microfinance, features interviews with microfinance borrowers, proponents and critics on three continents. It deals particularly critically with the work of Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. One response to Heinemann’s criticism has been the production of counter-counter-knowledge (against Heinemann’s counter-knowledge), promoted via Youtube, courtesy of the world’s most trustworthy PR company. Another has been to draw into question Heinemann’s integrity as a journalist, referring to the film as “grossly inaccurate”, “false and defamatory”, and “digging for dirt”.
But “The Micro Debt” isn’t going away. It has been shown in over 14 different countries and awarded numerous prizes. Most recently, last Friday it was awarded the Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize Grand Prize, a prestigious award for journalistic work granted by the European Union in co-operation with Reporters Without Borders. “The Micro Debt” was selected out of a field of 1,300 contenders and commended as “a shining example of world-class investigative journalism, challenging entrenched assumptions”.
Courtesy of the prize, “The Micro Debt” is now also viewable online.
Tom Heinemann was vilified for not whistling everyone else’s tune; now, the Lorenzo Natali Prize is rehabilitating the film and the filmmaker. It shows that telling an unpopular story and confronting received wisdom is still what investigative and independent journalism is about. Conversely, what (if anything) has the world learned from microfinance promotion films like “To Catch a Dollar“? As for the claims of factual inaccuracy levied by Friends of Grameen against Heinemann, a short follow-up segment, to be aired early next year in Norway, may bring more clarity; watch this space.
Few documentaries in the past years can claim to have had as much impact on transnational development as The Micro Debt. Tom Heinemann‘s documentary film, produced for Norwegian public broadcasting, has contributed to a wave of critical reasoning about microfinance, but also to the axing of Grameen Bank’s founder, Muhammad Yunus. While Heinemann wasn’t out to harm Yunus, the documentary’s fallout (as well as the Indian microfinance crisis) was an opportunity for politicians in Bangladesh to remove a weakened Yunus from office.
All in all, The Micro Debt doesn’t shed a good light onto microfinance, and in return has come under fire from the microfinance community, an epistemic community which doesn’t take criticism well. Grameen Foundation in particular has mounted an organised attack on Heinemann and his film, engaging PR firm Burson-Marsteller to disseminate counter-claims and draw into question the film’s integrity. But The Micro Debt is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore or deny. It won in the “Television” category at the Avanca Film Festival in Portugal earlier this year, and may win more awards at the various other festivals internationally where it has been nominated. And it’s going on tour in the USA and Canada this month (see below).
The real message of the film is that, after three decades, there is still no concrete evidence that microcredit actually does anything for the poor. Heinemann’s main point is that Western donors have been naive in their enthusiasm about microfinance, and his poverty-stricken interviewees testify that this might even worsen their precarious situation.
A misrepresented film
The film’s director Heinemann visited Bangladesh, the Mecca of microfinance, to check up on the successes claimed by Grameen Bank and other microfinance organisations regarding poverty alleviation. He investigated Grameen’s funding from the Norwegian government (where he uncovered financial irregularities amounting to $100 million) and spoke to numerous academic and practitioner experts. The film also shows him being denied interviews with Muhammad Yunus on several occasions.