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The reactions to Tom Heinemann‘s controversial documentary “The Micro Debt” have mostly been strong. The film sheds light onto a number of questions, first and foremost the risk microcredit borrowers face of becoming trapped in debt. However, public debate has so far focused on two rather marginal parts of the film: a more-or-less resolved dispute over aid money (cf. “GrameenLeaks”), and a dispute about a house supposedly promised in the village of Jobra. It is worth investigating why so much publicity has been given to these two issues, and so little to the film’s main message: that microfinance can cause debt traps.

While the charges of financial malpractice in the Grameen conglomerate have now been largely cleared up, Muhammad Yunus still remains a target of negative attention from the Bangladeshi government. He is now apparently no longer Grameen Bank’s director. But Yunus’ personality and job status should have nothing to do with an impartial assessment of the virtues of microfinance. What becomes clear from the recent debate is how symbols are mobilised (and abused) in legitimising as well as challenging microfinance. However, this distracts from more substantial questions about what microfinance does or doesn’t, can or can’t, achieve.

Let us take a look at “The Micro Debt” and the reactions to it, and also take a look at another, less-known documentary with less impact but perhaps a better focus on substance: “Easy Money”. Both films make the allegation that microfinance can be exploitative and can cause more problems than it solves. But the reason why “The Micro Debt” has been perceived as so inflammatory, while “Easy Money” apparently has hardly been discussed at all, is that “The Micro Debt” attacks microfinance’s symbolic self-representations of success and integrity. Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
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