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).

Tom Heinemann: “The Micro Debt- a critical investigation into the dark side of Microcredit” (2010)

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.

The two points of contention on which most of the debate has instead focused, however, are a few interviews in the village of Jobra (where Yunus supposedly made his first microloans in 1976), and the alleged mis-use of Norwegian aid money by Grameen Bank. Jobra village and Grameen Bank are of high symbolic importance to the microfinance industry, which is why the industry’s retort has focused on these aspects. It also serves to distract from the larger issue at hand: the shaky foundations of microfinance.

While the issue of the Norwegian aid money appears to have been settled in Grameens’ favour (though ultimately contributing to Yunus’ resignation), the issue of Jobra village remains. In Heinemann’s version, the village is still mired in poverty, and Sufiya Begum died in destitution in 1998 (to which a woman, identifying as her daughter, testifies). In the Grameen Foundation’s version, Sufiya Begum is alive and prosperous, as is her village.

Spreading uncertainty and doubt

To drive its version home, the Grameen Foundation has hired none other than Burson-Marsteller (B-M), the infamous PR/lobbying firm known (and feared) for representing such illustrious organisations as Union Carbide, Philip Morris, General Pinochet and various oil companies whenever in need (to name only a few clients with absolutely no skeletons in their closets, whatsoever). Some may call B-M’s specialties “smear campaigning” and “FUD creation“; B-M seems to prefer the term “Evidence-Based Communications”. I don’t want to judge a defendant by their attorney here. But in the very least, Grameen Foundation’s choice to hire B-M shows that they see their discursive hegemony over microfinance’s public image as acutely threatened.

One of B-M’s strategies has been to create a Youtube channel called microfinanceresponse, where various “truths” are expounded in response to Heinemann’s alleged “shoddy journalism”. Supposedly now “Sufiya Begum” has never existed, but was a made-up name which Muhammad Yunus invented to protect his first borrower, who (according to microfinanceresponse) goes by the real name of Chaba Katun. Apparently, her anonymity is no longer important (Katun’s identification papers are flashed around Youtube), but the confusion about who Heinemann interviewed is now perfect.

Another B-M approach has been to create an astroturf organisation called “Friends of Grameen” (FoG), designed to orchestrate public outcry against any criticism of Grameen, and to attack Heinemann’s documentary. FoG has been rather successful at organising media support for Yunus and Grameen, and may even have swayed Hilary Clinton’s diplomatic intervention on Yunus’ behalf.

Despite all this, The Micro Debt hasn’t been viewed by that many people in the English-speaking world yet. It’s been broadcast on TV in Danish/Norwegian, and in 14 other countries, including The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Croatia; but it hasn’t been shown yet in the anglophone world. That is changing now.

Tour dates in the USA and Canada

With Heinemann touring in October and November, the film is being screened at several institutions in the USA and Canada. The tour will surely induce interesting discussions and debate after the screenings.

Simon Frazier University, Vancouver, BC. Room 7000, Harbour Centre. Tuesday 18 October, 5:00 p.m. with Prof. Morten Jerven


University of Oregon, Eugene, OR. Prince Lucien Campbell Hall. Thursday 20 October, 7:00 p.m., with Prof. Lamia Karim

San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA. Wednesday 26 October, 12:00 p.m.


Centre for Investigative Reporting, Berkeley, CA. Thursday 27, not open to the general public.


International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Center for Public Integrity, Washington, DC. Wednesday 2 November, not open to the general public.


Clark University, Worcester, MA. Thursday 3 November, 6:00 p.m.


Emerson College, Boston, MA. Thursday 8 November, 12:00 p.m.

More information on dates can be requested from the film’s US distributor, Films for the Humanities & Sciences (e-mail). This author takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the tour dates and locations.

Edit (13 October 2011): Neither Grameen Foundation nor anyone else has to their or my own knowledge threatened organisations planning to show the documentary. Grameen Foundation has contacted at least one organisation, suggesting that the film is poor journalism and not worth showing.

Grameen Foundation did not hire Burson-Marsteller directly; they were hired by Friends of Grameen, of which Grameen Foundation is a member. The entire roll call of members can be seen at: http://www.friendsofgrameen.com/the-friends-of-grameen/, who have joined General Pinochet, Nicolae Ceausescu, Union Carbide, Philip Morris, Monsanto, Exxon, BP, among others, as clients of this bona fide organisation.