June 24, 2005
The Calvert Group Funds Film on Social Entrepreneurs Airing on Public Broadcasting System
by William Baue
One segment of the film profiles Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered the microcredit
model promoted by Calvert Foundation and other community investment advocates.
Last night, the socially responsible investing (SRI) firm Calvert Group hosted an advance screening of The New Heroes, a film it helped fund that
profiles 12 "social entrepreneurs," or visionaries who use capital not just to generate more
capital but to solve grave social problems. Walking through Harvard Square in Boston afterwards, a
man whose face was chiseled with the deep lines that often accompany addiction approached to beg
for some change, and I gave him a few quarters. Strangely, I had not tossed coins at the guitarist
playing the Eagles' "Hotel California" note for note, or even the Indian man playing a stringed
instrument that looked like a sarangi, even though they were at least "working" for their pay.
Muhammad Yunus, the subject of the 17-minute segment shown at the screening and widely
considered the "godfather" of social entrepreneurship, had faced such a situation three decades ago
and devised a response both similar and radically different than mine. In the early 1970s, Dr.
Yunus experienced an increasing disconnect between his university teaching in Bangladesh and the
fatal poverty devastating his country, so he visited a village to ascertain its needs.
After talking to a number of villagers, he calculated their combined capital requirements for
starting small businesses that could help lift them from poverty, such as preparing rice for
market, was $27. Astounded at the meager amount, he loaned them the money immediately out of
pocket without worrying over the terms of repayment, reasoning that the incentive to move up in the
world was a sufficient guarantee that they would earn enough to return his loan. Thinking
structurally, Dr. Yunus approached banks to ask why they were not processing such loans, for which
there was clearly a huge market. Lack of collateral was the explanation.
"I saw the
conventional banking standing on its head," Dr. Yunus told filmmaker Charlie Stuart. "So I turned
it around so it can stand on its feet," he added, eliciting laughter from the Calvert shareholders
and Progressive Asset Management
financial advisors watching.
In founding the Grameen Bank ("grameen" means village), Dr. Yunus pioneered
the microcredit business model on the belief that credit is a basic human right. He revolutionized
the world financially and socially, according to the filmmaker, by making small unsecured loans
predominantly to women. This choice of recipient sent shock waves through the traditional
patriarchal Muslim and Hindu cultures, but Dr. Yunus persisted, reasoning that loans to women are
more likely to create long-term benefits to family health and education.
societal transformation wrought by this model, the camera lingers on a shot of three women draped
in burkas followed by a man tenderly carrying a child. An equaling moving shot depicts a room
filled with 500 Grameen loan officers who service more than a hundred thousand loans in the
Chittigong region of Bangladesh alone, a truly astounding number.
question-and-answer session following the film, a woman asked Mr. Stuart, who co-produced the film,
why all the bank officers seemed to be men. With the loans going to women, perhaps Dr. Yunus wants
to balance out between the sexes the benefits created by Grameen, Mr. Stuart responded, raising
another round of laughter. Returning to a more serious mode of response, he admitted that he did
not know the reasons behind this apparent disequilibrium, but he did note that that same scene
depicts a female Grameen employee receiving an award.
The film provides balance by briefly
addressing criticisms leveled at microcredit, primarily its high interest rates and the fact that
it does not reach the poorest of the poor. In the film, Dr. Yunus admits that microcredit is not
the panacea for poverty, but merely one effective tool in combating a problem beyond the
scope of a single method to solve.
Michael Drane of the Calvert Foundation, a separate nonprofit created by
Calvert to promote community investment, addressed the question of mid-term interest rates by
comparing it to the only other options available to the impoverished, loan sharks charging 100 to
200 percent rates.
As for reaching the poorest of the poor, the film segment ends by
focusing on a new Grameen loan program geared toward beggars. Returning to his roots, Dr. Yunus is
not setting any terms for repayment, but rather allowing them to repay as they are able, on the
theory that this responsibility will inspire them to fulfill their obligation. The film, a
production of Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB)
airing on Public Broadcasting System (PBS)
nationally on Tuesdays June 28 and July 5 from 8 to 10 pm, interviews several beggar women who
express gratitude for the opportunity to bootstrap themselves out of poverty.