Smoke and Mirrors? Or not?

So Natalie Portman talked about an impressive micro-credit success story. Now I want to know: How typical is the success of that woman?

I’ve loved microcredit, loved what I’ve heard about its success in poverty-stricken nations. But there are some hard questions that are being asked about it, and about Muhammad Yunis and Grameen Bank in particular. Read this critique at, which says that Grameen Bank is not nearly as successful, neither economically nor in terms of improving women’s lives, as other initiatives in which microcredit is part of a range of services. For example, “India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association, a union for poor women, offers credit as one of a range of services, along with political organizing, training, business skills, leadership skills, mediation, lobbying and project assistance.” The LeftBusinessObserver author also criticizes some of the 16 Decisions that Grameen borrowing groups recite daily (you have to see this). But the OpenDemocracy author compares them favorably to the UN Millenium Development Goals.

Then there’s this article from the Wall Street Journal, co-written by Daniel Pearl, documenting that Grameen Bank’s repayment rates aren’t really at the 95% they claim, or anyway weren’t in November 2001. (The links to these two critiques are from the OpenDemocracy article.)

But then again. If “after 8 years of borrowing, 55% of Grameen households still aren’t able to meet their basic nutritional needs – so many women are using their loans to buy food rather than invest in busines,” then 45% of households ARE able to meet them. But then again, perhaps some of those 45% were already able to meet them before the loan.

And again. What, exactly, are these women supposed to invest IN? What can they sell that, in rural poverty, will find buyers? Or if you were to try this technique in impoverished cities in the United States — who will be buying, and what will they buy? Remember “Roger and Me,” Michael Moore’s film about economic devastation in Flint, Michigan following the closing of the General Motors plant?

Now I’m thinking about Heifer International, another of my favorite “small and rural” improvement programs. Heifer gives gifts instead of loans — gifts of living animals. The “repayment” that is required is that at least one offspring be passed on to another needy person or family, who agree to do the same.

What’s the difference between these two projects? Read about Heifer’s Cornerstone Principles here. I’ll tell you what I think really makes the Heifer Project work, and the first two things on the list differentiate the Heifer Project from any lending program, even the best: 1. Animals increase, money does not. 2. Animals provide nourishment or goods (milk, eggs, wool) at the same time as they increase; you don’t have to choose between feeding your family now or investing in the future.

Then, two crucial things that could be implemented by any microcredit association also: 3. The Heifer Project assists communities, not just individuals, in assessing their needs and planning for the future. 4. The Heifer Project provides both pre-animal training and preparation AND organizational and management skills.

In Deuteronomy the Torah tells us how to distinguish a true prophet from a false one. But it tells us two contradictory ways to judge. If a prophet predicts something but it does not come true, then don’t believe that prophet. (Deut. 18:22) But if a prophet or a dreamer predicts a sign or an omen, and it does come true, but then the prophet or dreamer invites you to leave the religious path of your people and do something you know is wrong, then you must not listen to that prophet or dreamer. (Deut. 13:2-4)

So on the one hand, failure indicates the unreliability of the messenger. But on the other hand, even messengers who come with believable signs and wonders may occasionally be saying things that don’t really work.

I am disappointed, and sad, to find that Muhammad Yunis may not be the believable prophet that I had thought him to be. Even if he and and Grameen Bank did win the Nobel Prize for Peace this year — a sign and a wonder, if ever there was one.

But then I go back and re-read the OpenDemocracy article, and it all seems like it’s working. And then I don’t know who to believe. Which is why I was thinking about the two contradictory passages in Deuteronomy. Because sometimes it’s hard to know.