Microfinance Invades Pop Culture…and America

After thirty years, the microfinance industry has mushroomed into a $44-billion global phenomenon with loans out to 82 million of the world’s poor, helping them run small enterprises as well as hedge against household shocks such as illness. But how do you know when microfinance has really arrived?

When one of its founders scores a spot on The Simpsons, of course. 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh is slated to appear in an episode of the 20-year-old hit animated series this Fall. The October 3rd  show will focus on the Grameen Bank’s microcredit endeavors, and Yunus has reportedly already done the voice recording for the show. Meanwhile, actress Yeardley Smith—who does the voice of Lisa Simpson, the show’s tireless social conscience—has been in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka this month learning more about Grameen Bank initiatives.

The growing awareness of microfinance in the U.S. is not only reflected as an idea on television, but as a practice on the ground. No longer is small lending solely a tool for development in developing countries. In the U.S., where the global financial crisis and credit crunch has made it harder for small businesses to survive, microlending has seen a surge in popularity. The New York Times reports that loan applications to 362 of the country’s microlenders have doubled and last year’s economic stimulus set aside $54 million to help microlenders. U.S. commercial banks typically make loans to businesses of only $50,000 and upwards, as loans of lesser value tend to be unprofitable. American microlenders, however, follow the ethos and patterns of their developing-world counterparts: awarding small loans at higher-than-usual interest rates to alleviate poverty—not make a profit. Even Grameen has seen the potential for microlending in the U.S., opening five new branches in New York and Nebraska in the last two years.

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