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Film: Grameen Bank for the poor helps US women

Just before the global financial crisis struck in 2008, Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus came to the U.S. to do just about the last thing any mainstream economist would have advised — he set up a bank for the poor.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Just before the global financial crisis struck in 2008, Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus came to the U.S. to do just about the last thing any mainstream economist would have advised — he set up a bank for the poor.

Helped by its Bangladeshi know-how, Grameen America has replicated the kind of micro-lending to the poor that helped millions of women set up small businesses in the largely rural and cyclone-prone South Asian country about as far removed from New York as you could imagine.

Three years on, Grameen America has succeeded — albeit on a modest scale. That story is told in a documentary film, "To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America," by New York and Boston-based filmmaker Gayle Ferraro that has its New York premiere Friday.

It documents the bank's startup in the New York City borough of Queens through the eyes of a branch manager, who is constantly driving around to meet with the bank's clients, and two women borrowers. The film is also interspersed with interviews with Yunus himself on the origins of Grameen, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, and the philosophy behind it.

U.S.-educated economist Yunus conceived the idea of offering loans to the poor during the mid-1970s in Bangladesh after the newly independent nation, one of the world's poorest, suffered a famine.

He found rural families were often in thrall to loan sharks over tiny sums, but if given a modest start-up for their own businesses could find a way out of poverty — and if the loan was given to a woman, it was more likely to benefit the rest of the family and be repaid. Today, Grameen in Bangladesh has more than 8 million borrowers.

Using the same principles — that you need that first dollar to "catch" a dollar — Grameen America started in January 2008, using $1.5 million in donations as its own start-up capital. The bank offers loans of between $500 and $3,000. No collateral is needed, but borrowers, gathered in peer groups of five to help ensure they stick to the rules, must repay two percent of the loan each week. They must use the money to generate income, not for consumption like buying a new television.

"Obviously the environment is different in America to Bangladesh, but the essence of the problem is the same," Yunus told The Associated Press in an interview this week in New York, where he was attending events on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. "These are people who can't get a loan from the bank because they are poor."

Instead of using the money to raise chickens, grow vegetables and weave baskets as they would in Bangladesh, borrowers in the U.S. typically do hair and nails, sell jewelry and accessories.

In the film, Ferraro charts the ups and downs of Elizabeth, a care-worn immigrant from the Dominican Republic with a turbulent personal life, who works as a hairdresser and dreams of opening her own salon.

At the start, her own hair is short-cropped blonde, but she dyes it black and dons a wig as she uses her loan to invest in her sideline of doing hair extensions. She does that work "faster than Western Union" but permanently struggles to make ends meet and ends up having to send her youngest child back to the Dominican Republic.

Patricia, a garrulous woman from Guyana with a gold tooth, has more success. She uses her first Grameen check to buy a mixer to advance her fledgling business as a cake-maker and decorator. She ends the film about to open her own shop.

Uplifting yet unsentimental, these are not rags-to-riches stories. But they show the women's determination to succeed, and if nothing else, bear out Yunus' belief that "the poor guy is creditworthy."

In a period when defaults on home mortgage loans have skyrocketed in the U.S., Grameen America has a loan repayment rate of 99 percent, according to its president Vidar Jorgensen. It now has more than 5,000 borrowers in New York City and has opened branches in two other U.S. cities, Omaha and Indianapolis.

Yunus has become a globe-trotting advocate for micro-credit and social business. The film shows him rubbing shoulders with everyone from the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev, to Bono, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

He's had a much tougher time in his native Bangladesh, where Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina views him as a potential political rival. Earlier this year, Yunus, 71, was ousted as Grameen's managing director. He was accused of violating retirement regulations by working beyond age 60. The government's own finance minister is 77.

"To Catch a Dollar" airs at the IFC Center in New York from Sept. 23-29. It is also showing in Los Angeles, and will be screened at art cinemas in several U.S. cities over the next two months.