Microfinance, Muhammad Yunus, and Lisa Simpson
Those three look strange together. What does Lisa Simpson have to do with Microfinance and Muhammad Yunus? After seeing Muhammad Yunus win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson, became interested in microfinance and visited the founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.
The Simpsons is an American animated television series for the Fox Broadcasting Company. The show is set in the fictional city of Springfield, and lampoons American culture, society, television and many aspects of the human condition.
In the October 3 episode, Lisa Simpson receives money that she wants to give to charity. As she is researching organizations to give her money to, she discovers microfinance. I must admit I was concerned that the show would satirize microfinance, but I was pleasantly surprised. As Lisa Simpson is researching she learns how microloans are for poor people in developing economies that cannot get a loan from mainstream banking institutions. Lisa watches the computer screen as a dejected woman is leaving a bank, unable to secure a loan. The solution, a microloan!
Lisa continues to watch as a microloan helps an entrepreneur start their business. She is convinced that this is how she wants to use her money. This is where an animated version of Muhammad Yunus makes his Simpsons debut!
Instead of giving her money to someone halfway around the world, Lisa gives her money to Nelson Muntz after seeing his online plea for a microloan. Nelson lives in Springfield and is known for bullying everyone and being Bart Simpson’s arch nemesis. His home life is terrible. His dad is no longer around, and his mother works on the fringes of the sex industry. Lisa’s decision to loan to Nelson calls to mind the burgeoning microfinance industry in the United States.
After receiving the microloan, Nelson’s business takes off. The business does so well he drops out of school, but then the wheels come off (literally, his business was fixing up bikes). He starts receiving customer complaints and refund requests. We are left with the impression that because Nelson is uneducated and untrained, his business was doomed to fail. This reflects a concern that many have expressed about the microfinance industry, where in some cases borrowers remove their children from school in order to work for their newly funded business.
Is microfinance going mainstream in America? Only time will tell, but the attention on microfinance in a popular TV show does not hurt! The Simpsons episode highlighted the great potential microloans give to individuals, while also showing the danger of thinking that money alone is a solution to poverty. It led me to ponder how microloans need to be packaged with education and business training, while still being affordable to the borrower. Not an easy job for microfinance institutions trying to become financially sustainable, but essential nonetheless.
Muhammad Yunus’appearance on the Simpsons was timely as he has recently been in the public eye for other reasons. On October 5, President Barack Obama signed off on the bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Dr. Yunus for “an historical breakthrough in the fight against poverty”. This award is the nation’s highest civilian award given to individuals who perform an outstanding deed or act of service. This most recent reward is well deserved, as Yunus continues to fight against poverty bringing microfinance to such a level of public recognition that even The Simpsons are talking about it.