The documentary film “Bonsai People: The Vision of Muhammad Yunus” opens with images of Bangladeshi poor at work: shirtless men stand ankle deep in rice paddies or squat in potato fields tilling the clumpy ground by hand; women maneuver narrow alleyways selling vegetables or other goods, the warm reds and oranges of their saris glowing against the browns of the houses. Such scenes offer an almost familiar shock of physical and natural beauty alongside deprivation. Roofs leek, old widows eat one meal a day, young girls are married off at 12.
Director Holly Mosher juxtaposes these images with scenes of Yunus, now 71 and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, explaining his views of poverty and his motivations for cultivating microfinance. Yunus argues that the prevailing view is that poor people are poor because, “They don’t have any skill. They are poor because they are lazy. They are poor because they have no ambition.” Yunus has a different explanation, captured in the title metaphor of the film, the bonsai. For him, the poor are like a restricted plant. “There is nothing wrong with the seed,” says Yunus. The problem is the pot.
The film focuses on a village in northern Bangladesh, where a new Grameen branch has opened. The camera tracks the branch manager, Sumon, as he sets up his office and goes out to recruit and maintain his clients. Sumon is around 20 years old and looks like a banker in his fresh white shirts and neat black pants. Despite his youth, his tone is authoritative: The women will build businesses. They will come back for bigger and bigger loans, so those businesses can grow.
Melancho, the group leader, buys a cow. Anarkuli buys potato seeds for her husband to plant. Shahnaj sells eggplants until the market price drops and she falls behind on repaying her loan; her husband, a former cow trader, lost his business after some “bad men” spoke ill of him. Ayesha and Surjobana are too poor to start businesses, but there is a smaller loan for them that they can pay back without interest. Then there is Aroti, a long-term Grameen Bank borrower from another village who has expanded her holdings from an irrigation project, to a water pump, to a new house that she rents to others. Now she sits on the village council.
As the women’s stories unfold, the film returns repeatedly to Yunus in his office talking about entrepreneurship, women, and social business. These moments are filled with Yunus truisms like, “All human beings are born as entrepreneurs. It’s part of being human” and “Men get less mileage out of loans ...Women have a vision.” Yunus comes across as an unquestionable sage of solutions to promote women, enable entrepreneurship, and stem poverty.
There are no interviews with other microfinance experts, Yunus’ colleagues, or the executives who run Grameen Kalyan (the bank’s heath services arm) or Grameen Phone. “Bonsai People” is a homage to Yunus, not a balanced, nuanced portrait of the evolution of the microcredit sector and Yunus’s part in it. A number of rigorous studies have shown, for instance, that, contrary to Yunus’s insistence, women are not uniquely able to put loans to productive use, and requiring borrowers to start businesses may actually shift money away from necessary expenditures like school fees and healthcare.
Yunus comes across as sadly behind the times. His operating metaphor of the poor as bonsai people is just as homogenous, paternalistic, and unhelpful as the “personal fault” view he so criticizes and which has not, in fact, dominated anti-poverty discourse for at least two decades. This is not to say that Yunus does not deserve respect. He should be credited for proving that the poor can make good clients and for spurring the evolution of microcredit into a global industry. Grameen Bank promoted savings as well as credit long before it became popular to do so, and Yunus has been a consistent and staunch critic of for-profit microfinance, a position that is seeing increased support since the crisis that began in Andhra Pradesh, India in 2010.
Yunus does not, however, deserve credit for everything that bears the Grameen name. Grameen Phone, to name one example, was the brain child of Iqbal Quadir, who had a deal in place with telecom giant Telenor for two years before Yunus reluctantly agreed to sign on as a distribution partner. Yunus was also resistant to Grameen II reforms that revised many Grameen practices, including group liability, which Yunus saw as necessary.
Muhammad Yunus was forced to retire from Grameen Bank last year, a fact the film acknowledges. The microfinance industry he played a key role in creating has moved on without him, but the story this film tells still places Yunus at the helm. Toward the end, Mosher trains her camera on Shahnaj’s husband, the former cow trader. His wife got a new loan and they used it to plant trees, which will mature in 10 years. “I’ll get my name back,” he says. “And get back my business. In 10 years or so, we’ll be okay.”
“Bonsai People: The Vision of Muhammad Yunus” is airing this month on PBS stations around the country. You can also rent it from Amazon.com.
What do you think Muhammad Yunus’s legacy will be?