For those of us who are in the business of disseminating information, a coup like the one realized a few months ago comes along very rarely. Here we are, heads down, hard at work to bring stories about social enterprise to a broader audience, and out of nowhere, The Simpsons trumps us.
Never have I felt so in tune with the zeitgeist as I did on the evening of October 3rd as I settled in for a viewing of the latest Simpsons episode – “Loan-a-Lisa,” in which Grandpa Simpson decides to dole out the family’s inheritance early, giving $50 to each member of the Simpson clan. True to form, everyone blows their dough on frivolity, except for Lisa, of course. Ever the altruist, she decides to honour Grandpa by giving her inheritance to charity. Naturally, she goes online to do so, and after rejecting a few possibilities – Parrots without Partners, People Second, and Seals on Wheels – she discovers Metamorphosis Microfinance. Their promo video says it all:
“I’m just a goat, but even I know that a peasant in an emerging economy can’t get a break. She needs a microloan.”
Suddenly bells were ringing, fireworks were going off. Was I really watching a Simpsons episode featuring microlending? Even among the educated and enlightened, microloans, microfinance and the like, are relatively unknown. And here was a TV show, viewed by millions and millions of people, explaining it in a way even a child could understand.
As the talking goat from the promo video puts it, “A guilty first-worlder lends $50 or more to the microloan bank, who uses it to help my owner finance her business. Working together we can help people help themselves.” This is followed by Mohammed Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Bank, popping onto the screen, encouraging website visitors to “click on my nose” to find an entrepreneur to lend to.
With an invitation like that, who could refuse? So Lisa decides to invest her money anonymously in a local entrepreneur – one Nelson Muntz. Apparently, even the town bully can turn his life around. In this case, Nelson opens a custom bike shop, doing a brisk business with the citizens of Springfield. Microloans work! Or do they?
Nelson is making money “fist over face,” so much so that he decides to quit school. “Dropping it like a melon off an overpass.” But all is not as it first appears. His success is called into question when an angry mob of townsfolk return with shoddily built bikes, demanding their money back.
So maybe microlending isn’t the panacea that will save the world. After all, people are still people, prone to failure as much as success. And although microloans generally boast a 99% repayment rate, there is room for abuse and overuse, as evidenced by the current situation in India, where the government has placed restrictions on who can open a microloan bank and how payments are collected.
Nevertheless, The Simpsons, with its huge and diverse audience, did a great service by bringing the concept of microlending to the masses. Is it possible that Oprah watched the episode before choosing Kiva, the microlending website, as one of her “Favourite Things” for 2010? With exposure like this, it’s only a matter of time before people everywhere begin tuning in to this type of financing.
Nicole Zummach is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine. She has worked in the publishing industry for more than a decade, and has spent most of her career researching and writing about civil society and the nonprofit sector. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org