Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman, famous for her role in V for Vendetta and the Star Wars trilogy, urged a packed audience on Tuesday October 2 to support microfinance efforts in impoverished countries.
Addressing a Kresge Auditorium filled near to capacity, Portman urged students to contribute money and get involved. “It’s not charity, it’s just widening opportunity,” she said.
In the event sponsored by the Center for Social Innovation at the GSB and the Center for International Development, Portman spoke on behalf of FINCA, a microfinance institution that provides financial services to the world’s lowest-income entrepreneurs by supporting “village banks” in over 20 countries.
Microfinance works by giving small loans to the poor, who use the money to improve their businesses. Improved business generates more income, leaving recipients of the loans better able to provide for their families in terms of health and education. Portman noted that 97% of those who receive loans manage to repay them.
Village banks are designed to empower local communities. Because locals are empowered to draft the rules and regulations of these banks, recipients of loans are held accountable by their neighbors. Noting that each bank requires only $5,000 to start, Portman said they were powerful tools to free the impoverished from the “oppression of financial disenfranchisement.”
She singled out microfinance efforts in Afghanistan as “remarkable,” serving some 65,000 clients. A native of Israel, she praised Queen Rania of Jordan, calling her an “inspiring figure,” and spoke with pride of her own trips to Uganda, Mexico, and elsewhere.
Portman focused on the empowering nature of microfinance for women, who make up 70% of FINCA’s clients. By giving them independent access to capital, women are able to engage in commerce without the help of men. Ultimately, empowered women will secure more “reproductive rights” and, as they “curb birth rates,” can help the environment. According to Portman, the growing world population represents a severe threat to the environment.
Portman also cited the work of Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, a major figure whose award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 helped raised the profile of
The event also featured Garth Saloner, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Graduate School of Business, who mentioned the “incredible capital constraints” and “market failure” faced by the world’s poor. Microfinance, Saloner suggested, is intended to correct this failure.
In an interview with the Stanford Review, Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, a professor at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, labeled microfinance “a very effective development tool under the right conditions.”
Professor Stoner-Weiss agreed that microfinance has been helpful for women, but counseled: “There also has to be enough money in the general economy to support the purchase of the foods and services that microfinancing provides. So, it isn’t a general model of development for a country-wide economy, but it can be very effective in promoting small business and small scale growth in rural economies in particular.”
Portman, who holds a B.A. in psychology from Harvard, also conceded that microfinance is “not a one-stop solution for the ills of these nations.”