Microcredit - When suicide seems the only way out

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Seven RNW reporters fanned out across the world in recent months to interview small entrepreneurs who funded their businesses with microcredits. Their videotaped portraits will be published in this dossier on 25 January.

To whet your appetite, here's a sneak preview from India, followed by a little story on how it came about from its maker, Eric Beauchemin.

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Microcredit is often portrayed as the best way to raise people out of poverty. But sometimes microcredit can backfire, as reporter Eric Beauchemin discovered in a village four hours from Kolkota, formerly known as Calcutta, in India.

One of my colleagues does the preliminary research to find a person we could interview. She keeps hearing that there are hundreds of such cases, but despite weeks of e-mailing and phoning, she doesn't get very far. So, when I pick up the baton, I decide to get in touch with an old acquaintance, Shabnam.

I met Shabnam during my first trip to India almost a decade and a half ago. She and her husband were running a project for street children in a slum in Delhi at the time. But the slum was razed, and when her husband died suddenly, she decided to head back to her village to help the poor and try and prevent more children from heading off to the big cities to live on the streets.

Microcredit backfires
Shabnam finds us a woman whose case shows how microcredit can actually backfire. She got a 60-euro microloan ten years ago which she used to buy a cow. But the cow died a year later before producing a litre of milk. Then Bidi had to borrow money from a neighbour to pay for her daughter's dowry. Her debt, together with interest, now totals 475 euros, an amount she will never be able to repay on the 22 euros she earns a month at Shabnam's embroidery project. "Suicide is the only way out", she says. Both the cameraman and I are stunned.

Radio Netherlands Worldwide never pays interviewees. As most respected Dutch media we don't buy the news, we have to keep a professional distance from our subject. But in this particular case, I feel the station should make an exception. Bidi's plight is so stark and hopeless that suicide does seem like a very real possibility. It would weigh heavily on my conscience if she were to take her life when we could have helped.

Financial help
I call the radio to tell them about Bidi's difficulties. Financial assistance is out of the question, say the editors, because it would compromise our independence. It's an argument that I still don't really fathom. They also ask me to speak to the bank that gave Bidi the microloan because they want to hear their side of the story. I try calling them, but the three managers who might be able to speak are all away. The editors are not happy, even though I tell them Bidi's story is strong enough to stand on its own.

They have since seen the video and agree that it is a powerful warning about the pitfalls of microcredit. They are still discussing whether we should pay off Bidi's debts: some are in favour, others are against. A few other colleagues who have seen the video have offered to make a contribution. The discussion continued, but the editor decided that Radio Netherlands Worldwide should not pay the debt.

Click to watch the video: Microcredit is a curse for Bidi

Read more about Shabnam