Lawyer, writer and self-confessed shameless idealist Mark Swivel presents his one-man show How Deep Is Your Love? at the Drill Hall this week. Created after his experience working with Grameen Bank, Nobel Peace prizewinner for alleviating poverty in Bangladesh by offering microcredit to eight million borrowers, nearly all women. A quiet economic revolution accompanied by the Bee Gees. Mark spoke with The Echo about the show’s themes.
What made you decide to turn your experience working with microfinance in Bangladesh into a one-man show?
Monologues are campfire stories, the oldest form of theatre. It’s an interesting story where all the currents of the mad world intersect and a monologue lets you mix the silly and the serious, big political issues and little moments of ordinary life. I also blame the DustyEsky Choir for getting me to do bits between songs, and Eureka FC for letting me write reports on our football matches. It’s complicated.
Can you explain what microfinance is and what you were doing in Bangladesh?
Microfinance is lending and banking for ‘the poor’ – people in developing countries – designed to finance small business, improve financial strength and build communities. I was doing the basic training course that Grameen Bank offers for people from all over the world.
Why is microfinance aimed at women?
The usual answer is that women don’t waste or drink the money. Women are more focused on their families and use loans to develop their businesses and spend the surplus on getting their kids to school, improving family health and wellbeing. The real answer is more complex and a key theme of the show.
What were the key cultural differences that struck you most?
How long have you got? The culture of poverty everywhere I’ve been – Bangladesh, Cambodia, Guatemala – is about resilience, cooperation and vitality. The culture of Bangladesh is a mad post-colonial mayhem – half ancient, nearly modern (no hot water but cable TV). The Islam of Bangladesh is ‘moderate’ but this seems to be changing.
Can you tell me about Grameen Bank and what inspired you to engage with them? Can a bank really be run for the poor?
I heard about Grameen – through my work with credit unions – just before the Bank won the Nobel prize in 2006. Muhammad Yunus, its founder, is a compelling character, a mad practical visionary, the best kind of megalomaniac. I had my own plans, trying to get people inspired in Sydney – there was a Rudd–Gillard project to get microfinance going in Australia, called CDFIs. That’s a long story. If you really want to know, here’s the report on that project: evaluation report link.
The experience of microfinance across the world shows that banks for ‘the poor’ – especially run by or with ‘the poor’ – can and do work. In Kenya, Haiti, Kosovo, even Bougainville.
How does microfinance and the work of the Grameen Bank change people’s lives?
By injecting funds into village economies, making them more productive and connecting them to the larger economy, raising production and living standards, generating local wealth and savings. The impact is seen in improved access to education, better housing and healthcare. The actual results vary enormously across the world and the progress out of poverty is gradual everywhere. Microfinance is no panacea, but it has made a difference to many millions. It also has its critics. There is a vast literature on the subject if people are interested. The best book is called Poverty Capital by a woman called Ananya Roy.
What stories do you tell in your show?
You’ll meet Asit the schoolteacher who loves the Bee Gees and sings me the title song Habibunessa, the mango-tree queen who would succeed anywhere on Earth, and Mr Forhad who taught me that shampoo is black. You also meet Muhammad Yunus as I did – Willy Wonka inside the chocolate factory of microfinance. For more you’ll have to see the show.
How did the experience change you?
It taught me that we are anaesthetised by affluence. And it reinforced how dumb concepts of poverty are. Bangladesh is poor – in material things, in education, in liberal institutions – but in others its richness is so deep it’s humiliating. We cling to our phantoms of economic growth while there’s a deadness at the heart of the work that dominates most western lives. I could go on…
What should we expect from your show?
To laugh, think, maybe cry, and laugh again. It’s a chance to reflect on how we think about the larger world while being entertained. You might also learn a little about microfinance itself and support it here and overseas.
Do you think the same sort of program would work here?
Things only work in their context. Grameen is a creature of Bangladeshi history, suffering, and endurance. In Australia the best microfinance is about encouraging savings and financial literacy, eg Traditional Credit Union in Arnhem Land. Lending to poor people cannot be as transformative in a modern economy. The underlying issue in a modern complex society such as Australia is different: the exploitation of less-well-off people by fringe lenders. In this sense Good Shepherd Microfinance based in Melbourne is a winner but its success deals with only a small fraction of the challenge (well below 10 per cent). Governments, philanthropists and ordinary donors should get behind them. Four Corners recently did a program on this. There’s a culture of denial around poverty in Australia. Struggle Street – much discussed at the moment – is a distraction. Whatever that show is, it does not tell the story of so many ordinary Australians who want to work but can’t, or who can’t work but would love to, and the way that the banking system fails them. That’s another long story too. In the end these subjects are on the face of it so dry and boring but they’re not – it’s the stuff of life – so with storytelling and a fair bit of humour this show might provide a little pathway for people to think a bit more about what it means here and in the bigger, badder world.
Friday and Saturday at the Drill Hall, Mullumbimby, at 8pm and 5pm on Sunday. Tickets are $10 at the door.