Microfinance, Zidane, and Adam Gopnik

Connie Bruck’s article in the October 30th New Yorker describes the current conflict in the microfinance industry between the old guard of microfinance lenders–typified by the Nobel Prize-winning founder of the Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus–whose goal is to lift people out of poverty and a new generation that is focused on making money (and economic empowerment of the poor). Bruck cites eBay founder Pierre Omidyar as the embodiment of this class. Omidyar recently gave $100 million to his alma mater, Tufts University, on the condition that they invest it in microfinance.

“For us, it’s not just about alleviating poverty; it’s about economic self-empowerment.” Omidyar told me that in the two years or so since he became involved in microfinance he had not visited a microfinance institution or met a borrower. Just the opposite of Yunus’s entry into microfinance: Yunus left theory behind to listen to the poor, and Omidyar seems to rely largely on theory. Omidyar sees himself as an agent of global change—in this case, the commercialization of the microfinance sector. Hence his insistence that his hundred-million-dollar gift to Tufts be invested in ways that will promote that commercialization.

Bruck goes on to describe the rift in the microfinance industry in similar terms after recounting the suicides of women borrowers in India’s Andhra Pradesh. (It’s suspected that their inability to repay their loans caused them to commit suicide. Institutions in Andhra Pradesh have since lowered their interest rates from around 30% to as low as 11%.)

Opposing sides in the commercialization debate drew different lessons from the episode. For Yunus’s allies, it demonstrates how the emphasis on profit can blind lenders to social values; the other side worries that rates lowered for political rather than economic reasons probably aren’t sustainable. What nearly everyone can agree on, though, is that it is a reminder of the dangers facing this immature and rapidly growing field.

Speaking of Muhammad Yunus, he recently invited Zinedine Zidane to Bangladesh for the opening of the Grameen Danone Food Factory in Bogra on November 6-7. The factory is a joint venture between the Grameen Bank and France’s Danone. Zidane has long endorsed Danone’s products, and it was rumored this past summer that he will join the company’s board.

Meanwhile, Zidane: Un Portrait du 21ème Siècle has been receiving more attention, including this profile of filmmaker Douglas Gordon in the Times of London. Today, I heard the soundtrack to the film by Lanarkshire’s Mogwai for the first time. I had never listened to Mogwai before, but their work on this soundtrack reminds me strangely of Japancakes. Scotsman has an interesting interview with the band’s Stuart Braithwaite and Gordon, in which the latter compares Zidane’s red card and ejection at the end of the film to a Shakespearean tragedy.

If you know what is going to happen, you can see them [the Villarreal players] niggling; there are a couple of wee instants where you can see the fuse has been lit. When you know what the ending is, not to sound pretentious, it’s like Shakespearean drama. It’s like Macbeth at the end – you can start to pick up his descent into madness. I think he is a bit of a Macbeth figure, actually.

After Italy beat France in the World Cup Final this summer, Adam Gopnik wrote a Talk of the Town Piece about Zidane for the New Yorker. In it, he locates the fascination with Zidane in his ultimate unpredictability and inscrutability. He closes with a description of his son, Luke,

“An eleven-year-old New Yorker, a passionate supporter of Les Bleus, had been playing each of the French World Cup games over and over on his Nintendo Gamecube FIFA game and—with spooky accuracy—had been using the aggregate scores to predict the outcomes of games not yet played. But nothing in the video game could have led one pixel-constructed figure to turn around, succumb to an irrational animal urge, and bash another pixel-constructed figure in the chest. “It just never happened in the Gamecube,” he said afterward, bewildered. An inexplicable human act was the one thing you couldn’t program.That reminder may have been, in its way, the saving grace of this curious fall.

I had lunch with Gopnik last Thursday at Google, and in addition to being a really, really smart, cool, personable guy, he too is a big fan of EA Sports’ FIFA Soccer series. I’m anxiously looking forward to Tuesday’s Halloween release of FIFA ’07 for Xbox 360, which just looks amazing.

Gopnik read as part of the Authors@Google series I work on, and I’ll post a link to the video of his talk once we get it online. He wrote about the experience of speaking at Google for an online Q&A on NewYorker.com.

I got to go to the Google campus, outside San Francisco, and speak to the Google-ites. Google headquarters turns out to be enormous, far bigger than I could have imagined, and looks a bit like a cross between the school in “High School Musical” and that spooky village from the old “Prisoner” television series. An amazing monitor in the reception area displays current searches from all over the world, and I went in some slight fear that they would deliver to the visiting speaker, as a well-meaning but terrifying prize, a list of his last two years of searches. (“ ‘Swedish models’? Oh, yeah, so I did. . . . Well, I was searching for, you know, certain Ikea appliances. For my wife.”) But my hosts were serious and extremely literary. Over a talk, and then lunch from a fine (and free) cafeteria, where I piled my plate with vegetarian specialties, I had a chance to talk with the hyper-brilliant, hyper-earnest, amazingly young, and—significantly, for a field that has long skewed so awkwardly male—female hosts. To my surprise, they defended the notion of the continuing necessity of the book far more eloquently than I could, and insisted, to a degree that almost convinced an author who sees his children starving as everything goes on the Web, that the online reading audience will only feed the appetite for the bookstore book, as snacks encourage meals. And all of them so student-like! To adapt Lincoln Steffens: I have seen the future, and it is school.

I’ll post more on Gopnik’s new book soon.

*Update*
Here are a number of pictures of Zidane playing in an exhibition game between a pair of under-16 teams in Dhaka during his visit to Bangladesh.

Here is a low quality video of the game:

The BBC also has a story about Zidane’s visit, whcih can be found here.

Zidane in Bangladesh

Can the NYT’s glossy-style sections subsidize real news coverage?

Is his Public Editor column in Sunday’s New York Times, Byron Calame addresses the proliferation of magazine-style sections in the Times that have been introduced to increase advertising revenue. Calame concludes that executive editor Bill Keller has the best interests of serious news coverage in mind. Keller says,

Well, the reason why we’re inventing these sections, I think, is obvious: They generate the revenues that help subsidize the stuff that drew most of us into the business.

My reaction to reading this piece was that I’m glad that the Times is doing its best to preserve the sections that I find most valuable. It also confirmed my position that I wouldn’t ever want to run a publication whose business model depended on advertising revenue.

ITVN launches Setanta Sports On Demand

For the past couple months I have been watching soccer matches–primarily the Champions League and Euro 2008 qualifying matches–on Setanta Sports, which I get over my broadband connection using ITVN. The quality is not perfect, but it’s good enough for me. And now, ITVN has just launched Setanta On Demand, which allows you to watch anything from the past 24 hours on Setanta. Right now, I’m watching Marseille play Lyon in match that originally aired on Sunday afternoon.

Zidane to consult for Canal+

Zinédine Zidane is becoming a consultant to the French television station Canal Plus and will also be a commentator for the soccer matches they air.

“I don’t miss it (soccer) at all,” Zidane said in Thursday’s edition of L’Equipe. “When Real Madrid started the new season, I didn’t feel anything. I have just been jogging and playing tennis.”

The three-time FIFA World Player of the Year even finds the internet jokes and the chart-topping song “Coup de Boule” (“Head-Butt”) about his dismissal humorous.

“It amuses me more than anything,” Zidane said. “Although I what I did was not funny. Anyway, it’s better to laugh about it.”

Zidane also expressed an interest in playing for a club team in his hometown of Marseille.