Contributing Monkie G Living Staff Monkies
Published on July 31, 2008
We all know that Natalie Portman is beautiful. We all know she has the force. But in a recent feature piece for the New York Times about the actress and her pet philanthropy, Finca, she displayed precisely why she’s not just famous, but downright royal. When asked whether she would also like to say something about her new movie, The Other Boleyn Girl, she politely declined in the hopes of keeping the discussion more focused upon the issue at hand — specifically microfinance. Queenly indeed.
And so, Queen Amidala’s wish is my command…
Portman is the Ambassador of Hope for the Foundation for International Community Assistance. Finca is a worldwide organization committed to providing credit to the very poorest of the world’s working poor. Mostly poor from developing countries where, since there are no other jobs, they have to work for themselves as the reliantly self-employed. Where if they don’t work for themselves, no one else will. Where an extra twenty spot might be the difference between living and dying. Not just living for today, but living for tomorrow and the day after that.
Portman is helping Finca to get loans for impoverished people so they can live just a smidge above the dismalness of their current conditions. So their children can live at least two smidges above that. That’s called sustainability. The “longevity of vital human ecological support systems”(via Wikipedia). Systems like agriculture, industry, and fisheries. Systems that continue on and on, season by season. That’s the process of indefiniteness. Energy begets energy. Matter begets matter. Seeds beget food.
Where most financial institutions wouldn’t take a chance, Finca does. Where most lenders wouldn’t take the 50-dollar risk involved in filing a credit report, Finca will. Not just loans, but financial advice on savings, insurance and fund transfers. Because why should the middle class be the only ones with such opportunities? Where would I be living without credit? Where would any good American be?
I’ve always looked at finance as a figment of our collective imagination. And really, what is credit but imagination? However, the more something is imagined, the more it becomes real. And suddenly something as perishable as paper can become as concrete as vitamins and minerals.
So, how does it work?
Well, that’s where it helps to have a spokeswoman who went to Harvard (which Portman did — not because she’s a spoiled private school princess, but because of the attention she gained from her science fair project). Basically, the business model for Finca is based on donations or investments, which in turn create equity, which allows Finca to access commercial funds. Each dollar is leveraged five times as commercial capital (I’ll defer to Portman as to exactly how that happens) and then loaned out to poor workers, mostly those operating on less than two dollars a day.
Portman’s latest effort on behalf of Finca is in her role as co-chair of the Village Banking Campaign, “an initiative to mobilize the people and resources needed to bring financial services to one million of the world’s lowest-income families”(via Finca’s Village Banking Campaign Press Release). One million families who may not need any thing else but a little faith from their fellow man to make ends meet. Their fellow man that can share the wealth without having to feel like it’s welfare. Because it’s not. Nearly 97 percent of all Finca loans are repaid. No bank goes out of business boasting that number.
A Life Changing Moment
The other co-chair of the Village Banking Campaign is another royal highness, Jordan’s Queen Rania Al-Abdullah, a longtime supporter of Finca and a majestic member of their Board of Directors. Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is actually the reason Portman became involved in the first place. In 2003, when Portman was a senior at Harvard, a terrible thing happened to a friend of hers in her birthplace of Israel (the details of which Portman prefers not to publicize — another example of her demure grace). Portman, the idealist that she is, thought she could use her celebrity to help ease the ancient hatreds between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
So, she contacted Queen Rania.
Now, when I called the royal palace of Jordan, I was rudely put on hold for longer than a call to Time Warner Cable, but being a celebrity has its privileges. But Queen Rania was delighted to hear from Queen Amidala and took the opportunity to steer Portman towards her own pet cause, Finca, and her hopes of bringing microfinance to the poor people of the Middle East.
At that time, Finca was operating in parts of Latin America, the former Soviet bloc, Central Asia and Russia. But not in the Middle East. Portman was intrigued, but had never heard of microfinance and wanted to see it in practice. So, she shipped off to Uganda and Guatemala to have a look. It proved to be a life-transforming trip, which Portman says was, “probably the most important moment of my growing up.” (The fact that mine was the Broncos’ 1990 Super Bowl loss to the 49ers says a lot about me, I’m sure.)
When Portman returned, she became Finca’s international Ambassador of Hope, which basically meant that every time someone interviewed her, she would make it a point to talk about Finca. She realized that while people will always want to know what designer provided the dress she’s wearing, after she tells them with an engaging smile, she can then talk about things that are actually important to her.
So, Natalie tells the world how they can help one million families become self-sufficient. And we love Natalie. In Natalie We Trust. And now, with great thanks to her persuasive voice, the Village Banking Campaign has become a reality. Five years after her initial conversation with Queen Rania, microfinance is coming to Jordan and the broader Middle East.
God knows, in the me-centric circles of Hollywood, it’s downright refreshing to hear of someone (and an A-lister at that) being so glaringly we-centric. And doing so with such grace.
Lady Anne Boleyn and Queen Amidala are but bit parts in comparison to the royal role Natalie Portman is playing in reality.
To read the New York Times piece, click here.