Friday, November 20, 2015

A Few Thoughts on “Poverty, Inc.”


This past Sunday afternoon, I attended a screening of the film Poverty, Inc.

The trailer is available here.

I share a few, somewhat disconnected, thoughts on Poverty, Inc. under the page break.

In short, the thesis of the film seemed to be that governments, NGOs, and charities benefit from the current system, while the poor that they purport to help are being hurt. By giving shoes, for example, you can put the local cobbler out of business (it is tough to compete with free), and you may create a culture of dependency. Two Covenant College professors had a similar thesis in their book When Helping Hurts.

The film's argument appears to be in line with Bill Easterly’s (NYU) argument against foreign aid, but the film doesn’t fully explore the counter arguments in favor of aid put forth by Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia).

The film is powerful, if one sided. The film paints a vivid picture of the supposed villain (those giving free items to those in need) and the hero (the local entrepreneur). The film makes a compelling case that the current “Poverty Industry” is flawed. Less well-developed, however, was a practical path to the future they envision. Thankfully, the film does make the distinction between temporary relief, which is needed, (for example, right after the earthquake in Haiti) and long-term aid, which (the film claims) can be problematic.

While Bono, WorldVision, various governmental, and non-governmental organizations were recipients of criticism in the film, The Apparent Project received a great deal of praise. The Apparent Project is an organization that provides jobs (and presumably training) to parents in Haiti so that they can better provide for their children. According to the organization’s website, “The Apparent Project artisans guild uses discarded materials…to create beautiful ‘upcycled’ piece of jewelry, journals, and stylish home décor.” While I think the Apparent Project model is definitely a step in the right direction, I wonder whether this model still suffers from the Rescuer—Victim dynamic decried elsewhere in the film. The founders of the Apparent Project, are still western “rescuers” and they still portray their employees as “victims,” albeit somewhat more able victims. Goods are not given for free in this model, but the business model is still subsidized by westerners who provide at least some of the raw materials for free and pay high prices because of the "warm glow" that comes from helping the less fortunate. Good tests for this model would include whether the job training leads to other, less-subsidized jobs, and whether the organization survives without the founders. The film says the following about aid: "there is a problem if you are still here 40 years later." Similarly, there may be a problem with the social entrepreneurship of The Apparent Project if it does not eventually fully empower the people it seeks to help.

The “orphan industry” discussed in the film was absolutely heartbreaking. While there are plenty of true orphans, with absent or deceased parents, the founders of The Apparent Project found that many of the children in the orphanages in Haiti had loving parents who visited their children regularly, but simply could not afford to support them. These parents faced a decision between bad and worst: give up their child or watch their child suffer. As a relatively new parent, I am convinced that this is a decision that no one should have to make.

The importance of education, the dignity of work, and the need for the rule of law were driven home in the film. In fact, I think this film might help law students and lawyers and law professors more fully realize what an important role they play in society at large.

Whether in a film or in a blog post or in our scholarship, it is easy to criticize and much more difficult to provide workable solutions. Poverty, Inc.'s website does provide some thoughts on next steps, stating that the "[i]ntegral human development is highly contextual," and cautions against seeking a "silver bullet" solutions. While I understand this response, I still think more fully formed principles could have been offered.

At our screening, after watching the film, we had audience Q&A and discussion by panelists, which was quite valuable. Perhaps the film was meant to prompt questions rather than supply answers. On that score, Poverty, Inc. was successful, and the film is well worth watching simply for the questions it raises. 

Disclaimer: In April 2014, at University of St. Thomas-Minnesota, I presented at the same conference as Poverty, Inc. Director/Producer Michael Matheson Miller.

CSR, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Ethics, Film, Haskell Murray, Human Rights, International Law, Nonprofits, Social Enterprise | Permalink


Thanks so much for highlighting this film and providing insights. Your sharing this will far more certainly target my viewing.

Posted by: Tom N. | Nov 20, 2015 12:38:37 PM

Good analysis.

Posted by: Missy Wallace | Nov 20, 2015 1:28:17 PM

Post a comment