The documentary film "Poverty, Inc." critiques the global aid system, or what it calls the "vast multibillion-dollar poverty industry," for not only failing to achieve its mission but often doing more harm than good. Among the culprits: nonprofits.
The film, which features interviews with community leaders, business people, farmers, and others in countries that receive charity and government aid, argues that well-intended gestures by the West have harmed local economies, perpetuated dependency, and neglected to give a voice to the people who are supposedly being helped.
The people interviewed fault celebrities for being patronizing — for example, those who raised money for Africa by recording "Do They Know It’s Christmas?," a song that portrays the continent as a pitiful place in need of Western saviors. And they criticize the "one for one" model promoted by companies like Toms, which donates shoes to children in need for every pair it sells, saying handouts that end up hurting local workers are not the solution.
"Poverty, Inc.," directed by Michael Matheson Miller, a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, has been shown at more than 40 international film festivals and in November won a $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award, which recognizes projects that promote a better understanding of free enterprise.
Excerpts of a Chronicle interview with Mark Weber, a co-producer of the film, follow.
Your film highlights the unintended consequences of international aid that is intended to do good. Can you name an example that particularly stands out to you?
The one that really struck me is a story in Haiti of a solar-panel company called Enersa. It was started by two Haitian gentlemen, Jean-Ronel Noel and Alex Georges. They’re Canadian educated. They decided to come back to Haiti to build their country. They saw a tremendous opportunity for renewable energy and harnessing sunlight. They began, kind of the cliché entrepreneurial story, in their garage working with LEDs and things. They eventually grew and grew and grew, built a manufacturing plant, and had been employing a number of people, mostly men, mostly from pretty tough areas of Haiti. It’s an incredible success story of local people driving development in their own country.
Then the earthquake hits, and the factory held up, but it was damaged. Within a couple of weeks, they had it back up and running again. But because of the international relief effort, all of a sudden there was a flood of solar panels coming in from international NGOs to help Haiti. They went from selling 50 solar panels a month to selling five in six months. They were almost decimated by the relief effort.
There’s a good side to that story, too. There were two NGOs in particular — you could say three — that were supportive of their development. One was Partners Worldwide, and they provide mentorship, some training.
Another organization that supported them is Fonkoze, a microfinance organization that gave them a sizable loan at low interest. Especially after the earthquake, they were very patient with repayment. The third organization that helped them out, not in a direct sense, is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT had an open-courseware module that had something to do with creating solar panels, and these guys were able to teach themselves some of the things they needed.
So there’s lots of ways we can support each other. But flooding the markets with stuff is not one of them.
You interviewed more than 200 people in 20 countries. What were some of the prevailing views about the role nonprofits play in the international aid system?
I don’t want to paint too broad a brush. But I would say there’s a profound disconnect. If you watch the film, especially if you come from the NGO world, you may feel it’s pretty hard-hitting. The important thing to remember with "Poverty Inc." is we’re not trying to say in 91 minutes here’s the whole story of poverty and development and NGOs, But there’s a side of the story that’s not being told and not being heard. The word that kept coming up over and over again when we would ask about this stuff was "neocolonialism." People kept saying, This is not so different than what we experienced before. There’s this spoken benevolence, but the power dynamics are such that we either get displaced or held back in a number of ways.
You seem to put a big emphasis on the free market — or maybe the marketplace, you would call it — and business entrepreneurship as being a better solution than aid. Could you expand on that?
We never use the word capitalism; it’s not really a word that resonates with us. We try to be much more specific, to say that free and competitive ecosystems of exchange that exist in conjunction with certain institutions of justice — for instance, property rights, rule of law, freedom of association and exchange — these ecosystems absolutely correlate with economic growth and human flourishing.
The many lifesaving interventions of the foreign-aid community or NGOs or foundations are not to be discredited or downplayed at all. But I think we go too far when we call it development. Over 500 million people have come out of poverty in China in the last 25 years. You can make no serious argument that that’s because of foreign aid or the [U.N.] Millennium Development Goals. China is no utopia, but it’s clear to everyone that China today is freer than it was 25 years ago.
When we try to make the argument that the Millennium Development Goals or foreign aid played a big part in the rise out of poverty in the last 25 years, we’re actually taking credit away from the people it belongs to. We’re saying we’re the center of attention. We did this. No, everyday hardworking people in China, India, Brazil, throughout Africa — they are the protagonists of this story.
What would your advice be to all of the NGOs that are out there and part of the system? What can their role be in changing the dynamic?
I read a book recently by Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food. He says at the end of the book: I want to emphasize, I’m not trying to prescribe a menu for you. I’m trying to give you eating algorithms, mental programs that if you run them at the grocery store it will give you an infinite variety of healthy dishes. We’re trying to do the same thing with "Poverty Inc." We’re not trying to give you a list of things you should do. We’re trying to discuss principles, to help provide an interpretive key. One of the many things you should put into your algorithm is local capacity: Is my effort in a relief situation, for instance, strengthening or displacing and diminishing local capacity?
In the film, there’s a powerful chapter called "Power for the Parents." In my service to the child, am I excluding the parents? Am I approaching the family as a unit, or am I isolating individual children and working with them separately? If so, it can actually undermine the parent and break apart the family. I’ve never seen a child-sponsorship commercial with a parent. You’re basically saying to the person on the other end of that commercial, "You get to be this kid’s parent."
How are NGOs responding to the film?
We were really encouraged: Compassion International had a screening for their staff. They had a focused discussion on, Are we as an organization doing enough to give power to the parents? If there’s not any tension or friction, the film is not doing its job.
Bono, the singer and co-founder of the antipoverty group ONE, has seen the film. His people tell us they share enormous common ground, and they agree with the critique of the Christmas song.
You’ve been screening the film across the United States and abroad. What kind of reactions has it generated?
The thing I’m most encouraged by is that students at universities have been the biggest drivers of screenings for us — seven or eight screenings at Harvard alone.
Have you noticed different reactions from different audiences?
There’s one scene in particular that is perfectly indicative of the disconnect between the West and the rest. The physician and former aid consultant Theodore Dalrymple says, "I bought my first house on the proceeds of foreign aid. Aid has been very good to me. It’s aided me immensely. It’s allowed me to have an interesting life, to travel, no tax. It couldn’t be better."
At most screenings — I’ll give the Minneapolis-St. Paul film festival as an example — a mostly white, liberal audience. You could just cut the tension in the room with a knife. That’s the norm; most people react that way.
But at predominantly African audiences — I’ll give the Africa Business Club at Harvard as an example — they played the film the opening night of the Africa Business Conference. When that scene comes up, the whole room was just uproarious, laughing and clapping and hooting and hollering and whistling. It wasn’t shocking to them. They all knew, and they were all thankful and appreciative of this guy for saying it out loud. Those different reactions are very revealing of different assumptions.
The film is not doing a whole lot more than trying to bridge that gap.
Editor’s note: A photograph that appeared earlier with this article was published in error and was taken from another documentary that is called Poverty Inc.