Austin Film Festival: Poverty, Inc.

Doc uncovers ugly truths in the booming global-poverty aid industry

Austin Film Festival:  Poverty, Inc.

Opening with a Machiavelli quote and driving through the current Mixmaster of charitable giving, Poverty, Inc. seeks to investigate the “multibillion dollar poverty industry” on a global scale.

The film’s tagline, “Fighting poverty is big business, but who profits the most?” is explored through more than “200 interviews filmed in 20 countries,” with Michael Mattheson Miller, director and producer, at the helm. “Who has power? Who should?”

The documentary, whose title and style nod to successful 2008 film Food, Inc., walks the audience through the pitfalls of generosity enacted on a mass continuous scale. From President Clinton’s 2010 remarks regarding his foreign-aid errors to a critique of Bono’s efforts, the concepts of paternalism vs. partnerships and the cyclical effects of foreign aid are explored.

Though the parameters of film reduce the final cut’s focus to significantly less material, the doc does a decent job of shaking up our perception of a system that has been in place since World War II. Supported by the Acton Institute (whose own mission may play a role), Poverty, Inc. bears the burden of proof, and the bulk of its qualitative data could be an entire additional film. No definitive conclusions are carved, and though the filmmakers provide a lens into a multifaceted global issue many have never considered at length, it does not conclude with any relief – the issues are too large for that.

Even when charitable donations are well-intentioned, without firsthand knowledge of how a nation functions, and by assuming a sort of omniscient benevolence, the help can prove harmful, suggests the film. Haiti is spotlighted: “A short-term natural disaster turned into a longer, unnatural disaster.” Ranging in sentiment from “let’s do better” to pure frustration and disappointment, many of the film’s subjects express the view that without constructive action to promote communities – not charity – donations spite noses. Says one interviewee, “The people here [in Haiti] aren’t stupid. They’re just disconnected from global trade. That’s all.”

This is not to say that in true emergency situations of dire circumstances, aid is unnecessary. Instead, the film and its voices suggest that for optimal relief, aid in the initial days or weeks after, say, a hurricane or civil war, will be used to help a nation’s people rise from the rubble and begin to rebuild their own communities, on their own. The problem occurs when a business is created to eradicate symptoms of poverty, and only serves to perpetuate it. One individual even suggests that indefinitely providing goods for impoverished people, instead of helping them build or rebuild, essentially suggests that the so-called beneficiaries are inferior or incapable. A provocative look at a usually shiny subject.

Still, it is reiterated multiple times by several interviewees: Altruism is not inherently to blame, nor would a total cease-and-desist of charitable donations be helpful. Instead, the documentary purports that it is essential that assistance be framed as temporary, and that exit strategies for aid organizations be mandatory and regulated.

Interestingly, and something that many Austinites will appreciate, buying local – wherever that may be – is cited as inherently beneficial because it supports the citizens on a smaller and more effective scale. This helps the cobbler who’s going out of business because of TOMS, and the seamstress unable to sell her wares as a result of piles and piles of free second-hand clothes.

Perhaps the most emotionally charged portion of the film is the section regarding adoption. Orphanages, whose work is, no doubt, some of the most important of humanity, require massive fundraising efforts to fulfill the children’s needs. A husband and wife duo explains that as many as 80% of the children in Haitian orphanages are not “true orphans” – meaning they have at least one surviving parent or caregiver. The problem, of course, occurs when a family is financially unable to support a child – that is, provide food, shelter, medical care, education, etc. Funneling millions of dollars into orphanages has mixed results: Certainly it helps care for the children, but it also deepens the rabbit hole. Instead of opportunities for parents to pull themselves out of poverty, some organizations are facilitating – even encouraging, in some cases – parents to relinquish custody so that the organization may take the reins. Raising groups of children in institutionalized homes means raising them away from familial ties, often without individualized psychological and emotional care. The results point to a generation of children raised by charitable donations – a Band-Aid on the systemic societal issues of inequity.

The ladder to prosperity is, essentially, various steps that converge through opportunity, access, and connections. This startling film focuses its screen time on interviews and brief cinematic shots of the region, avoiding the so-called “flies on children photos” so often used in fundraising. A point, to be sure. This is a not a sappy documentary – it is all about data: tax loopholes, jobs, geopolitics, property rights, gender issues, rule of law, and much else.

In addition to experts such as Magatte Wade and Herman Chinery-Hesse, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunus also contributes. He says, “Poor people are bonsai people. The problem is the flower pot.” The tree seed, he explains, will grow to its environment’s specifications. Put it in a tiny container, it will remain small. Plant it with space and nutrients, and it will grow exponentially larger. In other words, provide resources and facilitate learning, and every human has potential to be his or her own ladder out of poverty.

According to the film, the keys are connection, access, and justice in the courts. “The law is friendly for some, but it is the enemy of the majority.” It is also all about perception: how the poor are viewed, how they are treated in terms of their own capabilities. “Compassion is not just a vehement expression of a point of view.” The documentary suggests that, like their target audience, big names in the charity biz – like Bono – are learning better ways to be an ally. “Having a heart for helping the poor isn’t hard. Having a mind to help, that’s the challenge.”

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Poverty, Inc., poverty, global aid, Bono, Mohammad Yunus, Haiti, Austin Film Festival, Michael Mattheson Miller, Austin Film Festival 2014

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