As if poverty weren’t a challenging enough phenomenon unto itself, time has revealed that good intentions by outsiders can in many cases make the problem worse — a cruel irony that serves as the basis of Michael Matheson Miller’s “Poverty Inc.,” an easy-to-understand docu-essay with a tough-to-accept message, especially as it implies that some aid organizations may actually be cashing in on their concern. The idea isn’t to discourage giving, but rather to illustrate how the current paradigm doesn’t work, providing clear examples and practical solutions that serve as a useful conversation-starter flexible enough to enrich discussions everywhere from college campuses to community churches — in addition to activism-oriented film festivals, of course.
Miller’s point could hardly be more apparent than in the case of a Rwandan egg farmer who was just getting his business started when a well-meaning American church decided to send free eggs to his starving countrymen: Overnight, the local entrepreneur found himself unable to sell his own goods in the market, and though locals benefited for a short time, when the church turned its philanthropic attention elsewhere, it had driven the farmer out of business and inadvertently crippled the local egg economy.
This micro-example, relayed anecdotally by an NGO exec and illustrated via rudimentary animation (for lack of an interview with the primary source himself), echoes in many forms over the course of the film, from interviews with small-time business owners whose own Third World endeavors couldn’t compete with a sudden influx of “free stuff” to someone as high-profile as ex-president Bill Clinton, who delivers a mea culpa before Congress after his policy of dumping American-subsidized, tariff-free rice on Haiti wiped out local agriculture: “It was a mistake,” Clinton confesses. “I had to live every day with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did.”
It feels good to give, Miller acknowledges, and the U.S. and other cultures are to be commended for their awareness of and involvement in Africa since the days when Band Aid and infomercials featuring fly-covered, distended-bellied Ethiopian kids raised the issue of starvation, while giving a misleading impression of Africa as a barren, resource-poor continent. The problem, “Poverty Inc.” cautions, is that few pause to think what happens after they’ve written the check, never fathoming that the mere act of giving can actually have have a detrimental effect.
The buzzword here is “paternalism”: When Westerners step in to patronize the poor, it creates a system of dependence in which the so-called Third World finds it difficult to rise above their circumstances. Like Ricardo Pollack’s demoralizing 2012 docu “The Trouble With Aid” (whose litany of seven humanitarian disasters inadvertently makes all foreign aid feel futile, or at least counter-productive), “Poverty Inc.” treads a delicate line between condemning NGOs and encouraging otherwise generous-minded souls to think twice about the sort of support they provide to societies in need — the key advantage here being Miller’s solution-oriented focus on the “right” kind of aid.
For example, he speaks with American couple Corrigan and Shelly Clay, who came to Haiti looking to adopt. When they discovered that local orphanages were actually encouraging poor mothers to give up their children, rather than providing homes for those without parents, they hatched an entirely different plan. Their answer was to open Papillon Enterprise, a jewelry company through which local Haitians can earn enough to buy houses and feed their children. “Poverty Inc.” is full of such examples, hop-scotching around the globe to provide a diverse and instructive collection of real-world case studies from throughout Africa and the Caribbean.
Though the film’s title suggests an almost conspiratorial movement to keep the poor in their place while a network of grabby NGOs get rich, Miller actually focuses more on those who are thinking outside the box — where “the box” is a system, simplistically diagrammed, by which countries and corporations stand to gain. In that spirit, “Poverty Inc.” spotlights self-starters who’ve arisen in otherwise impoverished countries, including such African entrepreneurs as Herman Chinery-Hesse and Magatte Wade, who don’t mince words when critiquing anti-poverty crusaders like Bono and Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie who focus on hand-outs, rather than giving the poor a leg up.
It all comes down to the old “give a man a fish” vs. “teach a man to fish” quandary, wherein donations provide a temporary fix, whereas training and help building connections to the world market could empower a way out. First-time helmer Miller hails from the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank with a theological thrust, and though his documentary displays no overt religious leanings, it’s decidedly pro-capitalist, implying that the poor’s only hope is to earn their way out of their current predicament, when it’s clear that the same system hasn’t exactly succeeded in eliminating poverty in First World countries. Still, Miller avoids the manipulative tricks of lesser filmmakers, presenting his argument with lucidity and reason. Whereas others give without thinking, “Poverty Inc.” provides genuine food for thought.