Poverty, Inc. urges development over aid

Documentary | New Acton Institute documentary details the harm long-term Western assistance does to developing countries
by Megan Basham
Posted 12/17/14, 09:33 am

Chances are the filmmakers behind Poverty, Inc. aren’t going to garner the multiple one-on-one primetime news interviews that Dinesh D’Souza enjoyed during the release of his documentary, America, or have churches hosting screenings as Kirk Cameron did with his film, Monumental. It’s too bad, because Poverty, Inc. deserves at least as bright a spotlight (frankly brighter) for its argument against the corruptive powers of foreign aid and for more-effective approaches to charity.

Poverty, Inc. distinguishes itself as one of a handful of documentaries like Expelled, Waiting for Superman, and U.N. Me that are more interested in making a targeted and comprehensive conservative case on a specific subject rather than firing a scattershot screed. Financed and produced by the Acton Institute (Note: World Editor-in-Chief Marvin Olasky is a senior fellow at the Acton Institute but did not assign or edit this review), it carefully interweaves hard data, expert opinion, and compelling anecdotes to do what any good advocacy documentary ought to do—bring new evidence to light that challenges preconceived ideas regardless of personal politics.

As a measure of its integrity, the film devotes as much time to the shortcomings of Christian organizations like World Vision and private companies like TOMS Shoes as it does to secular groups and government bureaucracies. And while, by virtue of their phenomenal spending power, Western governments receive the greatest blame for keeping poor countries poor, the film maintains that all of these offenders have hindered development in the Third World.

What makes the film particularly interesting is that the global economic issues it explores are the same as those debated in our national op-eds every day. The small business owners of Senegal, Haiti, Guinea, and Ghana bemoan humanitarian organizations more interested in justifying their continued existence than supporting local job markets, and the bureaucratic hurdles and crony-capitalism they must clear to advance is similarly maddening. For instance, while free imported food, clothes, and other supplies make it nearly impossible for local industries to establish a customer base, Haiti’s government bars its citizens from using donor money to buy local goods. Both circumstances reinforce a cycle of dependency on outside resources.

A Haitian entrepreneur who started a business producing solar panels describes how his company struggled to stay afloat once the World Bank started providing streetlights to earthquake-torn Port Au Prince in 2010: “They didn’t know there was already a solar company there. They have this conception that in Haiti there’s nothing. Before the earthquake we sold an average of 50 solar streetlights a month. After the earthquake, we sold five.”

He worries that, like Guinea since its 1983 earthquake, disaster relief will become a permanent fixture of the economy and that Haiti will never achieve sustainable growth. “After 40 years, if you’re still here, there’s a problem,” he says.

A software designer from Ghana likewise indicts what he calls the “new colonialism,” describing his company’s struggle to compete with the unfair advantages enjoyed by European businesses. After one European company lobbied its legislators to make a loan to Ghana’s government, it won a large contract despite a higher bid and less expertise.

“Nothing beats free money,” the designer sighs, adding that, because of its local knowledge and networks, his company was then subcontracted to undertake the most difficult and least profitable part of the project. “They [the European company] got the best of both worlds. Their government paid; we ended up doing the work; they took the money. That’s not development; that’s not assistance. That’s thuggery.”

Yet while Poverty, Inc. offers plenty of proof that international relief often amounts to little more than subsidizing donor organizations and well-connected corporate interests, it spends scant time fashioning villains. Former Sub-Saharan aid physician Theodore Dalrymple briefly divulges how luxurious life as a relief worker can be (a household of servants and a tax-free income are not unusual), but this isn’t purely an investigative documentary. It also offers hope for solutions.

One American couple who went to Haiti to open an orphanage discovered Haitian charities have created a veritable orphan factory. Most of the children have at least one living parent who simply saw a way to feed and educate them. So the couple decided to start a business to employ Haitian moms and dads and give them the means to keep their families together.

This kind of story is particularly relevant for Christians who are called not only to be generous but wise in our giving. Poverty, Inc. hilariously points out the maudlin paternalism that often shapes Western charitable efforts, like the 1984 Band Aid song “Do the know it’s Christmas?” The lyrics idiotically state that “nothing ever grows” in Africa and “no rain or rivers flow.”

Poverty, Inc. advocates reorienting our view to see the people of impoverished nations as equals, every bit as capable and industrious as we are. It contends that, with the exception of short-term disease and disaster relief, we should focus our wealth less on giving out clothes and food, which undercuts domestic industry, and more on creating jobs and pressuring Third World governments to embrace the building blocks of prosperity—reliable justice systems, the freedom to own land, the ability to register businesses, and access to international markets.

“I have never heard of a country that developed on aid,” the Ghana software developer points out. “I know of countries that developed on trade and innovation. I don’t know of any country that got so much aid they suddenly became a first world country. That track ends nowhere.”

Megan Basham

Megan is film and television editor for WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All. Megan resides with her husband, Brian Basham, and their two daughters in Charlotte, N.C. Follow her on Twitter on @megbasham.

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