Megan’s Movie Night: Poverty, Inc.


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, May 17th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan’s Movie Night. 

Now, I have to say, Megan, the kids might not be excited about this pick. But I do think it is an important topic for the whole family.

It is, and I’ll have the kids covered next week with Aladdin. So I think this week it’s fair to dive into something a little more intellectually challenging.

You probably haven’t heard of this one. But 2014’s Poverty, Inc. distinguishes itself on several levels. For one, it’s one of the few politically themed documentaries more interested in making a targeted case on a specific subject rather than firing a scattershot screed.

That focus is on the corruptive powers of foreign aid and more-effective approaches to charity. It carefully interweaves hard data, expert opinion, and compelling anecdotes to do what any good advocacy documentary ought to do. That is, bring new evidence to light that challenges our 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. To be sure, Western governments receive the greatest blame for keeping poor countries poor—mostly by virtue of their phenomenal spending power. But the film maintains that all of these offenders have contributed to the problem.

We see small business owners in Senegal, Haiti, Guinea, and Ghana bemoan humanitarian organizations more interested in justifying their existence than supporting local job markets. The bureaucratic hurdles and crony-capitalism they must clear to advance is similarly maddening.

For instance, free imported food, clothes, and other supplies make it nearly impossible for local industries to establish a customer base in Haiti. And the 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 describes what happened when the World Bank started providing street lights to earthquake-torn Port Au Prince in 2010.

CLIP: 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 street lights a month. After the earthquake, we sold five.

Predictably, his business struggled to stay afloat.

He worries that Haiti’s fate will mirror Guinea’s since its 1983 earthquake. There disaster relief became a permanent fixture of the economy.

CLIP: After 40 years, if you’re still here, there’s a problem.

A software designer from Ghana likewise indicts international crony capitalism. He calls it the “new colonialism.” He describes his company’s struggle to compete with the unfair advantages European businesses enjoy. After one European company lobbied its legislators to make a loan to Ghana’s government, it won a large contract. Never mind that it submitted a higher bid and had less expertise.

CLIP: Nothing beats free money.

The designer says because of its local knowledge and networks, his company was then subcontracted to undertake the most difficult and least profitable part of the project.

CLIP: They 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.

Poverty, Inc. offers plenty of proof that international relief often amounts to little more than subsidizing NGOs and corporate special interests. But it spends scant time fashioning villains. And it actually offers some 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 understandably 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 want to be both generous and wise. 

Poverty, Inc. also hilariously points out the maudlin paternalism that often shapes Western charitable efforts. One example is the 1984 Band Aid song “Do they 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, outside of short-term disease and disaster relief, giving out clothes and food simply undercuts domestic industry. We should instead focus our wealth on creating jobs and pressuring governments to embrace the building blocks of prosperity—like reliable justice systems, private land ownership, and access to international markets.

The Ghana software developer summed it up nicely.

CLIP: I have never heard of a country that developed on aid. 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.


(Photo/Poverty, Inc.)

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