Poverty Inc.

This post was originally published on my Facebook page back in 2017.

Tonight a couple of people and I watched the documentary Poverty Inc., it’s available on YouTube and quite informative. I know that despite visual impressions being those that actually hit you hardest, 90 minutes are quite long and I can’t expect of everyone to watch this. So, also because [one of my friends] asked me to summarize the film for him, I’ll just use the fact that I’m already typing it down and make it public. That might also help with the fact that I tend to forget the contents of documentaries and then, when I try to bring up arguments in a discussion, I have the thesis but not the reason.
So here it goes.

The documentary talks about the global aid industry. The general thought behind it isn’t what’s bad about it, it’s the atmosphere it creates and the results it has.
Take for example the lyrics of a famous Christmas song: “Feed the people. Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”
An African, female entrepreneur is deeply opposed to the connotation the song has – after all, it sounds as if EVERYONE is starving and are too busy with not dying. It sounds as though all help has to come from abroad. It sounds as though foreign aid is actually working.

The film shows a sequence from a Rwandan TED Talk: A man points out that foreign aid hasn’t actually made any country develop. The goal of humanitarian aid should be to make itself not necessary in the long run, but people work in it, and people usually want to have a job certainty…

The top-down principle that the United Nations and its organs and many other organisations have is portrayed a wrong implementation. It has even gone so far as that “charities” are nowadays becoming “social entrepreneurs”. There is one example of the humanitarian response after the Rwandan genocide: An organisation wanted to respond to the hunger and sent eggs, tons of eggs, for an indefinite amount of time, and distributed them for free. Local farmers, whose only source of income was selling their own eggs, couldn’t make a living anymore and had to sell their land. Then, when the free eggs from abroad stopped coming, the situation was worse than before.

Another example, but through another version of involvement, is Haiti, where a couple of decades ago nutrition was based mainly on vegetables, as rice was a luxury. Then, however, as development aid began by the USAID program, subsidized rice was introduced to the markets. The markets nowadays are still overflowing with cheap rice, resulting in malnutrition, as USAID isn’t leaving. The response after the Haitian earthquake was similar – solar panels were given out for free, destroying the local entrepreneurs trying to make a company of their own.

Equally, money flows to governments rarely implement a lot of change. Problems with start-ups of rural areas are often that they are marginalized from the market. As they do not own (enough) property or have no tax history, they cannot take up loans to get bigger, and therefore can only ever stay on local level, not expand to national level. The “aid industry” promises things like “supplying one person with shoes for all their life”, therefore obviously not tackling the problem of lifting them out of poverty, as they will want to supply them “all their life”.

There are many more problems, one of them being the “orphan industry”, in which poor parents willingly give their children to orphanages because they cannot supply for them and go visit them once in a while. These children are then adopted by foreigners with a good heart, but the situation of the family is not improved. Families are ripped apart, and therefore also the bond to the own country.
If the mother or father were given a job, they could easily buy a house within 6 months simply by making necklaces.

Of course this is a gloomy perspective, and the movie was aimed more at actual policy-makers. It also raises the question what the f*** we SHOULD do, because everything seems to be wrong. But the documentary also addresses this: There ARE NGOs that see “poor” people not as necessarily living on a dollar per day, but as marginalized people detached from trade. The answer is a bottom-up concept, in which you don’t give the people fish, but teach them how to catch many themselves.

So what can we people at home do? We can attend public events and conferences of decision makers and point this out to them. We can also assess carefully which actions we want to support financially, because yes, we should support the general concept of development. But we should not see ourselves as superior.


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