Documentary claims fighting poverty is big business

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Scripture does not mince words: Christians are called to help the poor. But what should that help look like?

"Poverty, Inc.," a documentary garnering more than 40 film festival awards and recently released on Amazon.com, examines the impact of the widely accepted international poverty-fighting model, depicting a multibillion-dollar "poverty industry" and arguing that in many instances the good intentions of outsiders have unintended, negative consequences.

Comprised of nongovernmental organizations, for-profit contractors, charities, celebrities and entrepreneurs, the so-called poverty industry includes some of the West's revered icons of aid - the World Bank, Toms Shoes and U2 frontman Bono among them. The aim of the film, however, is not to question motives or admonish specific groups or individuals, but to illustrate how the current paradigm is flawed and to highlight efforts that work.

"Poverty, Inc." frames the problem from a secular viewpoint, but it was filmed through a lens of faith by director-producer Michael Matheson Miller. A Catholic, Miller said in a recent interview that Pope Francis, in his many pleas to help the poor, points out that aiding the disenfranchised is an issue of both charity and justice.

"We are called by God to do something for the poor, but we are not called to do just something, anything," said Miller. Charity must be coupled with justice and guided by truth, "or else it degenerates into sentimentality," he said.

Drawing from more than 200 interviews and filmed in 20 countries, Miller's film recounts the U.S. policy of dumping tariff-free, American subsidized rice on Haiti in the 1980s, an initiative that wiped out the local agriculture.

Clips show former President Bill Clinton, who oversaw the policy, calling the rice subsidies "a mistake."

"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," Clinton tells Congress.

One vivid micro-level example in the film is the story of a Rwandan egg farmer who was launching his business when a Christian church decided to donate eggs to the community. A saturation of the egg market at first helped the locals but quickly put the farmer out of business. The following year, when the church decided to assist a different region of the world, there was an egg shortage.

The film claims the root of the problem is paternalism, with the West's concern for the poor often manifested in handouts rather than in the tools of prosperity.

"I've never heard of a country that got so much aid they became a First World country," says Ghanaian software entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse, echoing a multitude of individuals interviewed on screen, including an economist, Harvard academics, small-business owners and an anthropologist.

Thus, when entrepreneurs such as Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie and celebrities Angelina Jolie and Bono give shoes or funds they are "giving men fish" rather than "teaching men to fish." (The documentary does credit Bono for his longtime commitment to poverty work and for adopting a more sophisticated view of the issue).

The film walks a fine line between encouraging generosity and condemning NGOs and others who perpetuate the system.

"I'm not against humanitarian aid," says Magatte Wade, an African entrepreneur. "If a disaster happens, we need to rally to help one another. But when that aid becomes a way of life, we have a big problem. Disaster relief has become a permanent model."

The harsh critique of the current system is offset by examples of aid that appear to have more long-term benefits. Miller profiles 100K Jobs in Haiti, an organization providing training and support to small businesses. He interviews American couple Corrigan and Shelley Clay, who came to Haiti to adopt a child but ended up also starting a locally staffed business to help poor parents, many of whom place children in orphanages to keep them out of desperate poverty.

Of the around 30,000 children in Haitian institutions and the hundreds adopted by foreigners each year, the Haitian government estimates around 80 percent have at least one living parent.

Alongside such positive efforts, "Poverty, Inc." rejects the traditional model that, it argues, treats the poor as objects of poverty rather than protagonists of their own development.

Miller is a fellow at the Michigan-based Acton Institute, a free-market think tank, and the solution presented in his film has a clear capitalist bent.

Miller said in the recent interview that we should be asking, "What is needed to create prosperity?"

To start, he suggests the poor need protection in courts of justice, a legal title to their land, the freedom to start a business and access to wider circles of exchange.

Placing his project in a faith context, Miller said that Christians "are not called to practice random acts of kindness, like the bumper sticker says. We must exercise the virtue of charity, ordered by reason and oriented to truth."

That sentiment is repeated in more secular terms at the end of the film.

"Having the heart for the poor isn't hard; we all have that," says Michael Fairbanks, a fellow at Harvard University and a former U.S. Peace Corps teacher in Kenya. "It's having a mind for the poor - that's the challenge."

Find out more

Go to povertyinc.org. The film is available on Amazon.com and iTunes.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016