Film Review Paper: Poverty Inc.
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Film Review Paper: Poverty Inc. The idea of foreign aid to ‘jumpstart’ countries stems from the post-WWII redevelopment conceived in the Marshal plan. The plan was simple, if you could help a country build up its infrastructure, electricity and power grid, and educational systems then you could help propel that country into the industrialized era. Obviously, the Marshall plan worked very well, as Europe is home to some of the most developed countries in the world, including those that were ravaged from the war. This idea of the Marshall plan carries into the logic behind today’s foreign aid too. However, aid in recent years has grown to look increasingly different and has had different outcomes than those originally helped by the Marshall Plan. These ideas and more on poverty, aid, development, and charity are defined, developed, discussed, and deeply analyzed in the documentary, Poverty Inc., which represents encompassing viewpoints to the downsides of modern aid as we know it.There are many forms of aid and different purposes to these different angles of aid – stretching from contributions to multilateral institutions, humanitarian aid, refugee resettlement aid, and more (Brown 145). The total amount of money actually poured into aid is rather large, at $121 billion in 2008, or just about 1/12 of Africa’s entire GDP in the same year (145). Yet, even with vast amounts of money being poured into aid and development projects, the system is not really working to solve the main problem: poverty. Interestingly, foreign aid flow has been correlated with lower economic growth, and in the 80s and 90s as foreign aid to Africa soared, African economies were doing worse than ever (Swanson 2). It may seem intuitive, to put money into something with hopes of stimulating it – basically, to ‘jumpstart’ an economy by pumping cash into it, but most aid is really cash with a catch. Depending on where a country or even community gets its aid from, there is almost always a tradeoff. Receiving developmental aid from global institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund requires countries to comply with rules and regulations set up by these institutions, sacrificing governance over their own people to bend to the will of institutions interests (McMichael 125). Some of these policies include slashing national programs or social safety nets to repay loans given to them by other countries or global institutions, drawing less-developed nations into debt traps (114). These policies ultimately hurt local populations, as there is much less, if not no support provided to them by their government while the national leaders are now bend to the orders of other, more powerful leaders. The film Poverty Inc. touches on this strategic method of ‘helping’ less developed countries briefly, referring to it as another form of colonization. Direct payments to government usually come with the political baggage of those governments folding over power and decision making to their ‘donor’ and are questionable in trickling down to the public who actually need the funds to alleviate their impoverished conditions.But aid today takes on other shapes as well. One of the major stresses of the documentary Poverty Inc. was in the huge influx of Nongovernment organizations (NGOs) into the country of Haiti after the terrible 7.0 magnitude earthquake that ravaged the country almost a decade ago. Instead of helping during the rebuilding process during and directly after the humanitarian crisis and leaving, many NGOs have stayed in Haiti and in fact, there were an estimated 10,000 different NGOs in Haiti during the time the film was made. Some have said that it is like the NGOs do not want to see Haitians stand up for themselves, and instead work to provide a seemingly endless supply of free commodities like rice, shoes, clothes, and more. The purpose of these NGOs, by their very nature, is to alleviate poverty and raise people out of impoverished conditions, yet the dilemma for these non-profits is that if local growth takes off, they are no longer needed. Many of these NGOs very existence is dependent on the poverty within the countries they operate in – almost like a grimly cynical joke, these NGOs thrive on poverty. It is to say that poverty has transformed into an industry, a multi-billion-dollar industry. Like any industry embedded in neo-liberal free market philosophy, those who play the game the best, win the most – those who best capitalize on poverty get the best business, for themselves.
However, there are colossal negative effects to this normalization of poverty and impoverished conditions, and these effects are not only harmful for people currently suffering from poverty, but for countries and future generations to come, on both sides of poverty. When non-profits or other charities campaign for the funding of their projects, they need effective ways to draw in support, and earn a donation, from first-world citizens. The most effective, and the current method of raising these fund, is by conveying an image of the poor as needy people, as people who need first-world help from ‘compassionate’ first-world citizens. While this method is effective at pulling at the heart-strings of many in the global-North, it leaves a permanent image of these poor people in the global-South. These images, usually ones of inability, helplessness, or powerlessness, become normalized as a social fact which then defines those in poverty – leaving us to see the poor as needing our help, as if we know what is best for them. The problem that is created and perpetuated, however, is that those of us in the global-North usually do not know what is best for these countries. Our prescribed solutions too often have outcomes of undermining local industry and entrepreneurship, building dependency, and ultimately stunting the growth of these countries which actually need it the most (Swanson 1).Many of those interviewed in Poverty Inc. say that we see the poor as needing help but refuse to give them the capacity or agency to really change their communities. To put it another way, we want to help the poor, but on our terms. This means Northern NGOs or charities choosing a perceived problem in a poor country, and prescribing a solution, all while leaving the actual poor people in need out of the decision-making loop. It is important to note that sometimes this implementation of aid does work. Some types of aid, such as vaccinations and medicine, have saved millions of lives – global deaths from disease have fallen by nearly 50 percent since 2005, and malaria mortality has dropped by almost 50 percent since 2000 (Radelet 2). From a humanitarian lens, aid provides needs to the poor of the world, but looking at aid this way leaves out the economic effects of aid in these countries which it is so relevant.