‘Poverty, Inc.’, when charity becomes a limit

Giving is an act of deep humanity and solidarity. A disinterested gesture to help the poor, that we often delegate to institutions and specialized associations. What is the impact of these organizations on the development of countries struggling with poverty?

Answering this question is the aim of “Poverty, Inc.”, the beautiful American documentary directed by Michael Matheson Miller, that won Best Documentary Feature at FIFE 2016 and competed at the 19th CinemAmbiente Film Festival in Turin, both festivals members of Green Film Network.

Poverty, Inc.” tries to investigate on an unexpected side of charity. Western countries are historically involved in the development of poor countries, and each day the aid system looks more and more like a real industry.

The documentary is the result of the life experiences of the whole staff that worked to its production. We talked with Mark Weber, co-producer of the movie: “Our shared first motivator was a recognition that the predominant modes of fighting poverty posit the West as the protagonist of development, often at the expense of the ‘recipient countries’ whose governments are compromised and whose industries are undermined. On a philosophical anthropological level, we posit ‘the poor’ as ‘the other’, with a tendency to turn them into the objects of our charity rather than understanding them properly as the protagonists in their own story of development”.

Despite good intentions, the underlying problem of the charity industry is its substantial inconclusiveness, that sometimes causes more damages because of interests. If poverty was defeated for good, the flaw in the system will cause the collapse of the whole industry.

Even the mass media system contributes to the creation of this vicious circle, by misrepresenting these realities and describing them as devoid of means and unable to walk on its own.

The current aid system risks to make poor countries dependent on the organizations, and charity becomes a limit to the development of effective and long-term support policies. However,“Poverty, Inc.”, shows us industrious and virtuous realities, that fight for a different future by their own efforts.

I call myself an a priori environmentalist”, continues Weber. “By this I mean that we shouldn’t need an impending environmental disaster to motivate us to be good stewards of our environment. What I like about the Enersa story – the story of the Haitian solar panel company – is that it illustrates how human flourishing need not to be at the expense of the environment, but rather can indeed be a harmonizing force. There are countless examples of irresponsible and destructive behavior, but I believe there are also countless examples of positive cultivation of the planet through enterprise. I think we need to adopt a mindset that values harmonization between human flourishing and environmental stewardship, rather than viewing these things as fundamentally at odds with one another”.

Poverty, Inc.” has not the intent to discourage charity, but invites the audience to reconsider the current aid system. With a clear and direct style, the documentary tells about people who are ready to fight for their development, and need just a simple opportunity not to remain excluded.

Among the important stylistic choices our director made was the decision to interview and elevate highly successful people from developing countries”, concludes Mark Weber. “We had a person complain that we interviewed ‘rich Africans’. This represents a line of thinking some people hold that a film about poverty should only – or primarily – consist of interviews with ‘the poor’. But this film isn’t about poverty; it’s really about human flourishing and it’s about the manner in which we engage people in developing countries. What people often miss is that these individuals do not live on a separate planet from those struggling with extreme poverty. They are deeply connected. The moment that resonated with me most was when a woman from Cameroon came up to us with tears in her eyes and said: << Today, I am so proud to be an African woman >>. That is the response the style of film intended to evoke, which is the exact opposite of objectification and pity imagery that is so often used to solicit donations”.