WINNER: ANTHEM FILM FESTIVAL, GRAND PRIZE
WINNER: TEMPLETON FREEDOM AWARD
Poverty Inc. examines the unintended consequences of efforts by the West to alleviate poverty in less-developed countries, suggesting that free markets would do more good than charity. [Dir: Michael Matheson Miller/ 94 min/ Documentary/ Econ 101, Pro-capitalism/ 2014]
Institutions inescapably have their own agendas, which may or may not be entirely consistent with the purposes for which they were created. Regulatory agencies may become “captured,” as economists say, by the industries they regulate; corporate managements hired to create wealth for shareholders may give themselves more than their share of that wealth; etc. But does such a view of organizational behavior also apply to charities, the very essence of which would seem to be an absence of self-interest? Poverty, Inc. makes a remarkably strong case that it does.
Interviewee after interviewee – and they range from consultants, to charity workers, to the intended beneficiaries of institutionalized charity – tell the same story: genuine disaster relief is an heroic welcome blessing, in those rare moments when it is needed, but permanent institutionalized charity is highly destructive. A few charges made against such charity: it displaces normal economic activity, corrupts poor governments easily manipulated by the promise of money, demoralizes the population, and perpetuates an impression that poor countries and poor people are helpless and irredeemable.
But if institutionalized charity is so bad, why does it continue? The interviewees in the film are self-consciously gentle in how they put it – they are not at all ungrateful for the good intentions – but they are consistent in the perception that all those charities (10,000 in Haiti alone) have their own agendas, ranging from jobs for those employed operating the charities, to a desire to impose some happy vision on another people, to simply the psychological boost, the moral pleasure, of seeing themselves as benevolent saviors to the less fortunate. Once established, these charities never leave. Many have been offering “temporary” relief for decades.
Hearing these testimonies, I was reminded of the mental illness known as “Munchausen by proxy,” in which caregivers cause the object of their care to be sick or injured in order to experience the subsequent gratitude for the care they give.
Locals in the film point out that what they really need is simply what the West has – property rights, rule of law, etc. – all the legal underpinning that classical liberals and libertarians have known for hundreds of years to be the foundation of prosperity and civilization. The charities, of course, aren’t interested in that kind of thing.
Anyone on the left will likely be horrified by this film, as it suggests the concept of perpetual service to the poor is not only counter-productive but actually self-serving. And if that analysis applies to professionalized perpetual international charity, what does it say about professionalized perpetual domestic charity? Those implications are not touched upon here, but they do come to mind.
This is a very well-organized, well-argued documentary, with first-class production values. For its contentious message, it needed to make a strong intellectual case and it does. It won both the Anthem Film Festival Grand Prize and the coveted Templeton Award (a $100,000 prize), and deserves both.
External Reviews of Poverty, Inc.
“Miller avoids the manipulative tricks of lesser filmmakers, presenting his argument with lucidity and reason. Whereas others give without thinking, Poverty Inc. provides genuine food for thought.”
“This documentary does not pull at one’s heart-strings, it is not beautifully tragic. It is simply informative. It is this simplicity that makes it so powerful.”
“Poverty, Inc. is changing the culture of aid.”
How to See It
–Book: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and iPoverty
–Book: The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor
–Book: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End iPoverty
–Book: Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa