Last night I went to see the documentary “Poverty Inc.” at Leeds International Film Festival. I left as the credits rolled, grumpy and agitated. For those that know me this isn’t an unusual state of affairs; I am commonly understood to be the world’s grumpiest man and three days without a cigarette on top of hardly having eaten all day were undoubtedly intensifying my normal desire to grumble and complain but it was more than that. The film had irked me in several ways.
Poverty Inc. is a film that, on the surface, offers to reveal the development “industry” for the cabal of self-interested, ineffective charlatans it is. In reality, it’s a grossly over simplified plod through some pretty well established criticisms of certain areas of development work that tars everyone with the same brush. One of the greatest ironies is the criticism levelled at celebrities for failing to understand issues of poverty in any depth or detail when essentially this film is doing the exact same thing.
The narrative offered here also steadfastly refuses to recognise any of the 20th century successes of development beyond the European reaction to the Marshall Plan which is briefly mentioned as some kind of anomaly and swept under the carpet. At one point the audience is challenged to name a country that has developed through aid. This, as all of us instantly recognise, is a deliberately misleading question. It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what measures have led to what degree of development in a country’s economic history. If it were easier it would be a much simpler task to create a template of economic policies and adapt it to new situations. But we can list countries who have received aid and developed. South Korea, India, Brazil, Israel, the list goes on. The argument about how big a role the aid played, if any, is a valid one but let’s not pretend it’s some laughable suggestion.
Beyond this, Poverty Inc. also ignores the smaller, ground level successes of individual projects and agency work. By promoting the narrative that NGOs automatically undermine local economies at every turn it not only turns a specific criticism into a general one, it also stigmatises the myriad agencies, both domestic and international, operating effectively, sustainably and reliably all over the world. The truth is a lot of the criticisms levelled at the non profit organisations in this film feel like easy, outdated pot shots. Yes, they are valid, but they’re also increasingly being addressed by the agencies themselves. It’s hard to find a project proposal in 2014 that doesn’t make reference to issues of sustainability, local impact and ethical supply. That’s not to say that every project has an entirely positive effect on a community or that historically some massive cock-ups haven’t been made by people and groups with good intentions but it is to say that the NGO world is pretty self-critical and flexible and is trying to tackle these issues. And that a film like this that metaphorically stamps on to the screen, beats its ape-like chest and yells “NGOs BAD” at the audience really does risk painting an inaccurate picture.
The documentary seems desperate to appear to challenge the status quo when in actual fact it does a pretty good job of representing it. The criticisms made here are nothing new and the solutions offered are hardly some new zeitgeist of development theory. In fact a film that insinuates the World Bank is part of a problem does a pretty good job of putting people like Hernando de Soto and Paul Collier, who have had huge influences on World Bank policy over the years, front and centre. While neither might have been speaking on behalf of the organisation, their inclusion is a reminder of how The Bank, like many of the most successful NGOs, is constantly evaluating its own performance and looking for ways to adapt and improve.
I don’t want to be too critical of the film, especially when I agree with many of the points it’s making I just think it’s making them lazily and a few years after everyone else did. Parts of the film annoyed me by using the same anecdotal human interest nonsense that the filmmakers probably deplore when used by charities in fundraising. The story of an American couple moving to Haiti and setting up a jewellery co-operative, for example, appears on the surface to be a heartwarming tale of “changing the system” but is in fact a pretty basic example of a development model that’s been around for decades and presumably only warranted inclusion because the founders happened to be white and could therefore slide easily into everyone’s subconscious “Western Saviour” narrative which this film does nothing to seriously challenge.
Overall I felt Poverty Inc. was a bit too lowest-common-denominator. Simplistic and at times condescending (though to its credit it was at least condescending to its audience rather than its subjects: the world’s poor). Development is a massive concept. Ending poverty is an unfathomably complex issue. Some of the world’s greatest minds – world leaders and Nobel Prize winners – have been trying to do it for decades with limited success. That’s not to say we shouldn’t critique their efforts but we also shouldn’t present the failures as a couple of easily fixed errors of systematic adjustment that would have no knock on effects whatsoever. There are good and important points made in this film, especially to do with the need for improved access to legal systems and formalised property rights in the developing world, but nothing contained here is particularly challenging or ground-breaking.
There was a Q&A session at the end of the film with some of those involved in the making of it. It was a mistake not to stay and listen to the discussion to see if any of the issues that troubled me were addressed but by that point grumpiness had got the better of me and I decided to wander off into the rain and rant via this page rather than stick around and take part in anything constructive.
If anybody Leeds based is interested in making their own mind up rather than relying on my nicotine starved, hyper-critical ramblings Poverty Inc. has been awarded a second showing at Leeds International Film Festival on Tuesday 18th November. Probably best to go along and check it out, it’s probably the best film of the century (I lie, that’s clearly Disney’s Frozen); I’m usually wrong about stuff.