Written by Caroline Bailey
Photo by Daniel Cheon
As Michael Matheson Miller’s “Poverty, Inc.” reached its end and the credits began to roll, a voice belonging to an unidentified audience member could be heard: “it’s simple,” the person said.
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. Among a sea of portrayals of ‘third world Africa,’ the footage used in “Poverty, Inc.” stands out as refreshingly unsentimental. Rather than emotionally manipulating viewers with images of helpless children and slow, sad music, the viewers are engaged primarily by interviews.
“Poverty, Inc.” focuses on what Miller refered to in the post-screening Q&A session as the “fundamentals” of poverty. According to Miller, at the core of the film is the idea that the so-called establishment approach to aid and development carries the assumption that poor people are objects rather than subjects; they are seen by the Western world as the object of generosity, rather than subjects capable of their own successes and failures.
This sentiment is expressed by many of the local interviewees. This point is then further illustrated by the inclusion of footage from companies such as TOMs, a brand which donates shoes to the poor, and clips of celebrities and their efforts at promoting awareness. Through this footage, the pitiful image that is consequently cast on local people in countries considered third world or developing is exposed. This defining image leads impoverished people themselves to feel that they are incapable of change, thus delaying any hope for progress.
“Poverty, Inc.” addresses the fundamental problems with the established aid system. Throughout the documentary, this system is seen as a “broken system.” A diagram shows that within this system, charity is mostly top-down, meaning money goes to local governments and often never reaches the people.
Furthermore, “Poverty, Inc.” shows that despite positive intentions, charitable actions often do more harm than good. Some of their examples included a company called Enersa, surplus foods sent to Africa and, once again, TOMs.This documentary shows that by constantly supplying objects and food for free, any hope for local businesses is destroyed because, as one of the interviewees says, “why would you buy something that’s free?”
The uniquely honest and informative approach toward the subject of poverty employs an appeal of reason rather than emotion, and sparks important questions about what charity really is, as well as what it should be. In this way, it engages the viewer’s mind just as it endorses mindfulness over acts of generosity.
In a defining moment before the credits, a simple white text over a black background reads “it’s time to rethink poverty.” This ending is appropriately simple and powerful, just as the documentary itself.