How a Global Poverty Documentary Promoting Economic Freedom is Winning the Left

By Rachel Alexander Published on November 30, 2015

A new documentary about the global poverty industry, Poverty, Inc., is managing a rare hat trick: succeeding with critics on both the right and the left. So, for instance, the film recently won the prestigious 2015 Templeton Freedom Prize, and Templeton has been a strong supporter of free markets, but the film also just garnered a glowing review from the left-leaning Hollywood magazine Variety, one of many positive plugs it has gotten from left-leaning institutions and figures.

The documentary was produced by the Acton Institute in partnership with Coldwater Media. The director is Acton research fellow Michael Matheson Miller and — full disclosure — the film’s lead writer is The Stream‘s managing editor, Jonathan Witt.

The documentary provides insights into a problem with charitable giving that most people are probably not aware of, not the problem of gross mismanagement and squandering, but of unintended consequences stemming from well-intended initiatives.

For example, providing free and subsidized rice to Haiti put Haitian rice farmers out of business, crippling the nation’s rural economy and pushing many out-of-work farmers into Port-au-Prince ahead of the devastating earthquake that struck the city in 2010. And as Witt reported in a recent article, Haitian orphanages unintentionally encourage poor mothers to send their children to them to be raised and often adopted overseas, to the point that it’s sometimes difficult to find any true orphans passing through Haitian orphanages.

The film also spotlights some innovators who are finding better ways to help create opportunity for the poorest of the world’s poor. In one example, an American couple, Shelley and Corrigan Clay, moved to Haiti to start an orphanage, realized that there weren’t many orphans in Haitian orphanages, and began looking for a way to help impoverished Haitian parents keep and raise their own children rather than sending them to orphanages. The couple hit upon the idea of starting a jewelry company staffed by Haitians with a knack for the craft, and The Apparent project grew and grew so that it now employs dozens of formerly desperate Haitian parents.

Variety’s Chief International Film Critic Peter Debruge summarizes the movie this way:

As if poverty weren’t a challenging enough phenomenon unto itself, time has revealed that good intentions by outsiders can in many cases make the problem worse — a cruel irony that serves as the basis of Michael Matheson Miller’s “Poverty Inc.,” an easy-to-understand docu-essay with a tough-to-accept message, especially as it implies that some aid organizations may actually be cashing in on their concern. The idea isn’t to discourage giving, but rather to illustrate how the current paradigm doesn’t work, providing clear examples and practical solutions that serve as a useful conversation-starter …

Deburge adds that despite the fact that the film is  “decidedly pro-capitalist, implying that the poor’s only hope is to earn their way out of their current predicament,” Poverty, Inc.‘s director “avoids the manipulative tricks of lesser filmmakers, presenting his argument with lucidity and reason.” This, combined with the fact that the film attacks great-white-father neo-colonial paternalism, a once favorite target of the left, has paved the way for a warm welcome even in traditionally left-wing circles like Hollywood, even as the film critiques some misguided celebrity-driven poverty initiatives.

At the same time the film emphasizes the need for the poor of the world to enjoy true economic freedom, including property rights, the rule of law, freedom of association and freedom of exchange (the pillars of a healthy capitalism) rather than the government-corporate cronyism that passes for capitalism in many developing countries but denies true economic freedom to the poor, who lack the connections to join the insider’s game. That, and the film’s emphasis on enterprise solutions to poverty, has also made it a big a hit among champions of limited government. Will the global development industry get the message? As development economist Michael Fairbanks notes at the beginning of the film, those who have grown rich from the industry would have much to lose from a major paradigm shift, so change will not come easily.

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