The race to cure poverty has turned into a vast multi-billion dollar industry, but there’s not a silver-bullet solution that’s going to end impoverishment, says MIT grad student Mark Weber, co-producer of the 2015 documentary film “Poverty, Inc.”
Most people give to charity with the best of intentions, and although foreign aid is vital following a disaster, fueling a country with aid dollars can foster unintended bad consequences, such as when it prevents local entrepreneurs from getting their own businesses off the ground.
The 91-minute movie, which looks at global charity — from disaster relief to social entrepreneurship — has earned more than 50 international film festival honors. In a recent interview, Weber explained why charity has sometimes failed and what individuals can do to help.
Q: "Poverty, Inc." argues that we’ve been doing charity wrong for many years. Why is that?
A: It’s not that simple. I think one of the things that we try to emphasize in the film is that it’s not just foreign aid. Foreign aid is symptomatic of the deeper problem. The problem … at its philosophical core is about our tendency to objectify the poor. We have turned them into objects of our pity and our charity, and we make ourselves the protagonists of this development story.
This film is more about embracing complexity and understanding that there are broken models, more than saying ‘Oh, here’s a new silver bullet that everybody should follow.’ It’s more about learning how to think deeply and algorithmically in terms of principles and functions.
Q: What if there is a famine in Africa and I do want to help?
A: If a person is in crisis, you don’t wax poetic to them about the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the rule of law; you help them. But how do we then transition from crisis mode to development? This is where the safety net often becomes a spider’s web.
If we take a long-term approach to food security, not just a reactionary crisis approach, we should be reconsidering American and European domestic industrial agricultural subsidies and food aid programs, which undermine the agrarian economies of many developing nations. This is well documented and highlighted with the example of Haitian rice in the film.
Q: The movie talks about volunteering with orphanages abroad. Why is that destructive?
A: Virtually every kid [in an orphanage] is struggling or will struggle with an attachment disorder. What we do is, we come in and … hug them, and play with them, and take pictures with them, and sometimes we make promises that we can’t keep, and then we are gone forever. We think that these kids are without [love], but in reality, a lot of people — even their own parents — are visiting them throughout the year. And so that love is coming and going. So, we actually exacerbate the attachment disorders that these kids struggle with, and it can be incredibly damaging to them.
Q: Is the situation with the orphanages one where nothing can be done?
A: First, do no harm. I see this as connected to the sponsor-a-child issue, which I think is also problematic because a lot of these kids have parents. And by making orphanages more robust in terms of their educational and daycare services, we actually incentivize parents to give up their kids and we break families apart, which is a much bigger problem in the long run.
I think there are many ways we can support children, and two are featured in the film with the story of the Haitian solar panel company Enersa and the Apparent Project. By creating employment in those communities, hundreds of children are being fed, clothed, and put through school by their own parents.
Q: So, what can we do if we want to aid other countries?
A: It depends on who you are individually, and your unique qualities, and perspective. We need good people working for good governance. Rule of law, property rights, and basic freedoms are critically important, as is creating cultures of trust.
We also need to be conscious consumers and harness the democratic function of the market economy to signal demand for vertically integrated ethics in the economy. If I’m willing to donate a couple of thousand dollars a year to charity, then why am I not willing to spend an extra $20 here or there to buy something from a company [like Patagonia] that is willing to give me information about its supply chain? There are more and more companies championing intentionality and transparency in their supply chains.
We also need good people working in business. Business is the normative way in which people rise out of poverty.