Transitions Film Fest Review: Poverty Inc.

Transitions Film Festival Review: Poverty Inc.

A documentary about how the foreign aid industry is destroying third-world economies by destroying their ability to compete on a local level.


I always find it very difficult to talk about documentaries like this. Poverty Inc. is less fly-on-the-wall, more a 1.5 hour argument designed to convince the audience of a very specific point of view.

Given that, an honest evaluation of the documentary means I have to consider not only how effectively the film makes its case, but also to what degree the argument presented is factual. As a humble film reviewer, I feel singularly unqualified to comment on how the economic woes of developing nations are related to foreign aid. I can, however, state that this film was produced by the Action Institute, an American think-tank whose stated goal is to “to promote a free and virtuous society characterised by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles”, so if you’re looking for an agenda, there it is. With that in mind, let’s proceed.

Poverty Inc. , from director Michael Matheson Miller,  believes, quite simply, that the foreign aid industry is destroying third-world economies by flooding their markets with free produce, destroying their ability to compete on a local level. It is a documentary featuring a lot of talking heads and voice overs – but to the films’ credit, it does so in a less cumbersome way than one might expect. Statistics and graphs are presented on occasion, but for the most part, commentary and opinion are provided by the interviewees, who are certainly an interesting bunch – a Ghanese entrepreneur, a British former aid worker, and an American couple running a Haitian orphanage are particular stand outs.

The documentary covers all its bases when constructing its argument, providing commentary from industry insiders, academics, business stake-holders, and everyday people that all mesh very well with the central argument. To its credit, it also presents a very positive, humanistic approach to its subjects, especially the working poor. One of its central premises is that it rails against the prevailing paternalistic attitudes many people in wealthier nations have towards people of developing nations, and on that front it presents a very honest, positive portrayal of people leading hard existences who just want to make a better life for themselves and their children. The dismissal of the perspective of people from poor countries as being eternal victims is probably the film’s most admirable trait. It may be pushing localized free market solutions to these problems, but it’s doing it in a very human way. The film is very much on the side of the poor in developing nations, and refuses to demonise anyone – it even acknowledges that the very foreign aid institutions that it’s attacking are born of the very best of human impulses and intentions. In condemning a destructive institution, it refuses to lower itself or its audience to the level of vicious, petty condemnation or smug self-righteousness.

Whatever thoughts I have about the subject of its film, I have to admire the way it carries itself and the way it makes its point. It’s resisted the temptation to stereotype or demonise in any direction (except maybe towards third-world dictators, but if I’m honest, it’s hard to feel sympathy for people like that at the best of times), and in doing so, have provided the softest of velvet gloves wrapped around its steel fist. I would recommend it, but I would also recommend anyone who watches this film to not simply leave it at that – read more, learn all you can, make informed decisions. The central perspective of the film is that good intentions can easily be marred by ignorance, so I think that the film makers would at least be able to understand my stance about not just taking their word alone.

Reviewed by Brendan Whittaker
Twitter: @BrendanW2

Rating out of 10:  8

Poverty Inc. screens on 29 May 2016 as part of the Transitions Film Festival at the Mercury Cinema.

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