Reframing the debate around poverty and foreign aid

Mark Weber, co-producer of the documentary film “Poverty, Inc.,” leads a discussion about the unintended consequences of global humanitarian aid

Reframing the debate around poverty and foreign aidnone

Mark Weber, co-producer of the new documentary “Poverty, Inc.,” led a Q&A-style discussion at Sage Hall on Sept. 28, 2015, as a guest speaker in Professor Mark Milstein’s class, Leaders in Sustainable Global Enterprise. Weber’s talk followed four screenings of “Poverty, Inc.,”a film that explores the complex and inefficient global aid system and the ways in which it actually hinders, rather than helps, economic growth in the developing world.

Weber said that he and his co-producers hope to “reframe the debate” around poverty and foreign aid. The documentary explains how the Western media has long portrayed Africa and other developing regions as barren wastelands with helpless populations — when in fact, these areas have no shortage of natural resources, innovation, and motivation. There is a larger system at work that hinders development in poorer nations and keeps the power in the hands of the richer ones; according to the film, “What began as a plan to jump-start economies has developed into a complex system of global humanitarian aid, creating a global industry of poverty.”

“Poverty, Inc.”examines the many unintended consequences of sending goods, food, and monetary aid en masse to developing nations. Large-scale donations have decimated these countries’ local businesses and industries, keeping their development stagnated due to their dependence on foreign aid and exclusion from international trade. The film’s argument is framed largely through interviews with locals of the developing nations that are affected by this issue, and with anthropologists and humanitarian workers who have witnessed the problems firsthand.

One example given is a company in Haiti called Enersa that designs and manufactures solar-powered streetlights and other solar-powered products. The company provides secure employment for many Haitians and fulfills a local need. But when foreign companies began sending thousands of free solar panels to Haiti, Enersa’s business suffered greatly.

The documentary also looks at the many orphanages in Haiti and other developing nations opened by foreigners and staffed by foreign volunteer. Shockingly, 80 percent of children living in orphanages in Haiti have at least one living parent who is simply unable to care for his or her child due to unemployment. Learning this, one American couple who went to Haiti with the intention of opening an orphanage switched gears and partnered with locals to start a jewelry business that employed parents instead, thereby helping many more children by keeping them united with their families.

Above all, “Poverty, Inc.”emphasizes the need for the international community to support local businesses and entrepreneurs in developing nations — not compete with them. “The goal should be to teach me to fish, give me a fishing pole, and then move out,” one interviewee says. “If after four years you’re still here, there’s a problem.” While foreign aid is still essential after crises like natural disasters, Weber explained, humanitarian efforts need to focus on fostering a developing country’s economic independence to allow for long-term growth.

Weber encouraged the audience to think about the person on the other end of a transaction whenever we buy something. “Unethical businesses won’t be beat out by reformers; they’ll be beat out by better businesses who capture the spirit of consumers who are demanding more.” And when doing humanitarian work, Weber argued for forming collaborative — rather than paternalistic — relationships. We should ask ourselves, he said, “Am I engaging people in the fullness of who they are as creative individuals, or am I displacing them in their proper role and making myself the protagonist in their development?”

Weber conducted the Q&A as a conversation, encouraging the audience to share their own experiences with humanitarian aid and global poverty. He and his co-producers not only learned from those they interviewed for the film: “We were changed by them,” he said. The documentary is, in part, a means of sharing the producers’ own education process. Weber expressed the importance of amplifying the voices of those in developing nations, and concluded by saying, “cultivating the conversation is going to be up to you guys.”

Katie O’Brien ’16 is an intern in Marketing and Communications at Johnson

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