Against Poverty Porn: Why Our Approach To Foreign Aid Is Outdated, Paternalistic And Misguided

Feed the world. Give the gift of hope. Make poverty history. You know the taglines. They’ve been around for decades — and isn’t it odd that the pictures and words barely change? Eradicating poverty is hard, sure. But after all this time, why are we still having the same conversations?

Michael Matheson Miller, the director of the new documentary Poverty Inc, believes the current poverty industry is broken. A philosophy professor who has also studied development, he and his team conducted up to 200 interviews for the doco questioning why little progress is being made by NGOs, and how the good intentions of the developed world may be having disastrous results.

Poverty Porn: Our Objectification Of The Developing World

A major concern of Miller’s is that the dominant Western way of thinking around poverty objectifies people in developing nations. “A lot of times in our charity, we have tended to treat poor people like objects — objects of our charity, objects of our pity, objects of our compassion,” he says. When we picture them, they’re barefoot, holding a bowl of rice, not as burgeoning entrepreneurs.

“It’s generally from a benevolent will,” he says. “But we treat them like objects instead of as the subjects and protagonists of their own story of development.”

The ‘good intentions’ of our charity is something Miller chose to focus on in Poverty Inc — to show the underlying assumptions, beliefs and values of the poverty system are broken.

In the film, a Rwandan egg farmer’s business is ruined by an American charity shipping in eggs to feed the hungry. And when the egg drive stops, local eggs are no longer available. We might shake our heads at this, but many of us should take a look at the back of our closets.

Donated clothes which aren’t sold at the local Salvos or other organisations are often sent on to countries in crisis, like Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Like the eggs, these mountainous piles of clothes decimate local clothing industries like Haiti’s — cobblers, shirtmakers, cotton farmers and dressmakers can no longer make money because the market has been flooded with free clothing and shoes. (Whatever doesn’t get picked up ends up at the tip — in other words, we literally make places like Haiti our Western rubbish dump.)

The consequences of donated clothing are astonishing, and Miller describes the example as “a powerful thing”.

“We assume there could be no negative consequence to our doing that,” he says. “How could it possibly hurt anybody to donate clothes? It shows something that’s seemingly positive can really have negative effects. But the negative effects are the important thing… One of the illustrative parts of that story is that it shows we’re not entering into a tabula rasa. We’re not entering into a blank slate of a poor country.”

The economy isn’t the only thing at risk of harm. The image we have of ‘poor people’ can be internalised by people in these countries, fostering an inferior self-image. Miller describes the reaction Haitian entrepreneur Daniel Jean Louis had after he showed him a TOMS commercial — the shoe brand that gives a pair of their shoes to a child in need every time a pair is sold elsewhere: “He said, ‘there are no words to describe this… Saying that you want to ‘give people shoes for life’ is implying that you want them to stay poor so that you can provide them shoes. No one wants to be a beggar for life. You know what poor people get? A poor image.’”

“Leave Us Alone”: Combatting Well-Meaning Paternalism

To break this enduring depiction, Poverty Inc sought to “re-present the people” from places like Africa and Latin America who feature on the charity brochures, says Miller. By shifting the storytelling to the people themselves, his aim was to reframe the image people have of them in the West as “not somehow radically different from us”.

Reversing the objectification of the poor by helping people see themselves in these communities is one of Miller’s “great hopes”. He wants people to be able to say: “These are communities with people who are building businesses and taking care of their families and trying to send their children to school, just like we are. And we’re messing it up instead of helping it.’”

Objectification is a particular problem in the poverty industry because people aren’t treated like people — and that leads to zero long-lasting solutions for poverty stricken countries.

“We combine humanitarianism and sentimentality with social engineering, and then we treat the developing world like a lab for experiments,” says Miller. “We move people around like they’re things. But they’re not things, they’re persons. And we would hate to be treated like that, yet we do that systematically to other people.”

There’s a touch of Western ego to it as well, says Miller, which can have dangerous effects: “The world is filled with tragic stories of hubris of technocrats who have thought they were better than other people and tried to plan massive cultural change, and it always turns out badly.”

Most of all, hearing interview subjects like Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade first-hand in Poverty Inc, it’s apparent they’re also sick of our patronising songs and hyperbole.

“People are tired… and they’re like, ‘Look, you’ve been doing that for 50 years, for 70 years, stop helping us. Leave us alone,’” says Miller.

“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t help the poor, but we cannot be social engineers who just think we have the solution. We don’t even seriously know our own situation and the things that have enabled our countries to develop.”

No Progress Without Justice

Misunderstanding people who live in poor countries and not listening to what they need also prevents finding real solutions that stick. Miller asks, “What enables an economy to flourish? I am all for education, infrastructure and healthcare, but those things are a result of wealth before they become a cause of wealth.”

Many efforts by aid organisations in poor nations tend to focus on the former rather than the wealth creation, and that’s one part of the underlying problem. As Herman Chinery-Hesse, dubbed the ‘Bill Gates of Ghana’, says in the film, “I know countries who have developed on trade, and innovation, and business. I don’t know of any country that got so much aid it suddenly became a first world country.”

When you look at the real differences in how poorer countries compare to developed nations like Australia, you realise why we call ourselves ‘the lucky country’. In Australia, we have strongly entrenched institutions of justice: things like the rule of law, private property and justice in the courts which enable us to start businesses and make money. Without the structural integrity of these institutions, we wouldn’t be able to get ahead, own a house, enact our rights or go to court to protect those rights. That is the only tangible difference between someone born in Australia, and someone born in poverty in Angola — we have access to and are protected by these institutions.

“We take these institutions of justice so for granted that we never think things can get worse,” says Miller. “No matter what we do, it’ll all be okay.”

“The typical theme of ‘If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day; if you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime,’ … When you go to the developing world, what you learn is these people know how to fish. What they lack is access to the pond… They can’t sell in the market. They’re locked out.”

“Development won’t stick if you don’t have institutions of justice,” says Miller. In India, it can take 20 years for a case to be heard in the courts. In Lima, it can take 289 days to register a business if you are not a wealthy businessman, while a business owner in a slum village can’t expand, because they cannot legally own their land and therefore have no capital.

“Institutions of justice are not easy, so they are not the things of celebrity campaign,” says Miller.

“One of the hopes of the film was to actually get people to think about those institutions of justice and then get people who are really smart to say, ‘Hey, how can I come up with solutions to help people get institutions of justice?’”

Miller says he has heard of people helping to establish blockchain technology — proof of transactions using bitcoin — teamed with GPS to circumvent the state and create a kind of property right system in some areas. He hopes more such ideas will spring from people who watch the film, and rather than have them simply hitting a button saying ‘Donate Now’, the question asked will extend to: ‘What is it that people need to create prosperity in their own families, in their own communities, and what can I do to help?’

If you’re sitting there asking that question of yourself, head here.

Poverty Inc. is available to download on iTunes and on Amazon Instant Video.

This article was originally posted on Junkee on March 23rd, 2016.

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