By Jerry Bower
Filmmakers love an industry exposé: Gasland; Super Size Me; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Inside Job; Capitalism: A Love Story. The list of “independent” filmmakers who attack a particular industry — or sometimes all industries — is a long one. But (I ask, exposé-like) are they truly “independent”? They certainly are not ideologically independent. There is a standard point of view for the serious documentarian with a standard list of allowable exposées: capitalism (with bonus points for oil, gas, tobacco, fast food, and banks); the military industrial complex; and anybody who funds (the Koch brothers) or distributes (Fox News) a message which does not hew to the correct ideological line.
But Poverty Inc. really is independent — ideologically speaking. It critically examines an industry the chief product of which is good will and social status (virtually crying out for ‘smug’ emission standards) and attracts more celeb endorsements than soft drinks and weight loss combined. In fact, the poverty industry is the one industry which has such high social status that celebrities actually give money to it, in order to associate their names and faces with it rather than the reverse (which is the usual arrangement). For decades celebrities have been clamoring over one another to be chosen to stand in front of a mic and warble to the world, asking if “they know it’s Christmas over there…” in Africa, and to declare that they are the ones who get to declare, “‘We are the world,” or, “We are the One(s) which will end poverty in our day.” Second-rate rockers get knighted for being in on stuff like that. The poverty industry oozes good will and social status from every crevice, like oil from shattered shale, only goodness instead of evil hydrocarbons.
But the big question is, “Does it actually work?” And the almost-as-big question is, “Who would we need to talk to in order to get the right answer to the big question?”
The answers are (in reverse order): “The poor themselves,” and, “No, it does not.”
Poverty Inc. talks to the poor themselves about what the poverty industry has done for them, and it finds that, although emergency aid is welcome and often helpful, the long-term system in which wealthy western powers exclude the global poor from trade and dump hyper-subsidized, western-produced consumer goods on them is of great harm. This system’s victims are (in order of most-to-least harmed): poor nations and US taxpayers. Its chief beneficiaries are (in order of most-to-least benefited) gigantic western agri-businesses and professional NGO executives.
I was sent a screener of the film from the Acton Institute, which produced it, and liked it so much that I helped promote a showing in my home town. I have no financial interest in the film other than the tickets which my wife and I bought. As I write this, I read that the film just won the prestigious Templeton Freedom Award and its accompanying $100,000 prize.
This article was first published on Forbes.com.
Jerry Bowyer was the founding president of the Allegheny Institute of Public Policy, and has been the host of ‘WorldView’, and Sunday-morning political talk show syndicated on approximately two dozen TV stations. Mr. Bowyer is a weekly contributor to Forbes.com.