Hard Questions about Humanitarian Aid Raised in “Poverty, Inc.” Screening at USMC

By: Martyn Wendell Jones

USMC President David Mulroney moderates a panel following the film screening with former Canadian Ambassador Anne Leahy and former Swiss Guard Andreas Widmer. (Photos courtesy of the Newman Centre.)

With the Advent season approaching, many Canadians are opening their mailboxes to find them stuffed with thick envelopes from international charities and aid groups. Organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, and World Relief advertise ways of directing donated goods and monies to those in poverty around the world.

What if organizations like these—and the system of foreign aid-based development and philanthropy they represent—actually do more to harm than help the populations they intend to serve over the longer term? This is the animating concern of Poverty, Inc., a documentary screened in Toronto at the University of St. Michael’s College on Wednesday, November 8. The Newman Centre at the University of Toronto and the Archdiocese of Toronto joined St. Mike’s in cosponsoring the screening and panel discussion that followed.

The film wastes no time in announcing its target: the “global aid system today,” which one subject claims Machiavelli could have described in his famous quotation about the recalcitrance of power in the face of the prospect of real social and economic change. Foreign aid, one of the essential components of this system, involves the transfer of money and goods from wealthy nations to poor nations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), which distribute these resources to populations in need.

The film identifies the Marshall Plan, an American program of assistance that helped to rebuild Europe after the Second World War, as the model for today’s global aid system. One of the most important problems the film identifies is the use of a disaster relief model in the context of countries that have not been stricken with disasters. With local markets and economies undisturbed by war, famine, or earthquakes, these countries become dumping grounds for free goods with which local producers cannot compete.

An establishing scene makes the scenario concrete for the viewer: former American Bill Clinton is recorded offering a public mea culpa for a policy of shipping subsidized American surplus rice to Haiti in the 90s, fundamentally changing the island nation’s food culture and driving local farmers out of work. Many of these farmers sought work in cities like Port-au-Prince, and the sudden demand for housing resulted in an explosion of shoddily overbuilt slums—structures that proved especially vulnerable to the ravages of the earthquake that crippled the nation in 2010.

Panelists and attendees after the screening.

NGOs operate within the global aid system’s “social fact,” a phrase of Emile Durkheim’s referring to the conceptual framework that delimits the strictures within which humanitarian work and even innovation can occur, and the consequences are not always intuitive. Orphanages receive a special measure of scrutiny, with the film arguing that such institutions incentivize the breakdown of families: parents commit their children to orphanages to guarantee that their basic needs are met while also creating the possibility of adoption by western parents. Shocking, the film claims that 80% of Haitian orphans are “poverty orphans”: children of living parents who simply feel unable to support them.

Dozens of examples of harm, malfeasance, objectification, and waste are used to support filmmaker Michael Matheson Miller’s claim that the global aid system, a multi-billion-dollar industry, operates out of inertia to keep poor people poor; interview subjects repeatedly describe the system as a new form of colonialism.  Miller argues that lasting change will only be accomplished by reinforcing the rule of law—considered as a set of fair rules and policies to which everyone, rich and poor alike, has equal recourse under the auspices of fair and accessible public institutions—in countries where its absence makes economic life an unpredictable, high-risk travail for lower-income citizens. The film also advocates establishing greater access to systems of productivity and exchange, robust property rights, and economic partnerships with the poor as means of creating lasting change. “Not aid, but a door in,” as one Ghanaian tech entrepreneur says near the close of the film.

After the lights came up in Alumni Hall at St. Michael’s, the school’s president David Mulroney moderated a panel that explored issues brought up by the film at greater depth. Seated across the stage from him were Anne Leahy, former Ambassador of Canada to the Great Lakes Region of Africa as well as to Cameroon, and Andreas Widmer, tech entrepreneur and former Swiss Guard to St. John Paul II. Widmer also made appearances in the film.

Leahy called the audience of over 200 to consider their motives for giving during the holiday season; the positive feelings elicited by making a donation can serve to mask what Widmer referred to as an abdication of personal moral responsibility. “No government can be a moral actor! Persons are moral actors,” the Catholic University of America professor said. It is impossible to “outsource” moral responsibility to governments and companies, even those that claim to serve those in need.

Widmer cited a fact that he took to illustrate the central problem of the global aid system: the continent of Africa is home to 12% of the world’s population, and while it receives 30% of the world’s aid, only 1.4% of risk capital is directed there for investment. Greater investment could provide for larger loans to become available to businesses in developing countries, which would help to fill in the “missing middle” separating tiny family-run concerns from the giant corporations that predominate in emerging economies.

President Mulroney brought up the issue of Chinese investments in Africa, which projects involve offering “economic rights” with a concomitant promise of political and human rights, which promise is endlessly forestalled. Widmer argued that Western nations need to keep their hands off the “messy process” of decision-making related to development in these countries: censuring such arrangements involves the “same kind of paternalism” for “thinking the Africans can’t handle the Chinese.”

The availability of work—dignity-conferring, prosperity-generating work—remained one of the panel’s focuses in its discussion of means of relieving poverty, and by their lights, there are good reasons for hope. The problem of “crony capitalism” is emerging with greater definition in public consciousness, and regional businesses are beginning to find ways of connecting with the “systems of production and exchange” from which they have been excluded. Leahy and Widmer concluded their conversation amiable after a period of spirited debate, and Mr. Widmer returned to the University of Toronto the next morning to deliver a talk on leadership informed by his experiences serving St. John Paul II in the Swiss Guard.

Martyn Wendell Jones is a writer in the Office of Communications at the University of St. Michael’s College.