A Critical Review on the documentary “Poverty, Inc.”

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The documentary “Poverty, Inc.” has become so influential that it is now part of many courses at the university level. The good news is that at universities we apply critical thinking to the information we receive (or we are supposed to). As a development economist, I share here my views on this famous documentary.

On the positive side, the documentary does a good job in making some points for an audience unfamiliar with economic theory, such as the idea that dependency does not end poverty, or that current foreign aid (money flows between governments) has “unintended consequences that do more harm than good.” However, both ideas are not new in development studies. The much quoted “teach a human to fish” is an idea associated with many philosophers, including Maimonides (about 850 years ago). This criticism of the structure of current foreign aid is a relatively old idea in the development literature. Perhaps the best point made by the documentary is the argument that Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) can do a better job if they base their strategies on effective communications with local entities, although this idea is not new either.

What are, then, the problems with this documentary? Many. Firstly, the development literature has two main perspectives; namely, the conservative and the progressive. A documentary that omits a whole branch of argumentation is not responsible and carries “unintended consequences,” such as misinforming that unfamiliar audience. Besides mentioning supranational entities, the documentary did not expose crucial structural problems: there is no serious analysis on geopolitics, global power relations, or class issues, among others. A class analysis would not, for instance, focus on stressing that “NGOs need the poor to exist” but that “the rich need the poor to exist”.Read More »

Caveat emptor: the Graduation Approach, electronic payments and the potential pitfalls of financial inclusion

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By Paulo L dos Santos and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven

The Graduation Approach to poverty reduction is inextricably bound up with programmes promoting financial inclusion. Proponents for the approach see it guiding a series of interventions that encourage poor households to ‘graduate’ into ‘mainstream development programmes’ which are centred on the provision of credit and other financial services (BRAC 2014). Indeed, the approach has been presented as a way to address the needs of those “too poor for microfinance services” (UNHCR 2014). The presumption is that the development and poverty reduction needs of ‘graduates’ will be well served by financial inclusion initiatives.Read More »

Human rights are not losing traction in the global South

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An indigenous Filipino woman sells bracelets. Source: Flickr/Andy Enero

Stephen Hopgood’s The Endtimes of Human Rights and Eric Posner’s The Twilight of Human Rights Law have set off an important debate about whether human rights have run out of steam as a force for human progress. Other commentators such as Sam Moyn have argued that human rights no longer have the power to mobilize international condemnation and moral pressure against totalitarian regimes. Posner argues, for example, that the rapid expansion in the ratification of human rights treaties since the 1990s has had no impact on the respect for human rights. Further, since the end of colonization, human rights movements such as the right to self-determination, the civil rights act in the US, and overall equality in the US have run out of steam.

On closer reading and reflection, these arguments tell a very partial story about human rights.  They are limited to human rights as civil and political rights to end brutal authoritarian rule, as law in international treaties to be enforced by the UN human rights system, and as a mission of international institutions embodied in international treaties and bodies, both inter-governmental and non-governmental.  Indeed, these opinions reflect a view of human rights as a civilizing mission of the Western world by the use of law and political power—a vision of the dominant human rights scholars and organizations.

Yet there are other ways of understanding the process of human rights progress. As Michael Ignatieff forcefully argued at a recent conference at Kings College, human rights is not about international law but about politics: “moral politics expressed as or clothed in law”. And the politics is not just about foreign policy goals of powerful states.Read More »

How We Know It’s Christmas Time

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As Christmas approaches and the infamous Band Aid charity song Do They Know it’s Christmas resurfaces on radios, in supermarkets and in malls, so do old and harmful stereotypes of poor people living in oblivious destitution, in need of a foreigner’s donation to help them escape poverty. These stereotypes portray the poor as passive recipients of aid and poverty as a phenomenon disconnected from structural political and economic processes. In recent years, alternative charity awards – the Raid-Aid Awards – have been organized every December. This is  a concerted effort to counteract the negative stereotypes perpetuated by many charity videos and songs.Read More »