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    The End of Poverty?


    The documentary "The End of Poverty?" promises too much in its title — but still delivers an important lesson about the origins of Third World impoverishment.


    The end of poverty is a lot to promise in one film. This movie could probably just be called "An Explanation of Poverty" and even that would be ambitious.

    Written and directed by: Philippe Diaz.
    Featuring: John Christensen, William Easterly, Susan George, Chalmers Johnson, Alvaro García Lineras, John Perkins, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Eric Toussaint.
    Narrated by: Martin Sheen.
    Cinematography: Philippe Diaz.
    Edited by: Thomas Staunton.

    Related links: Official site
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    "The End of Poverty?" traces the impoverishment of the Third World from colonialization in Columbus's time to the debt crisis in our own time. Five centuries of European imperialism are seen as the original sin of poverty, transforming the people of the Third World from self-sufficient traditionalists into serfs feeding the Western industrial machine. This is surely too simple, but it's worth recognizing as a broad argument. "Our chosen economic system always was, and still is, financed by the poor," the film claims.

    What this documentary does best is to head out into the world and connect Big Ideas to the lives of people in places like Tanzania and Brazil who are living the economic reality today. Some are humble, explaining simply how they scavenge a few dollars' worth of food or metal from the land. Others are formidably well-spoken. Two of the film's sharpest moments come from them:

    A Maasai leader in Kenya recounts how colonialism affected his country in these terms: "Two kinds of British came to Kenya. The ones with guns to kill and steal the land, and the ones with Bibles to deceive."

    Maasai tribespeople in Kenya. in The End of Poverty?  
    Maasai tribespeople in Kenya.
    A silver miner in Venezuela shows a "museum" left in the tunnels by past generations of miners. From his underground workplace, he recounts the Potosi mine's lore: "There is a writer, Eduardo Galeano, who says that with all the silver that was taken out of Potosi, that was taken out of this hill, it would have been possible to build a bridge from Potosi to Spain. He also said that another bridge could be built from Potosi to Spain with the bones of the people who died in the mines."

    Numerous professors and other notables from around the world help explain how the Third World countries and people were pressed into servitude — the world's present economic order preserving the exploitation that started with colonialism long ago. In academics, this is called Dependency Theory, a term popular in Latin America that comes up once or twice in the film. In American economics (my own college major), the subject is treated in an entirely different way, which is part-useful and part-myopic and doesn't get any screen time here. Fine. So bear in mind that "TEOP?" embodies a point of view that can't be considered unassailable truth.

      "Two kinds of British came to Kenya. The ones with guns to kill and steal the land, and the ones with Bibles to deceive."
      — Maasai tribal leader in Kenya
    The weakest element of the film is the narration. It feels like a term paper written by a college freshman, who would probably be sent back to add footnotes. The voice of God (actually, Martin Sheen) makes huge, sweeping stipulations about The Way The World Is.

    For example: "The belief in a collective form of social organization was the indigenous people's best protection against a commodity economy — something for which they had no desire." Wow — is that true? And is it true for everybody everywhere? There is actually a whole field of economic anthropology that would say no. Property and markets are human nature — they have existed about as long as sedentary man.

    Still, if you are a moral person in a country such as the United States, the film justly calls upon you to examine your country's role and your own role in the immiseration of the world's poor majority. Point of view is significant — one thing that interested me was the vocabulary that different people use to describe the same phenomenon. Economists refer rosily to a whole range of beneficial and malignant economic measures as a country's "development"; others, more ambiguously, refer to "exploitation," which is a reasonable thing to do to resources but sounds abusive when applied to people. Most damningly, a Kenyan professor refers deliberately to "expropriation" — which is when the rhetorical difference caught my attention. To him, the West's activity in his country is mere thievery dressed up in sophisticated Latinate words.

    A miner recounts the lore of the Potosi mine in Bolivia. in The End of Poverty?  
    A miner recounts the lore of the Potosi mine in Bolivia.
    What do you do about all this? How do you "end poverty"? Well, the film focuses on debt relief, which I am convinced is a sound policy and a moral imperative as well. You don't even have to admit having "expropriated" from the Third World to recognize what's happened over recent decades. Western countries supplied valuable commodities like, oh, you know, basically guns, to Third World dictators for use on their neighbors or their own people, and racked up the debt we see now on behalf of their countries. As the film demonstrates by being on the ground in some of these countries, the collection of this debt comes straight out of the people's homes, food, schools and medical care — the same people who may recently have been held at the barrel end of those guns.

      As the film demonstrates by being on the ground in some of these countries, the collection of Third World debt comes straight out of the people's homes, food, schools and medical care.
    I don't imagine that (in spite of the leadership of the last pope on this issue, for one) Americans will militate for Third World debt relief very soon. Nor will many of us give up a dollar of consumption to benefit another continent and stabilize the planet. And even if we did all of that, would poverty end? No, not by a longshot. I guess the title of the film is still bothering me, as is its elision of so many complicated ideas into simplified claims. But as a first exposure to these questions, and as a first consideration of the morality of being who we are in the world, it is a start.

    NOVEMBER 20, 2009

    Reader comments on The End of Poverty?:

  • Film Title   from Justin Best, Nov 5, 2010

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