The Business of Global Poverty

I recently watched the movie Poverty, Inc. It starts off with a paraphrased quote from Machiavelli – “The reason there will be no change is because the people who stand to lose from change have all the power. And the people who stand to gain from change have none of the power” (or are indifferent to change).

It’s only human to sympathize with people living in poverty. When we see images of poor people, our instinctive response is to help out by giving them a portion of our money or food or shelter. It appeals to our better nature, and its also what society has told us is the solution. But this doesn’t seem to be the best solution. The movie really showed me the bigger picture.

People in Africa have been getting aid for a long time now. Foreign aid has amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars, a very sizable subsidy! But this large scale aid has crippled the people of Africa – A lot of businesses in the area like rice and other crop farmers, Solar panel makers cannot compete with free. As a result, they are run into the ground and become part of the growing number of people who are poor.

A case in point is Tom’s Shoes. They had the best intentions at heart. For every pair of shoes sold in a developed country like the US, they would donate a pair of shoes in a developing country. There were so many children without shoes on their feet. Of course this seemed great! But it drove the demand for the shoes made by local cobblers straight to zero.

The movie also brings out an interesting perspective on Colonialism – The idea is that the countries who provide the aid also get to dictate how the aid money is spent. If they decide to favour certain businesses, the receiving country has to abide. This means that the receiving country is never free to pursue its own agenda and the government isn’t incentivized to make any changes to reduce poverty because they would lose all the free money and resources they’re getting. In addition, the NGOs that are part of the equation working with the government in different capacities would be out of a job. Why would they want that?

The Poverty Industry

The Poverty Industry as shown in the movie

Of course, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t innovators who genuinely care. A lot of people have realized how dangerous simple donation is to the economies of developing countries. The right thing to do is to partner with these countries and local businesses and help them grow. The movie tells us the story of an American couple who move to Haiti and helps many local women and men make simple jewelry that they then sell to big retailers in the US. Her employees began to feel empowered and soon realized they could fend for themselves and buy their own small homes and care for their children.

Helping local artisans make jewelry
Helping local artisans make jewelry

It’s one of those things that seem obvious in hindsight – but if we really want to help, we should teach people how to fish, not just give them fish.

This movie shines a very realistic light on the state of our world and I recommend it for anyone remotely interested in social welfare. It shows us how everything is connected from celebrities to orphanages.

Having a heart for the poor is easy; having a mind for the poor, thats the challenge..

Watch the Trailer –

Advice and Self Identity

Advice is a big part of social interaction with other humans. Sometimes you’re looking for advice and sometimes people just give it to you anyway. Parents have to instruct their kids from an early age in the ways of the world and it becomes a habit for them to give their children advice as they grow up and even when they’re older. Many a times people get advice from friends. Knowing how to sift through the advice and imbibe all the good stuff is something I really value. Society works largely on recommendations from others – shopping reviews, movie ratings, what place to eat at, what college to go to and so on. But when it comes to more personal things, heeding advice gets harder.

A big part of acting on someone’s advice is being able to socially identify yourself with it. For example, say I have a friend who is a gym buff. He tells me to start gymming, and follows it with a very sensible explanation of how excercise is helpful and so on; I’m only inclined to follow his advice if I am ok to take up somebody else’s passion(his) and start parading socially that it is also mine. My relationship with this person also matters because I am now indebted to him for convincing me to join the gym so I might not be able to fully “own” this passion with him out “owning” me.

This is obviously not the case for a large number of people who would take up their friend’s advice to join the gym. This happens because he/she is open minded and motivated enough to try something new in the first place. Another reason that people listen to other people is social inclusion. “Let me join the drama club cause thats what all the cool kids are doing” or “Let me try alcohol cause everyone else has”. It’s also important to respect the person giving you the advice and publicly regard them as more knowledgeable on that matter. This is tough to do with some parents because of obvious parent-child dynamics where the child is always on rebel-against-everything-even-if-it-makes-sense mode.

This post is pretty rough around the edges and it feels disorganized but hey, atleast I now identify myself as a writer.