Disclaimer: Poverty, Inc. explores a plethora of topics, all of which are related and important. However, if I were to include my reactions to every single detail… this blog post would be even longer than it already is. So, I decided to focus in on one single aspect of the documentary that I felt was relevant to our own ability to change. There may be follow-up blog posts that will delve further into this subject and other relevant issues presented by the documentary, but for now, this is what I felt was the call to action I personally felt in reaction to watching Poverty, Inc.
Menlo F. Smith, the founder of Mentors international, once said, “It’s very important that you don’t let the people you try to help become tragedies of your compassion.” Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure what this meant when I first heard it. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of people becoming “tragedies” of compassion. It wasn’t until after I watched Poverty, Inc. that I better understood the harsh reality of Menlo F. Smith’s words, that the current system in which we act upon our compassion makes tragedies out of the poor. That is not to say that compassion is a bad thing. The desire to help someone in need is natural and it is vital in our ability to connect and love. But on the other hand, understanding the best way to do so may not come so naturally. Michael Fairbanks of Harvard University puts it perfectly,
“Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard, we all have that. But having a mind for the poor, that’s the challenge.”
Unfortunately, well-intentioned yet misdirected compassion has lead many charity organizations, non-profits, government programs and even social entrepreneurs to do more harm than good. Poverty, Inc., for me, was scathing, but an eye-opening window into how many of those living in poverty are tragedies of the world’s compassion.
I know what you’re thinking. How is it possible that compassion and its resulting humanitarian work could be harmful? Let’s look at an example to bring this idea to life. For many years, government agencies and charity organizations attempted (and are still attempting) to solve poverty through donations and foreign aid. Such was the “solution” to the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Following the disaster, almost the entire world rushed to Haiti’s aid, with donations, services, and food to help those affected by the crisis, which is exactly how we should have reacted. But, as Poverty, Inc. reveals, this solution came with devastating results when foreign aid overstayed its welcome. Years after the earthquake, the food continued to flow in… for free. Haitian farmers could no longer sell their products because, just as the entrepreneur and native Haitian Alex Georges says, “it’s hard to compete with free”. The earthquake hurt Haiti’s economy, but foreign aid slowly and painfully sucked the life out of it. And the same thing has happened and is still happening around the world, replacing the market, jobs, and products with free handouts from other countries.
Not only has this response ruined economies, but it has also completely altered the way of life in these countries. Previously independent, self-reliant people become dependent and even expectant upon the free handouts and donations to feed their families, and thus emerges an entire generation with a dependence mentality. Yet, the continuation of a paternalistic and patronizing generation in first world countries is just as, if not more, concerning. And those two components create quite the vicious cycle: A certain country suffers under the burden of disaster, disease or corruption and the world responds with foreign aid and free handouts, but after a few years, the poor (or anyone, for that matter) just can’t “compete with free”, and because they can’t, their country’s economy along with their self-reliance disintegrates as they are treated as helpless and less capable. Eventually, as they welcome the foreign aid that continues to pour in, they accept the image the world has formed of them, and they become more and more reliant upon those free handouts, and that dependence results in more foreign aid from the paternalistic efforts of first world countries. And so it goes, leaving in its wake a shattered market and a system of perpetuated poverty. This is exactly what Menlo F. Smith asserts when he pleads for us not to “let the people you try to help become tragedies of your compassion.”
I know there are many things that must happen in order for anything to ever change, and the world seems so set in its ways that it’s difficult to project any significant change in the near future. But I also believe that the key to liberating ourselves from this system, or at least the first step, is this: we must see each other as equals. Just six months ago, before I traveled to Peru for an internship with my church and before I became an intern here at Mentors International, I gave money to every homeless person I saw. I carried cash around just in case there was someone I ran into throughout the day. But my time in Peru learning about self-reliance and then watching and re-watching (and re-watching again) Poverty, Inc. caused me to question myself. Again, I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way. Giving money to worthy causes and people is not a bad thing at all. Compassion moves us to change, it motivates us to love. Compassion and our innate desire to help others will forever be at the heart of the good that is left in the world. But it is not necessarily compassion I question, but rather the reasons behind my compassion. Did I see that person as an equal? Someone with as much talent, skill, intelligence, and potential as me? Or were my actions driven by pity? Was I giving him or her money to empower them, or just to make myself feel good? My initial reaction to this self-evaluation was a denial of any implications of selfish motives or pride. However, the guilt rolled around in the pit of my stomach and as much as I wanted to cover it up with excuses of good intentions, I knew the answers to those questions. Is it unpleasant to come full circle in realizing that truth? Most definitely. Do I sometimes hate the fact that good intentions just aren’t enough? Absolutely. But it is time to put our big boy/girl pants on and deal with the truth. This paternalistic way in which we execute our desire to help people is not working. Those in poverty are just as capable as anyone, and they must be treated accordingly.
There’s a good chance that this is old news for you. You may be thinking “Of course I know that the system is corrupt!” or “Yes, I saw Poverty, Inc. two years ago when it came out…”. But let me ask you this… has anything really changed since then? To me, it still feels like no one knows this is going on, or even if they do, they continue to function within the exact same bubble, the one that thrives off of the patronizing views of the poor, the one that typically doesn’t actually benefit those it’s trying to help. If we want to change the world, if we truly want to eradicate poverty, something must change within each of us. We must change our ideology that the poor are helpless. They are not tragedies. As Poverty, Inc. demonstrates, these people are just as capable, smart, creative, resourceful, talented and hardworking as we are, and they want to be seen that way. Take the co-founders of Enersa, Joel-Ronel Noel and Alex Georges, for example. They, as native Haitians, wanted to solve the energy problem in Haiti by utilizing the frequent sunshine, started the solar energy company about 10 years ago from a garage. Today they have installed over 200 solar panels in Cité Soleil and have employed 62 people. Or Guinean entrepreneur Herman Chinery-Hesse, the “Bill Gates of Africa”, whose company, Soft Tribe, creates and sells software for the developing world. These are a mere two examples of many who are thriving entrepreneurs in their own countries, who did not become successful with the help of foreign aid, but rather an economic opportunity. Billions more capable minds and hands are ready to seize their own opportunity to become self-reliant, independent and successful.
Our clients at Mentors International are not tragedies. They are incredible examples to us of determination, hard work, hope, and success. They are our equals in helping this world become a better place. Can you imagine what would happen if the world’s efforts in ending poverty shifted from foreign aid and donations to opportunity in trade and commerce? Just as Herman Chinery-Hesse, as a native African and prosperous entrepreneur, says, “What Africa needs is not aid. We need a door in.” Think of how economies, health, education, and innovation would flourish around the entire world if the poor were given that door into global trade. These are our fellow human beings we are talking about! That is why Mentors International strives to empower its clients through self-reliance. If they are given the opportunity, the poor have the internal capacity to overcome and eradicate poverty themselves. And that will be our role in helping them end poverty, providing opportunity by inviting them to be partners and associates in global trade. As we accept and act upon that role, we must ask ourselves these vital questions from Michael Fairbanks, “Can we treat them as equals, as partners, as colleagues? Can we allow them to put the locus of responsibility for their future on themselves, and then be willing to be guided by their vision?” We have a long path ahead of us to break out of the current system, but the first step to change is a personal and collective change of mind and heart. Once this happens, and once we all have a foot into the world of entrepreneurship and commerce, we will “watch the magic happen,” as Magatte Wade, founder of Tiossan and native Senegalese, says. And with infectious confidence, she adds, “And when it does, it’s going to be beautiful.”
Works Cited: Poverty, Inc. Dir. Michael Matheson Miller. 2014.
Article written by Emma Lattin, Intern