Wednesday evening. Pillows, popcorn, pizza, and drinks. As the evening set in, aspiring humanitarians representing countries all over the middle east gathered in a small-ish room in Tbilisi, Georgia to watch a film. Poverty Inc. bills itself as a film unearthing the uncomfortable side of charity. In its own words, the film synopsis is:
The West has positioned itself as the protagonist of development, giving rise to a vast multi-billion dollar poverty industry — the business of doing good has never been better.
Yet the results have been mixed, in some cases even catastrophic, and leaders in the developing world are growing increasingly vocal in calling for change.
Drawing from over 200 interviews filmed in 20 countries, Poverty, Inc. unearths an uncomfortable side of charity we can no longer ignore.
While it has tendencies to find itself lumped with the countless other critical voices saying Foreign Aid is bad while business is the answer, thankfully the film is more nuanced than that. It is one of the few critical voices to acknowledge that many people in aid have a genuine desire to help others, which can’t be faulted as anything other than good.
After watching the film, the group of aid workers tended to have one of two responses – either to feel like they should resign or to ignore the valid comments and justify their existence. I don’t think the film makers want either response. However, there were some who were much more reflective:
“Have I been speaking in the name of the people affected or in the name of someone else”
“How do we know when the ‘humanitarian’ window of productive aid ends and becomes destructive”
The last quote was in response to one part of the film saying humanitarian aid was needed, but ‘free rice, 3 years on’ in Haiti was unhelpful. People did not dispute this, but wondered how to know where the line is and especially when they rightly imagine it is different for every disaster and every context.
It’s easy to be critical of aid. It’s also easy to put your head in the sand and carry on like you’ve always done – neither are helpful. A number of times the film brings up the criticism of aid saying “no country has ever developed through aid”, which is a lovely sound-bite, but a rather simplistic statement. No country ever develops through one thing, including business, which the film purports as the answer. Development of a country is much more complex then this, and increasingly so.
The film outlines what it calls a social fact or framework in which foreign aid operates. To anyone in the industry, it will be familiar even if it has not been seen or talked about before. Like many frameworks, it helps us understand a view point and helps us analyse a system. It certainly highlights the fact that foreign aid is often more beneficial for the ‘giving’ country than the ‘receiving’ country – a fact lost on UKIP supporters and people against the 0.7% aid target of most Western countries. Interestingly, the film mentions little about the (mis)aligned incentives throughout the aid industry – have you ever tried to give money back to a donor if you’ve achieved the project’s objectives for less money than originally proposed? Or which organisation has as its primary or sole indicator of success the impact it achieves in a particular country? Almost all senior executives are judged on whether their budget has increased in comparison to the previous year (and yes I’m referring to ‘not-for-profits’).
All in all it’s a good film. It provoked both emotional, intelligent responses and thoughtful discussions from the small group of aspiring humanitarians in Georgia. Aid, like most things, has unintended consequences, which are worse when only short-term thinking and impact is considered. It is crucial for aid practitioners to be prompted to have a robust discussion about these while being aware that unintended consequences will always occur, that they need to more quickly be identified and challenged.
Overall people felt the film was provocative and was a brave choice to show, but they were appreciative of it and of the discussions it provoked. I had a number of inquires from people asking how they could get a copy to re-watch it and show some friends as well as colleagues, so I’d say that is vote of confidence.
Personally, I think all board members and senior executives of large NGOs and UN bodies should watch the film and have a robust discussion about it. The film isn’t perfect and certainly is quite one-sided, but the Aid industry desperately needs to change and anyone who thinks handing out free food from in Haiti three years on is a good thing needs to get their head checked out. Let’s not do the same thing to Nepal.