The End of Poverty?: A Documentary Film Review by Antonio Moreno
The End of Poverty?: A Documentary Film Review by Antonio Moreno
(The End of Poverty?, Director Philippe Diaz, 2008, 106 minutes)
The End of Poverty? is a documentary, made by Philippe Diaz, that examines the questions around global poverty and its causes. It starts with the question, “in a world with so much wealth why is there so much poverty?” In looking at poverty from a global perspective, the film is in many ways correct. Revolutionary Anti-Imperialists should watch this film as a good introduction to the subjects of exploitation on a global scale, or as a refresher for those who have or currently are studying these problems. The film answers the question posed in the title by saying that poverty did not just happen, but is caused by specific policies set up by rich nations which keep poor nations poor.
Extent of Global Poverty
In a welcome change from many First Worldist oriented documentaries, The End of Poverty? looks at the wide extent of global poverty and its effects. It gives out the statistics and figures often cited by RAIM and other like-minded groups, along with more detailed figures that dig deeper into the extent of what poverty on a global scale is. The poverty shown in the film affects mostly the people of the Third World, also referred to as the Global South, which are the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Half of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day in income. A quarter of the world live on less than $1.00 a day, and of those 162 million live on less than $0.50 a day. In the continent of Africa alone, 328 million live on less than $1 a day. These numbers do not even come close to measuring poverty as experienced in the Global South. As almost all their meager income comes from labor, they suffer more as that labor is longer, more backbreaking, and more uncertain than in the wealthy countries. Sixty to 80 million people live in slave-like conditions around the world. Over one billion live in slums, most of these in the countries of the global South. One third of the world does not have access to water. Another 854 million suffer from malnutrition.
Along with the facts and figures presented, it mixes interviews not just with academic and government experts but a number of average people in the Third World. The film interviews cane cutters in Brazil and their families struggling with poverty, villagers in Kenya being encroached by U.S. based corporations, and many others. With the raw numbers and personal stories about the extent of global poverty, the film asks why poverty exists, especially since there is simultaneously so much wealth in the world, which could alleviate this poverty. The documentary arrives at similar answers we have: that this poverty is caused by exploitation, the exploitation by the countries of the First World, or the Global North, of the countries of the Third World, or Global South. It is caused by an unequal distribution of the wealth society creates, something inherent in capitalism. Also, this exploitation is not anything recent, but has been operating under different forms for many centuries. In fact, what is called globalization is just the global integration of the world economy. And this globalization has its roots going back over 500 years.
The Onslaught of Colonialism
The film takes us to 1492, the beginning of the Age of Colonization through the European conquest. This conquest connected the continents of the world in the first form of globalization. Yet this globalization was not by consent, and was done for the economic interests of the mother countries. First, a definition of colonialism. The dictionary definition is: “A policy by which a nation maintains or extends its control over foreign dependencies.” And this is what was done. Colonialism has been described in many different ways, and developed in different forms throughout history. The imperial powers stole from other peoples their lands and their vast mineral resources, imported millions of slaves, and massacred indigenous people. The Spanish, and then the Portuguese, began the process of taking over the whole of Latin America. Other European powers joined in this process, taking over lands in the continents of Africa and Asia also, along with North America too. Other European powers competed for colonies. Great Britain colonized Ireland. French, Dutch, and Belgians joined in the competition to divide up the world. Almost every country in what is now considered the Third World was split up by one or another imperial country in the Global North. These wealthy countries got their wealth in a parasitic way, through plunder of the countries they colonized in the process of building their empires. The vast agricultural, mineral and labor resources of these lands were taken by force.
Raw materials were ripped from the colonized lands and sent to the mother countries, which in turn helped fuel their Industrial Revolution. These minerals were mined with forced labor of the native peoples, and later by African slaves also forced into labor. Colonialism interrupted the historical development of the nations colonized, creating economies that were under the power of the colonizers. In addition to mineral extraction, the colonizer controlled agriculture. The colonized nations grew crops for the colonizer nations, usually single cash crops for export, and those nations had to import food from the colonizers for their own people. Although the resources were on colonized lands, the people there had no say in how they would be used.
“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”
-Marx, “Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist.” Capital, Volume One.
There was also changes in the question of land and ownership. Marx once described this process known as primitive accumulation, where feudal labor was transformed into capitalist labor. This was the beginning of capitalism, where capital wealth was firstly acquired through plunder of land, resources, and then labor. In contrast to other economists of the time Marx put forth that the beginnings of capitalism were a violent process in its transformation from feudalism, specifically regarding the upper classes elimination of “the commons,” or communal land used by the peasants. Masses of people were displaced from their lands to become landless proletariat who were dispossessed and forced to work for the emerging bourgeoisie in their factories. Marx was mainly looking at Western Europe at the time, but there was a similar creation of landless laborers in the colonized lands, as primitive accumulation occurred in many cycles. Once the land was taken away the native economies were disrupted. They lost their land and could only support themselves by becoming laborers for the colonists. Colonialism and capitalism were interlinked.
The colonizers created their own systems of authority and laws to serve their own interests in the colonies. An example of this is in Kenya, where, at the end of British colonialism, 1 percent of whites owned 50 percent of the land in the country. Under imperial law the indigenous Kenyans were properties of the British Empire, having no rights the British were bound to respect. The native peoples were not even recognized as human beings. In the labor system named Kipenda, every male had to have a labor record, ensuring that the labor value created went to the British Empire. As slavery in its basic definition is forced labor, this was just another form of it. In Latin America miners were under La Mita law, which forced them to work in the mines for long periods of time, even living in them. Indigenous peoples were also under the encomienda system, where laborers on a piece of land belonged to the owner of that land. Also, since colonialism destroyed independent native economies all over the world, the native peoples had no choice but to work for the exploiter countries as cheap labor.
The effects of colonialism had long-ranging effects on the oppressed and exploited peoples, especially in the social and cultural realms. Along with other thefts the colonialists conducted, another was the theft of culture. Amilcar Cabral once stated, “It is also understood why imperialist domination, like all other foreign domination for its own security, requires cultural oppression and the attempt at direct or indirect liquidation of the essential elements of the culture of the dominated people.” (Cabral, National Liberation and Culture) In Latin America, the conquests were furthered with forced conversion to Christianity. The ideology promoted by the conquerors pushed indigenous culture and life as inferior and primitive, and were thus suppressed in many ways. The conquerors pushed a form of brainwashing. With cultural oppression also comes resistance in the cultural realm. One example the film shows is indigenous people in Bolivia relearning traditional songs, which gives the people more pride in themselves to struggle against the oppression of the colonizer, especially the mental colonization inflicted.
The era of direct colonization ended after World War II, but economic strangulation maldeveloped the former colonial powers. A new type of exploitation happened, neo-colonialism, where there was nominal independence for the former colonies, however, their economies were indirectly influenced by the bigger imperialist powers.
International financial institutions, created by the imperialist powers, became the implementers of neo-colonialism. These powers set up financial institutions that further enslaved the countries of the Global South through debt. These institutions are named The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These organizations give loans to countries in the Global South in exchange for imposing “structural adjustment programs” that serve the interests of capital in the Global North. Instead of investing in human needs in their respective countries, the Global South must invest in development projects that serve the international market, as well as paying interest on the loans. For every $1 it receives in grants, the developing world spents $13 on debt repayments. Debt is used as another form of slavery of the Global South by the Global North, as well as tying the former to the latter’s economic interests. Other institutions, including the GATT, which later became the WTO, push for the liberalization of trade policies at the expense of poor countries for the rich countries. All of these groups push for policies that serve the ideology of the so-called “free market.”
The ideology of the market serves to create these vast inequalities. The ideology goes by different names too. Some call it neoliberalism, others call it the Washington Consensus, since it derives from World Bank and IMF headquarters in Washington D.C. The interests of the market overrides any human costs it creates. One expert estimated that the South finances the North to the tune of $200 billion a year in wealth transfers. Susan George reports that sub-Saharan Africa transfers $25,000 per minute to western creditors. To gain more profits governments and corporations collaborate to maintain poor nations in a state of underdevelopment, more accurately called maldevelopment. They push for privatization, the selling off of state assets, usually at cheap prices, to transnational corporations. This is theft by just another name. As under colonialism, where the actual producers of the raw materials and commodities extracted get no benefit of what they produce, this cycle continues. The resources may have changed from gold and silver to oil, but the process still continues today. Poverty is a result of these policies set up to benefit rich countries at the expense of the poor countries.
This global system is kept together by force. Chalmers Johnson says the CIA is the U.S. president’s private army, used against leaders and nations that are too independent of the Washington Consensus. John Perkins, author of the bestselling Confessions of an Economic Hitman, describes the process of first sending economic hit-men, then “jackals,” and finally direct military force. Economic hit-men, like Perkins, attempted to buy off leaders through economic strangulation. When that did not work they sent in jackals, covert actions by the likes of the CIA in the form of coups and other sabotage. The final option is to be the use of direct military force, such as with Iraq in 2003. Neoliberalism has military forms as well, and gunboat diplomacy often comes into play to maintain this economic order that keeps inequalities going. The modern wars of these times are often resource wars.
Poverty and the Earth with Finite Resources
With the laying out of the extent of global poverty and the causes of it, The End of Poverty? also analyzes not only the unequal use of the planet’s resources, but the finite nature of those resources. This analysis leads to a rejection of First Worldism. Throughout the film, with all the examples of poverty, none of the examples are in any First World country, in the Global North. One expert states that poverty is different in the Third World because unlike the First World, the countries of the Third World also have to deal with things like debt burdens, unequal trade, and monopoly power over resources. Looking at poverty on a global scale, those considered poor in the First World would be considered wealthy in the rest of the world. Also the number of poor people in the First World is a minority of these countries populations, while the number of poor people in the Third World is often the majority of a country. Poverty is also experienced differently, the poor of the Global South face hunger and starvation, lack of basic health care, lack of shelter and land, and lack of work. More often than not poor in the First World do not face life-threatening situations like these.
Furthermore, the ending of poverty would mean a redistribution of the planet’s resources. The film gives figures that show the grossly unequal distribution of resources. As of now Amerikans, making up 5 percent of the world’s population use 25 percent of the world’s resources, and creates roughly 30 percent of the world’s pollution. The resources used by Amerikans, if extended globally, would take six more earths to sustain. In comparison, the resources used by Burkina Faso, if extended globally, would only take 1/10 of the planet’s resources. Sustaining the Amerikan lifestyle is dependent on keeping the Third World poor. Right now humans are consuming 30 percent more than the planet can replenish. The increase in the use of resources by Amerikans and the rest of the First World would mean a decrease in the resources going to the Third World, and thus an increase in poverty. Using “in excess of their share” affects the majority of the world’s people.
Solutions, Radical and Reformist
Although The End of Poverty? gives a well-done overview of the problems and causes of global poverty, like so many NGO’s who work on these issues, the offered remedies fall into reformism. Many of the experts cited are Western academics who gather the data, but advocate band-aid solutions: people such as Joseph Stiglitz, formerly an executive in the World Bank and now a critic of global trade policies; and John Perkins, self-confessed former “economic hit-man” now doing the lecture circuit as a born again liberal who promotes a more humane form of capitalism. The solutions one expert in the film offers include the following: forgiveness of international debt; changing tax structures to mostly fall on property ownership instead of consumption to fall less on the poor; agrarian reform; ending the privatization of natural resources; and even to “restore the idea of the commons.” The Degrowth Movement, which advocates the voluntary downsizing of consumption in the First World, is also mentioned briefly. Though revolutionary anti-imperialists welcome all of these reforms as part of transitional programs, we do point out that even these reforms will not come about without struggles by the people affected by poverty. Like many in the NGO world, the film argues from a moral basis that poverty should be ended because it is the right thing to do. One expert even says that an investment of $20 billion would reduce poverty in half. Yet even this will not be done without struggle. Another expert argues that countries and peoples need to redistribute and share “to avoid radical solutions.” The system that keeps the majority of the world poor and a significant minority in comparative wealth can only be overturned through radical and revolutionary means in the end. For this is not about convincing those in power to adopt more morality, but a struggle over power by those who have been displaced by it.
With this, it shows the potential of the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world in fighting back against this global system. It gives the case study of the “water wars” in Bolivia, specifically the struggle in Cochabamba. In the later part of the 1990’s the Bolivian government and transnational corporations led by Bechtel attempted to push forward another privatization initiative. This time the resource to be privatized was water, one of the basic things needed for human life and one of the last frontiers of privatization. Under the terms to be implemented, all water sources would belong to the corporations, even gathering rain water would be prohibited. People needing water would have no choice but to buy it from these corporations, at prices set by the corporations, regardless of the needs of the local people. As mentioned before, a third of the world has no access to clean, affordable water. The people of Bolivia would not settle for this encroachment, and took to the streets in protest and rebellion. In Cochabamba the movement there mobilized millions, and fought off government troops, declaring “the water is ours dammit!” Their struggle defeated the privatization plans and was a victory for the people and an inspiration to others facing similar struggles. Bolivia overall has been a country wracked with contradictions, and other popular struggles there led to the election of Evo Morales who brought a more progressive regime to the country. But the struggle continues, here and elsewhere, and it is important to have strategic confidence in the oppressed and exploited peoples struggling and building their own power.
Overall The End of Poverty? is a well researched film that we would recommend for its presentation of global poverty. It gives an excellent history of the policies that led to global poverty, and the policies that continue and increase poverty today. We recommend this film to explore the issues presented from a Third Worldist perspective. Along with this we recommend viewers to look beyond the reformist measures that only serve to alleviate discontent in the global system and instead look to revolutionary measures to truly end this unjust worldwide system and bring about a world that serves human needs and the needs of the Earth.