"Wait, so you're against helping people?"
"Are you against all mission/volunteer trips?"
"It may cause harm but at least their hearts are in the right place...."
"It might not be the best but at least its SOMEthing..."
These are some common questions and comments we have received since starting the BS Instagram. Believe it or not, we actually aren't completely anti-human - our hearts, unlike B's, are very real and beating. Our purpose is to present the side of the story that is often neglected and shoved under the rug, or dressed up into something prettier than it is.
If you have followed along with BS instagram or read our first blog post with a bit of confusion, this interview (and documentary) is for you.
We had the amazing opportunity to pick the brain of Mark Weber, one of the co-producers of the phenomenal documentary, "Poverty, Inc.", a film that exposes the underbelly of the poverty industry. Many of us, ourselves included, who have seen the darker side of voluntourism struggle to explain the intricacies at hand when we discuss the issues with well-intentioned people who don't realize the complications associated with international aid and development. "Poverty, Inc." is an incredibly eloquent, intelligent piece that ties the larger picture together in a way that is easily understood. For those of you who want to dive a little deeper into these issues, or who are just interested in seeing things from a different perspective, we would encourage you to:
1)Watch the documentary (It's on netflix, amazon, and itunes)
2) Read our exclusive interview with Mark below.
We promise you, if you have been or are currently involved in the development world in any capacity, it will be well worth your time.
How did the concept of this documentary come about? Was there a specific story that tipped you over the edge?
The answer is different for each of us, of course. Our Director of Photography Simon Scionka spent years on the “marketing” side of charity doing filming for nonprofits and found that even the most sincere people can fall prey to this tendency we have to use objectifying imagery to tug on the heartstrings of potential donors. Our co-producer Anielka Munkel is from Nicaragua where she worked for the ministry of tourism and the office of the president to fight against the narrative that countries like Nicaragua are little more than mission trip destinations. Our director Michael Matheson Miller has a very interesting background as well: he taught as a philosophy professor in Latin America, lived in Europe where he did a masters in international business, and lived in Japan where he did a masters in international development (if you pay attention you’ll notice the convergence of those three fields in the film). In development especially but also in business, he observed a prevailing social engineering, reductionist mindset that tends toward the objectification of the person. This conflicted with his philosophical principles and his vision for this film was to re-inject personalism, i.e. the dignity, creative capacity, and responsibility of the person, into our conceptions of business and development.
My own inspiration goes back to my time in undergrad. I went to Notre Dame and as a freshman I joined the Notre Dame boxing team. The first day in the gym, I was told the following: “Strong bodies fight that weak bodies may be nourished.” The motto of the Notre Dame boxing team since 1931 has served to motivate a team of now 200 guys raising over $100,000 dollars a year to support Catholic missions in Bangladesh.
But in all of the 78 years leading up to my junior season when I was named captain and president, no students had ever actually been over to Bangladesh — largely because of war that was happening at the time and distance and travel and risk, frankly. But in 2008, I had the honor of leading the first group over. I was a film student at the time. I partnered with one of my professors, hired a film crew, and we began the production of a new documentary to capture the story of this boxing team fighting in the ring but also fighting for something bigger.
I will never forget the first school in a tribal village we visited. It was an all girls school and they came out with their beautiful cultural songs and their beautiful cultural dances and presented us with flowers and I am crying like a baby. And then our Bengali priest introduces us, saying, “These are the Notre Dame boxers and we owe them a great deal of gratitude for all the support they’ve given us over the years. They have this beautiful motto: Strong bodies fight,” he said gesturing to us on the stage. “That weak bodies may be nourished,” he finished, gesturing to the girls and finishing a bit uncomfortably as the words came off his lips.
The tension in the room was palpable. The girls were offended and one verbally said, “Nā.”
All of a sudden that motto that we had taken so much pride in caused us to sink in our seats. This motto was all over our billboards and t-shirts and programs and video campaigns and every press interview ever given by a Notre Dame boxer.
What I realized but didn’t have the words for at the time is that we had turned the poor into the objects of our charity. We had become attached to a cause instead of coming into a relationship with persons. As soon as you say that motto out loud looking at a human being, you get it.
I began to see that this is so prevalent in our consumerist cause-oriented culture. Because not only had a bunch of eighteen to twenty-year-olds made a mistake like this, but no one in our culture had ever tapped us on the shoulder and corrected it in all those years.
That led me to discovering other people who were grappling with this. And that led me to discover this team.
What surprised you the most during the process of making this film? Did you ever have to change gears/directions/narratives during the middle of creating it due to a paradigm shift?
We learned a lot in the process of making this film. We had no idea that 80% of children in “orphanages” in Haiti have at least one living parent. We had no idea there was this amazing solar panel company ENERSA in Haiti. We pivoted and shifted a lot as we continued to follow the rabbit hole further and further. Early on we were considering focusing solely on agriculture and coffee - there’s a deleted scene on coffee and fair trade available on iTunes - but we discovered so many other interesting stories we decided to zoom out more.
People frequently took the time in the documentary to acknowledge people's good intentions. Why do you think “doing good” often excuses those participating from criticism? Do you find this social phenomenon of getting a "free pass" so long as your intentions are pure particularly destructive?
It’s a deep question of cultural norms so we’ll only be able to scratch the surface here. Part of it is our instant-gratification, fast-food, everything with a click-of-the-button culture. We expect everything to be easy so we resist doing our own due diligence. By giving a free pass to others we’re essentially giving a free pass to ourselves. We let ourselves off the hook.
We’ve cheapened what the word charity means, making it synonymous with writing a check to a cause rather than coming into relationship with persons. We place value on inputs rather than outputs, on how many things were given rather than on the long term outcomes. We’ll sign a big check for Africa or fly to Haiti for a weeklong trip, but we don’t want the ongoing relational commitment of working in our own communities mentoring a drug addict or convict trying to get clean and turn his or her life around. One thing we often emphasize in our discussions following screenings of Poverty, Inc. is that the film’s intent is not to disparage charity but to redeem it, to call out its true meaning.
How do you see the white savior complex playing out in the AID sector during the filming of Poverty Inc.?
Paternalistic habits are hard to shake. No one is out there championing paternalism and objectifying imagery, but in our sentimentalism we keep falling back into it. When we were shooting in Haiti, we were in a tent city and people don’t like seeing white people with cameras in tent cities, because they feel objectified. I had a woman throw a rock in my direction. I had another woman get in my face and yell at me. When this would happen, we would take time and explain what we were doing, explaining, “No, we want to flip the narrative, we want to tell a different story of Haiti.” People would appreciate that.
And yet, in this tent city, my co-producer Anielka took this picture of me with this adorable little kid in tattered clothing. Super cute picture. So what do I do when I get home? Facebook. Posted it, then hit the refresh button a shameful number of times watching “likes” skyrocket. At the time I was reading The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good by Peter Greer. The next day I looked at it and felt uncomfortable. I don’t even know that kid’s name. I am just cashing in on the social capital I get from being an independent filmmaker in Haiti. So I took it down. Later, Anielka admitted to me that she too had been uncomfortable with the way I had used the picture, but she didn’t want to hurt my feelings by saying anything.
That is what we have to do. We have to grind. We have to challenge each other. We have to be uncomfortable. It’s not about pointing fingers, because we’ve all been on the wrong side of that fence. It’s about a commitment to growth.
What kind of negative feedback/backlash have you received?
Mostly the reaction has been extremely positive, especially from the African diaspora. After the premiere of Poverty, Inc. at the Austin Film Festival, a woman from Cameroon came up to us in tears and said, “Today, I am so proud to be an African woman.” She wrote us a two-page reflection on the film about how she realized that she had actually come to view her own people as a Westerner. African student groups at Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and a host of universities have really been the most powerful voices behind the film.
Then on the flipside, we have the occasional, usually white development expert who thinks the film is either old news that everyone has known for decades, or one sided in that it doesn’t speak to all the good things that have been done. One such woman I recently shared a panel with blasted the film as “Tired and whiney and wrong.” The word “whiney” struck me given the incredible response the film has received from the African community. This is exactly the disconnect the film is trying to bridge. But for people who have spent their entire lives in the industry, it’s a tough pill to swallow.
The other criticism I’ve seen every once in awhile is that the film is just “neoliberal propaganda.” I don’t really know what it means actually. I think “propaganda” is code for “anything I don’t agree with” and “neoliberalism” is one of these boogieman catchall phrases that rejects nuance in favor of neat little boxes to stuff people in. God forbid if a person in Ghana talk about the fact that without secure property rights you have to buy a piece of land four or five times, or if a rice farmer in Haiti explains that he’d like to sell his product to people in U.S. rather than live as a poor subsistence grower. These are basic institutions and opportunities we take for granted in the U.S. and Europe.
I’m not sure there is another film that has spanned as wide on the political spectrum, from Michael Moore endorsing Poverty, Inc. to the film winning the Grand Prize and Audience Choice Awards at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival. I think that’s because the film embraces nuance and complexity. Yes, of course entrepreneurship and markets are fundamental to economic growth, but that doesn’t mean business is the next silver bullet to ending all poverty - it isn’t. This is why we address political and cultural power dynamics, rule of law and property rights, inclusion for the disenfranchised, the anthropological importance of the family as the basic building block of society, etc. And we’ve been grateful that by far most of the feedback we’ve received appreciates our embrace of these complexities.
What do you hope Poverty, Inc. accomplishes? And the million dollar question...What are tangible ways people can put their bleeding hearts to constructive, meaningful, and lasting use?
Ah yes the million dollar question: what can the average person do?
It’s a question we get at every screening. Our answer: who are you? What are your strengths? What are you passionate about? What is your sphere of influence?
There are no “average” persons, only unique individuals with distinctive talents and vocations. The very way we ask this question reveals our preference for the instant gratification of a convenient singularity that doesn’t exist. Who you are will dictate what you do next.
A lawyer might provide counsel for Cambodians illegally evicted from their land by their own communist government in bed with a multinational. A telecommunications executive might invest patient capital to expand service to Afghan farmers in need of vital pricing and weather information. A policymaker might push for procurement reform to stem the harmful flood of subsidized agriculture to the developing world. A child sponsorship organization committed to learning as action might do as Compassion International did by screening Poverty, Inc. for its staff, then asking, “Are we doing enough to give power to the parents?”
One thing to remember: learning is action and thoughtful inquiry is a prerequisite for effective compassion. We've learned a great deal making this documentary and we invite you to join us in our own educational process. You can visit our Filmmaker Q&A tab on www.povertyinc.org to tap into the conversations we've been having around the world.
Beware silver bullet syndrome. Integral human development is highly contextual. What works in one place and time may not work in another.
To borrow wording from author Eric Reis in The Lean Startup, the moral of the story here is “not a collection of individual tactics. It is a principled approach to new product development. The only way to make sense of its recommendations is to understand the underlying principles that make them work.”
A similarly helpful concept can be found in Michael Pollan’s, In Defense of Food.
"I am not interested dictating anyone's menu,” writes Pollan, “but rather developing what I think of as eating algorithms — mental programs that, if you run them when you are shopping for foods or deciding on a meal, will produce a great many different dinners, all of them ‘healthy' in the broadest sense of that word.”
The purpose of Poverty, Inc. is to help people develop their own algorithms for promoting human flourishing, whatever field or vocation. The film can help you get started, but it’s important to remember that you own this process, and it is a lifelong project. Like a garden or any organic system, it requires ongoing commitment and care.