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‘Poverty, Inc.’ filmmaker discusses impact of foreign aid industry

| Friday, February 10, 2017

Filmmaker Michael Matheson Miller hosted a discussion with Sara Sievers, Keough School of Global Affairs associate dean for policy and practice, following a showing of his critically acclaimed 2014 documentary “Poverty, Inc.” on Thursday night.

In the film, Miller argues that the current system of development, which originated during the reconstruction of Europe following World War II, is broken. The film cites examples to show how donor governments have profited off of foreign aid and hindered the prosperity of underdeveloped nations.

“We take this neocolonialist approach, we take money from them and then we congratulate ourselves,” Miller said. “We knew we were giving money to bad guys and we knew they were abusing it and then we were making people pay them back.”

Miller said aid programs cannot help people prosper because the lack of rights is the more pressing problem.

“They are not poor primarily because they lack stuff, they are poor because they are excluded by the institutions of justice,” Miller said. “The legal system is simply unfair to poor people. Aid creates incentives for the government to not build institutions of justice and access to private property. The main point is that foreign aid politicizes development.”

Westerners tend to view those living in areas of extreme poverty as objects rather than subjects, Miller said.

“Poor people in poor countries are not somehow radically different from us — we’d be poor too if we didn’t have access to land and institutional justice,” Miller said. “I think what we need to do is realize that we are dealing with human beings who have hopes and dreams and fears.”

Sievers said she has seen and participated in beneficial aspects of foreign aid, specifically in Nigeria.

“These countries get to decide what happened with that money,” Sievers said. “All the power was largely in the hands of the African governments themselves. The power really does all reside with them.”

Sievers said that despite what is shown in “Poverty, Inc.,” there has been major development in the past decade in positively changing the power balance of foreign aid and helping these third-world nations.

“It does mean a profoundly different relationship between who you think is the donor and who you think is the recipient,” she said.

However, Sievers and Miller said they weren’t in disagreement on every aspect of foreign aid. They agreed that regardless of the outcome, organizations and personal efforts to help these nations come from good intentions.

“This film is not about intentions — when aid it is well intended, there are still negative externalities,” Miller said.

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