July 8, 2009

To Hell with Poverty: Advancing the Redistribution of Wealth

By Kathleen Fairweather and Daryl Fairweather

Philippe Diaz's The End of Poverty? establishes as its jumping-off point the startling fact, courtesy of the UN Millennium Project, that more than 2.7 billion people around the world survive on less than $2 per day. Diaz provides a historic context for global poverty, dating back to 1492 with the "discovery" of the New World, which triggered centuries of plunder and confiscation of land and riches from the indigenous peoples of Central America, South America, Asia and Africa.

Fast-forward to the present, where exploitation has led to our current economic system being financed by the poor through theft of land and natural resources, unfair debt repayment and unjust taxes on labor and consumption. This, coupled with the policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, has encouraged the status quo of continued subsistence, economic dependence and widespread poverty throughout the Southern continents.

Diaz delves into this complex crisis through conversations with many prominent economists, including Nobel Laureates Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, as well as with academics, activists and NGO executives from around the world. Kathleen Fairweather and Daryl Rose Fairweather caught up with Diaz for an in-depth look at this important and timely film.

 

In the film, you give a historical view of how colonialism still affects countries today. What similarities and differences did you notice in the inequality problems of Latin America and Africa?

Philippe Diaz: Overall the situation is similar for African and South American countries. The countries rich in resources are the subject of permanent "resource wars," as Professor Okoth Ogendo calls them in the film. On the other hand, the countries poor in resources are left out of the development process altogether. There are, of course, many differences per country, but the only notable one between these two continents is the level of corruption. The way the North has been able to appropriate resources has been more through geopolitical tools and violent means in South America, and more with corruption in Africa.

 

Your interviewees had some harsh critiques of the IMF and the World Bank, noting  that they served the interests of the northern countries and not those of the developing world. Did you contact any IMF or World Bank officials?

We did contact many experts "on the other side." The answers were so appalling that we decided not to include them. We got the typical "Let's bring mosquito nets and fertilizers, and that will end poverty."

 

In recent months, central banks of economically strong nations have bailed out their financial institutions, and the IMF has given loans to Ukraine, Hungary and Iceland. Why is it fine to give billions of dollars to financial industries to prevent them from collapsing, when the economies of so many nations have been in distress for centuries?

We have to realize that our system always was, and still is, financed by the poor. These gigantic bailouts are another proof of such. While shareholders of these large companies have pocketed huge sums of money in the past--selling products to the poor--now that the fraud perpetrated by these companies has been exposed, it's not the shareholders who will save their own industries, it's the poor again.

 

An economist in the film suggested that the people of the developing world should take back their resources the way the Bolivians did with their water. How feasible is it for the impoverished to empower themselves?

It is extremely difficult. Now, many grassroots organizations have been fighting for decades, and sometimes very successfully, against these problems--the Movimento Sem Terra in Brazil, for example. They have been fighting to give back to local farmers land that is in the hands of speculators. During the time we were with the Movimento, two of their local leaders were shot dead by land owners. But no matter what, these people will continue to fight and force the government to recognize and change these situations. Changes will not come from the top; they'll come from the bottom. What the movie shows is that the poverty issue is as dramatic as global warming. When you have 20 percent of the world population consuming 80 percent of the planet's resources, unless we change our system drastically, as the world population increases, more people will plunge below the poverty line.

 

Those in favor of free trade argue that it raises the welfare of all involved. Is there a model of trade that would actually benefit the poor?

As we understand from the experts in the film, there is no such thing as free trade. And that was the only way for European countries without resources to build such empires. If trade were truly free, the economies of the North would collapse immediately. Look at what happens when the oil producers get together and fight decades of abuse:  It's called OPEC, and oil-producing countries are now some of the richest in the world.

 

Another economist in the film discusses the need for a shift from growth to an "a-growth" society, free of the need of growth. Do you see the possibility of realistically reducing growth in favor of equality?

Again, we have no other solution, unless we find several other planets full of resources. But the world population isn't the reason for this situation. There is a study that shows that if all arable land were equitably shared, each individual would have the equivalent of one football field and a half to grow his own food. We have known for many years that we have more than enough resources to take care of everybody, if such resources were not concentrated in very few hands.

 

What can viewers of this film do about this issue? Have you seen any galvanizing movements that will truly effect the needed change?

Many organizations around the world are fighting daily to redistribute such wealth, and sometimes very successfully. They cannot do it alone, and we all have to put pressure on our governments to support such actions. I think that the consequences of the financial crisis will force people to change. Look at An Inconvenient Truth; Ten years ago, nobody was talking about global warming. Now it's on every TV channel.

 

The End of Poverty? will be released in US theaters in September 2009, distributed by Cinema Libre Studio. Visit www.TheEndofPoverty.com.

Filmmaker and former Documentary editor Kathleen Fairweather is based in Austin, Texas. She can be reached at www.kathleenfairweather.com. Her daughter, Daryl Fairweather, is a documentary filmmaker and economics major at MIT. Her documentary Foreclosed can be seen at www.darylfairweather.com.

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