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How Most of the World Lives: The End of Poverty?

One result of the latest downfall of the American financial system is that there’s been more critical discussion and news coverage of unemployment, lack of economic development, homelessness, and hunger in the U.S. Films like American Casino, The Yes Men Fix the World, and Capitalism: A Love Story highlight the inherent and systemic problems of American capitalism and the havoc wrought by Wall Street. Because the U.S. economic fracturing had global repercussions in terms of the now largely integrated financial markets, it’s also a good time to find an audience for a film that goes back to look at the very origins of the “free trade”-oriented capitalist system that has dominated much of the world for the last 500 years.

This is the topic of The End of Poverty? (opening at Village East Cinemas on November 13), a documentary with ambitious breadth that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and is narrated with intensity by Martin Sheen. The thesis of the film is clear: the unequal relationship between countries in the North and countries in the South has not changed much over centuries, and it is the underlying economic system in this relationship—one that favors wealth and punishes the poor—that is to blame.

It seems safe to assume that the majority of people living in the poorer countries of the world know that the global system we now have does not work for them. They can usually tell this by subsistence wages for grueling work or by the constant grumbling in their stomachs. In late October, a large meeting of food scientists and development experts met in Rome, and announced that the ranks of hungry people across the globe rose to 1.02 billion, or nearly one in seven people, despite a 12-year effort to cut that number. As is often cited, and even if not known must rest in the subconscious of the majority of Americans, the U.S. consumes a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources, and creates an uneven amount of emissions and waste while holding a significant amount of the world’s wealth.

The End of Poverty? pulls back with a wide historical lens, analyzing the basis of our modern world system. Those versed in radical history—or any serious history—will see where it’s going: 1492 and colonialism (read: European looting and enslaving) started a history that essentially put the New World (and later Africa and parts of Asia) in the grips of an unequal relationship that has perpetuated with only superficial changes in this otherwise perpetual master-slave economic relationship.

The film largely concentrates on personal stories from Brazil, Kenya, and Bolivia, strung through with sit-down interviews from a gamut of French, American, and Latin American historians, economists, and government officials. The voices of the poor are certainly the most powerful, as the producers have found many who can take it past the clichés. One Brazilian cane cutter who earns barely $30 a month observes that there’s “no way to make a living like this…no wonder the world is infested with thieves,” while in a scene at the Potosi mine in Bolivia, a worker quotes the famous leftist Latin American historian Eduardo Galeano (whose book Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez gave Obama during a visit). Others note that the countries with the largest gaps between rich and poor—not the wholly destitute countries—are those rife with violence.

While some of the talking heads might come off as doctrinaire Marxists (e.g. “Capitalism cannot operate without free labor, expanding, and always looking for these circumstances” one says) that doesn’t mean such statements are not more true than false. It’s argued that the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which set up countries for indebtedness under the guise of free trade ideology, is really nothing more than a perpetuation of the colonial relationship, a relationship that essentially make the poor poorer.

There are many a learned academic, economist, journalist that will take issue—or simply dismiss—with what at times can seem like a screed that doesn’t account for the “successes” and the development in the “developing countries.” But that misses the point: it takes a film with a specific point of view to encompass most of modern—and some of ancient—history while succeeding in laying out a clear thesis with a global lens. In many ways that is the power of a 90-minute film, as opposed to a library of competing esoteric experts that can leave the brain numb. Whatever the complexities with simplifying, and there are many, the long view of the worldwide system does offer a lucidity in its scope. For example, just as it was in colonial times, the poorer countries are still largely mined for raw materials at cheap prices while the more wealthy countries refine that material and sell it back to the poor countries, often undermining local producers.

The End of Poverty? thus serves as a compelling primer on the historical origins of global inequality that we still see today and, while not ambitious enough to propose systemic change, it does end with some sobering points. The first is that if the whole world lived like the U.S., we would probably need six planets to sustain that level of consumption and waste, whereas if the whole world lived like the citizens of Burkina Faso, we would need only a fraction of that. The second is that the poverty of the world affects us all and that the stability of the wealthy countries is precarious, a point recently made quite apparent. Moreover, perhaps this last financial downfall, the one that is oft-cited as the worst since the Great Depression, will prompt the larger global consciousness to, as one commentator in the film says, “exit the religion of growth.” That would take a sea-change in the philosophy and political will of the wealthiest countries. Yet, as is abundantly clear in The End of Poverty?, such a departure would surely be embraced by much of the world.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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