Reflecting on “The End of Poverty?”

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
– Nelson Mandela

‘The End of Poverty?’ (with the question mark) is a November 2008-release documentary film that traces the roots of poverty in modern human societies. The synopsis of the film, in its official website, has this to say:
“Global poverty did not just happen. It began with military conquest, slavery and colonization that resulted in the seizure of land, minerals and forced labor. Today, the problem persists because of unfair debt, trade and tax policies — in other words, wealthy countries taking advantage of poor, developing countries.
Renowned actor and activist, Martin Sheen, narrates The End of Poverty?, a feature-length documentary directed by award-winning director, Philippe Diaz, which explains how today’s financial crisis is a direct consequence of these unchallenged policies that have lasted centuries. Consider that 20% of the planet’s population uses 80% of its resources and consumes 30% more than the planet can regenerate. At this rate, to maintain our lifestyle means more and more people will sink below the poverty line… Filmed in the slums of Africa and the barrios of Latin America, The End of Poverty? features expert insights from: Nobel prize winners in Economics, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz; acclaimed authors Susan George, Eric Toussaint, John Perkins, Chalmers Johnson; university professors William Easterly and Michael Watts; government ministers such as Bolivia’s Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera and the leaders of social movements in Brazil, Venezuela, Kenya and Tanzania . It is produced by Cinema Libre Studio in collaboration with the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.”

Below a few reflections I wrote after watching the film:
I think that what distinguishes this film from similar ones is its effort in appreciating the historical origins of post-colonial poverty. The question “how can there be so much wealth in the world and yet so much poverty?” doesn’t seem to strike many people, and there are reasons for that. Poverty existed throughout human history, but what is significant about it in the post-colonial era can be summarized in two points:
1. The sheer contrast between the great wealth* of some countries and the severe poverty of others, highly correlated with geographic regions of the world and highly related to their roles in colonization history (colonizer or colonized). This contrast is irrelevant today to the wealth of natural resources countries may have. Actually, most countries of the world considered rich in natural resources are among the poor countries. This contrast is increasing with time, not decreasing.
2. The scale and sophistication of production, be it production of food and basic-demand commodities or that of non-basic-demand commodities, which totally contributes to a level of material wealth never before achieved in human history, along with a level of an integrated global economy never witnessed in that history. Yet, still extreme poverty persists with the contrast mentioned in point 1 (and within the social classes of the rich countries themselves).

This situation exists in the same age which claims about human rights – an extremely radical idea, unprecedented in history, which demands the equal rights of all humans by the sole virtue of being human – receive massive support and assumed by many authorities to be unquestionably approved. This approval is only highly theoretical hitherto in most of the world (and many times highly vulnerable in places where popularly perceived to be flourishing, like what happened by the Canadian armed forces in the recent G20 protests). The obvious connect between civil and political rights, on one hand, and economic rights, on the other hand, is surprisingly not respected at the basic level. The ancient Arabic proverb says, “He who doesn’t own his food doesn’t own his decision.” i.e., political rights cannot be genuinely practiced under a hindrance of economic rights.

Beyond physical colonization:
There is a profound cultural aspect to Neo-colonialism. European colonization, different from its predecessors in history, aimed to heavily extract the natural and human resources of colonized lands without actually treating the colonized lands as legitimate parts of the empire. The consequence of this attitude is that the colonized nations’ own systems of governance and technologies are halted, but no alternatives are provided access to. The new systems are kept to the monopolized knowledge of the colonizer for ages, with only training for subordinates from the colonized nations–subordinates who don’t have the capacity to plan objectives, utilize management tools and carry their own executive decisions, but only the capacity to assist their masters in implementing their schemes. The colonizing nation takes full control of the administration and production design, and the colonized are kept away from accessing both the new systems and their own traditional systems. After a few generations, the colonized become not only economically dependent on the colonizer, but also psychologically dependent, with no adequate experience of self-reliance which is required for self-determination. Moreover, the colonizer has enforced a global system of European-image states and made the existence of any alternative geopolitical arrangements virtually impossible.

When the so-called independence of nations came about, it was no surprise that these ‘new nations’ were faced with the bitter truth that they cannot steer now outside the modus operandi already predetermined for them by the colonizer, be it economic or political. They too were effectively disconnected from their pre-colonial socioeconomic institutions, their experience of self-governance was superficial and, more critically, their psychological aspirations remained colonized. This problem is further amplified by the environmental fact that the European ‘modernization process’ simply isn’t replicable. We simply don’t have enough resources on Earth to replicate the European lifestyle in the post-colonized regions of the world.
All these, in addition to debt, make the process of de-colonization much more intricate and much deeper than any previous historical experience. This is why a radical paradigm shift is highly needed to take us on the road to a really habitable and just world for all humanity.

Recommended Books:
1. Walter Rodney (1972). How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.2. Frances Moore Lappè, Joseph Collins & Peter Rosset (1998). World Hunger: 12 Myths. (By The Institute for Food and Development Policy, ‘Food First’).3. Karl Polanyi (1944). The Great Transformation.
(Also posted on the ‘Science for Peace’ blog. July 23, 2010)
*Wealth: defined as the value of physical and financial assets minus debts.

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