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The End of Poverty? (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 8, 2023

The End of Poverty?

The End of Poverty?


Featuring Alvaro Garcia Linera, Abel Mamani Marca, Maria Luisa Mendonça, Eric Mgendi, Mashengu Wa Mwachofi, Mshindi Godrey Ngao, Okoth-Ogendo, Oscar R. Olivera, Maria Marcela Olivera, John Perkins, Jim Shultz, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Joặo Pedro Stedile, Eric Toussaint, Michael Watts and Eduardo Yssa.

Narrated by Martin Sheen.

Written by Philippe Diaz.

Directed by Philippe Diaz.

Distributed by Cinema Libre Studio.  104 minutes.  Not Rated.

The question mark used in the title of this well meaning if somewhat simplistic documentary rather intimates that the film may just include an answer to this overwhelming world-wide problem.

This is a suggestion that only partially is realized.  Towards the end, writer/director Philippe Diaz does quickly show his ideas for a more robust world economy, but the section is rushed and not adequately argued.

So if this film is not about The End of Poverty?, what exactly is it about?

Much more of the film’s running time is actually concerned with the beginning and sustenance of poverty – at least in the filmmaker’s opinion.

This, as an idea, could be even more dramatic than the fantasy of ending poverty.  Diaz rotates in interviews between third world families who face unbelievable hardship on a daily basis with a series of international professors and economists who explain (in their own native tongues) how it all became possible.

The interviews with the poor are riveting and disturbing.  The guest intellectuals, honestly, tend to be rather dry.

I have to admit, even as someone who in general is very sympathetic to the plight that Diaz is trying to expose, that it is hard to totally buy into some of his conclusions and not to notice many of the holes in his theories.  I am no economist, and while I do believe that the ideas contained in The End of Poverty? do play a significant part in the problem, it seems that the film is pressing a single agenda and not quite looking at the big picture.

Essentially the theorem behind The End of Poverty? suggests that all of the starvation and powerlessness in the world has roots in the European settlers colonizing the New World and stealing the Native Americans’ land and fortunes.  Further, the film suggests, modern governments and corporations have learned the lessons of that act and used similar techniques to keep third world nations down.

I am the first to agree that the stealing of the natives’ land was a shameful part of history.  I also do feel that large corporations and some governments do make it hard for the poor to survive to keep them in line.

However, the basis of this argument seems rather faulty.  Is Diaz suggesting that there was no poverty before 1492?  (Recorded history would beg to differ.)  The Europeans were not the first group to unjustly colonize land and exploit the natives – the Huns, ancient Romans and Egyptians all come to mind.

Diaz seems to ignore these facts just because they don’t fit his theory.

That theory is further muddled when he comes to his true conclusion – that the northern hemisphere (Europe, parts of Asia and North America… particularly The United States) have used unfair trade practices, taxes, political strong-arming and outright theft to exploit and take over all the assets of the southern hemisphere (Latin America and Africa).

I am not naïve enough to believe for a second the Diaz is completely wrong on these charges.  The biggest lie that the rich often trot out is: “My fortune doesn’t cause your poverty.”  Of course it does.  And of course there are greedy corporations who exploit the poor, stealing the resources of the less fortunate just to pump up their own bottom lines.

In fact, the most effective sections of this film document this very kind of robber baron behavior.  It is shocking to watch a small village in Kenya being wiped out when an American corporation called The Dominion Group comes in to build a dam to get water to be shipped back to the US.  It is also wonderfully uplifting to see the poor people of Bolivia fighting back when the country privatized their water – eventually driving out the Bechtel Corporation, who were apparently trying to charge above the average person’s daily wage for a previously free and necessary resource.

Diaz has some very legitimate points, however he is trying to stack the deck too much to take them as seriously as they deserve.

For example – he completely ignores the fact that there is rampant poverty within the United States and the other countries he accuses of being fat and happy on the blood and sweat of the third world citizens.  He also ignores the fact that many of the countries he holds up as exploited do have a huge amount of wealth – from commodities like oil – however their corrupt regimes hoard the wealth for themselves.

By sticking to his broad north vs. south brushstrokes – rather than taking the more nuanced tack of perhaps trying to specifically expose some of the corporations and governments responsible for the economic hardships – Diaz dilutes his own argument.

And his solution, once he gets around to it, seems to be a vaguely shrouded plea for world-wide socialism.  While I personally am not one of those people that think that socialism is a dirty word in all cases, it seems a little naïve to expect the entire world would willingly fall in line – and Diaz really makes no suggestions for implementing his vision around the world.  Besides, the history of socialism has had more than its share of poverty and exploitation, as well – probably significantly more than capitalism.

Diaz actually makes a much more cogent secondary point.  “20% of the planet’s population uses 80% of the resources and consumes 30% more than the planet can regenerate.”  This kind of fact is disturbing and needs to be addressed, but it’s sort of rushed past in the film.

I truly believe that Diaz passionately believes in his central conceit, however if he wants to get more converts, he should have made a more well-rounded argument.  By ignoring the obvious and presenting facts that are commonly known as shocking, he has undermined his own authority on the subject.  Therefore, a documentary which was meant to be tearing down walls instead seems to be tilting at windmills.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: November 13, 2009.


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