“The End of Poverty” is about the roots of global poverty. Hunger and deprivation are not portrayed as problems that can be solved with technology, foreign aid, or development planning. Instead, this film reveals the ways poverty arises from neocolonial policies that lock poor countries into a state of dependency. Foreign aid and economic development have been frauds, costing millions of people their lives. By tracing the global history that has led up to the current situation, “The End of Poverty” dispels a number of myths. It then offers a new framework with which we might begin to address the true causes of poverty.
The film chronicles the development of modern poverty, starting around 1500, with the colonization of the New World and later of Africa and Asia. Through interviews and images, we learn that the Spanish and Portuguese changed the face of Latin America in their efforts to extract precious metals, followed by the development of plantation agriculture.
Common themes linking the fate of Africa and Latin America are the history of slavery and the wholesale transfer of land rights from indigenous groups to the European colonizers. The damage caused by slavery is still evident on both continents. An interview with sugar cane harvesters in Brazil reveals that their lives are no better than slaves, worse in some ways. On both continents, the displacement of people from the land to make way for the production of tea, coffee, sugar, and other products grown on large plantations has led to both to rural poverty and to large-scale urban squatter settlements or slums.
In addition to depriving people of their land and livelihoods, colonial regimes also destroyed the cultures they came in contact with. As a Maasai leader says, “Two kinds of British came to Kenya—the ones with guns to kill and steal the land, and the ones with a Bible to deceive.” The result was that colonization left hundreds of millions of people without cultural traditions to enable them to cope with changing economic and social conditions. This form of poverty is as devastating as the purely material manifestations of it.
This historical legacy would be bad enough if the colonizers in Europe, the U.S., and Japan had truly reversed course in the 20th century and helped to restore what colonialism had annihilated. But that was not the case. Latin America gained political independence in the 19th century, while much of Asia and Africa achieved that status only after WWII. But few nations have gained enough economic independence to chart their own course. Instead, the former colonizers left the new nations saddled with debts incurred by the colonial governments and then encouraged them to go deeper into debt, especially after 1980. Policies that prevented industrialization of the nations of the global south have continued in force, long after formal colonial ties have disappeared. In general, former colonies have remained economically dependent on a small number of exports of foods or raw materials, facing volatile prices in world markets.
In recent decades, the international financial institutions (IFIs–such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) have acted as the economic police for the banks and corporations based in the global north. They have used their leverage over the weakened economies of developing nations to impose draconian conditions on them. Millions of people have been thrown into poverty or died because the IFIs have insisted that governments cut taxes, privatize services (health and schooling), and destabilize their economies by allowing short-term capital flows. On top of that, corporations have siphoned off the economic surplus generated in developing countries by engaging in “transfer pricing,” an accounting method that allows them to report little income in the source country (from which they buy tea or bauxite or bananas) or in the purchasing country (U.S. or Europe) by reporting all of their profits in tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands. Through all of these methods and more, the rich nations continue to exploit and sabotage the economies of the former colonies.
One element of Georgist thought that is not reflected in the film is the importance of urban land as a “natural resource.” A single acre of urban land may be worth as much as a large farm, and yet there is a tendency for economists to ignore land within cities when thinking about land reform. Since urban land cannot be redistributed in the same way rural land has been, an innovative method of urban land reform is necessary. Georgists offer a solution: redistribute the value of land to everyone rather than redistributing the actual land to a few people. That is both more equitable and more efficient than traditional methods of land reform. Since half the world’s population now lives in cities, it is also a means of dealing with current realities, which past methods of land reform cannot solve. The movie www.theendofpoverty.com