Review of the Film and Accompanying Book:
The End of Poverty ... Think Again!

Wyn Achenbaum



[Reprinted from GroundSwell, July-August 2008]


Those of us at the CGO conference saw first-hand the Schalkenbach Foundation's documentary film on  poverty.  Three years ago, Matt Stillman, then an RSF board member, connected RSF with a film maker experienced in creating documentaries and with the means to distribute them as well.  Philippe Diaz, of Cinema Libre Studio, contracted with RSF to undertake a full-length film framing issues as we Georgists see them.  It is now finished and has been previewed in Cannes, Washington, DC, and Kansas City.  Invitations to show at film festivals have been overwhelming, and the scheduled openings in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago will come this fall and winter.  If all goes well, the film will be widely available early in 2009.  At some point, it will be available on DVD and, we hope, on cable TV, reaching different audiences.

The RSF board is proud of its effort to reach broad audiences with a film which offers them a chance to think differently and more deeply about poverty and its causes.  The board and the film director faced  decisions in the course of its development not only about content but perspective.  The focus is not on American poverty, but on the deep poverty seen in other parts of the world, and particularly in the global South;  most of the scenes are from Africa and South America: Bolivia, Brazil, Kenya, Tanzania and Venezuela.

The film offers the observations of notable economists and writers who have looked at poverty and economic patterns from a world perspective.  Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, Susan George and John Perkins are among the best-known figures.  The narration is by Martin Sheen (of West Wing fame).  But interviews with farm workers and miners, widows and urban worshippers are equally powerful.  The narrative unfolds a different and more complex image of the causes of global poverty, the relationship between wealthy nations and poor ones.

The film responds to the certitude of the widely disseminated book by economist Jeffrey Sachs,  professor of Sustainable Development and Health Policy & Management at Columbia University who heads the Earth Institute. His 2005 book The End of Poverty, sets forth nine steps -- programs -- which he confidently says will eliminate poverty by 2025. Our response -- "The End of Poverty?" -- questions, gently, the soundness and sufficiency of those points. We realize that the problems are structural, and no palliatives or pat formulae are going to reduce or eliminate poverty without an understanding of the basic -- even radical -- reform to which George pointed in Progress & Poverty. To solve a structural problem, we must undertake structural reforms.

The film makes clear that poverty is closely linked to, and even a consequence of, policies of major nations, international institutions and corporations.  Powerful interests are at stake.   Poverty, one can conclude, is not inherent in the nature of things. People are increasingly subject to forces, global in nature, that are beyond their ability to react to or control.

For decades, poverty reduction and development programs have failed to confront the different forms of power and the structural violence that hold more than two thirds of the world in dire straits. Today, as we confront the finiteness of such resources as clean air, oil and other energy sources, we must deal with the fact that a small share of the world's population claims prior rights to the lion's share of the world's natural resources and produces a large share of its pollution.

The film raises questions of a far-reaching nature, and is not intended to press a narrowly focused agenda.  We hope that it will lead thoughtful people to look further, and to that end, we intend to provide, online and as hardcopy, a range of supporting material.

Georgist themes are implicit in much of the narrative, and they will, as intended, serve to unsettle conventional thinking that presently dominates world discourse.

Current land titles in much of the world are due to force and fraud.

overty stems from concentrated ownership of land.

Land dispossession in former colonies stunted the development of an internal market of middle-class producers and consumers, which left those countries tied to an unbalanced system of world trade.

Denying people access to land makes them virtual slaves. Efforts to capture economic rent for public use (such as Iran and Guatemala in 1954) resulted in foreign intervention, including assassination of the leaders who proposed those changes.

The idea of common rights to land and water is a rallying point for political action in poor nations today. Privatization of public assets in recent decades has often increased privilege rather than improving markets.

Access to natural resources, including but not limited to fertile land, for all, on an equal basis with one's fellow human beings, is absolutely necessary for widely shared prosperity, and wealth concentration can be traced to the appropriation, privatization and theft of what should be common resources.

The segmented elements of the film allow for their selective treatment and examination in educational circles, civic organizations, and religious networks.   We see opportunities in all of these forums.  Fifteen "cards" separate the scenes, providing transitions and facts. (These have been revised a bit in the final edits.)

Georgists who are looking for a film diagnosing the world's ills in specific Georgist terms will be disappointed.  This is not that film. The "aha!" experience most of us have had with respect to the relationship between land, progress and poverty is more subtly presented. The film's reception to date makes us very optimistic that it will open the minds of thinking people around the world to the question that begins both Henry George's magnum opus, Progress & Poverty and this film:

In a world where we have so much wealth, with modern cities and plentiful resources...how can we still have so much poverty that people must live on less than $1 per day; where entire families live in one small room in squalid informal housing settlements, far away from skyscrapers and city centers, where they don't have the means to take care of themselves?

After Cannes, Reuters correspondent Charles Masters described the film as "An Inconvenient Truth for economics."

The film is scheduled to premier in New York theaters, and we encourage you to see it, and to bring and invite friends and colleagues to consider another view of why poverty exists. We'll be calling attention to the film among a wide range of people who have already shown an interest in reducing or ending poverty or in promoting social and economic justice.

You can track the film's progress following links from http://www.progressandpoverty.org, which also features Bob Drake's abridgment of P&P. Again, we hope you'll share the news of the film with people you know with interest in a more equitable allocation of natural resources and better opportunities for all.

As an American Georgist whose focus is mostly on how Georgist reforms could eliminate poverty in America today, this film is an eye opener for me. I've focused on the implications of George's ideas for 21st century America; I am bowled over by the implications for the very large portion of the world which today resembles the period in which George was writing. And I have high hopes that American viewers will begin to explore the path that Henry George blazed.

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