The Common Good
April 2009

Poverty is No Accident

by Kaitlin Barker | April 2009

The End of Poverty? written and directed by Philippe Diaz. Cinema Libre Studio.

Warning: Don’t watch The End of Poverty? (or read about it) if you want to preserve your contentment with your lifestyle and the web of structures—historic and current—that make it possible. If the notion of the United States as empire—and poverty as the direct result of empire—is unpalatable, turn the page quickly. Even if ending poverty sounds like a good idea, don’t proceed unless dismantling our current global structures also sounds good—because that’s what it will take to end poverty, according to a new documentary released by Cinema Libre Studio.

The question mark in the film’s title suggests that poverty may very well not end if we don’t seriously confront the structural violence that divides the global community along wealth lines. Filmmaker Philippe Diaz’s tour of the voracious expansion of globalization and capitalism begins in 1492 and traverses continents and centuries, weaving a historical tapestry of the creation of poverty. “Our economic system is, and always has been, financed by the poor,” states narrator (and actor) Martin Sheen, as the film builds its indictment of colonizers, conquistadors, and the modern-day market empire.

Interviews with authors, economists, activists, politicians, and historians from all corners of the world disclose what history books tend to gloss over: Land and natural resources were stolen from indigenous people of the Southern Hemisphere and the wealth was transferred to the North, financing industrial revolutions and hooking those countries on an addiction that has lasted from colonialism to today. Land and resources still have not been returned to the people, and now, instead of empires shipping away silver and gold in full view, transnational corporations have privatized more common natural resources, such as sugar cane and water, and topped it off with a mountain of debt repayment and unjust trade and taxes.

REAL LIVES TELL the real story. In São Paulo state, Brazil, we meet Edinaldo, a sugar cane worker for a privatized landowner who makes the equivalent of $6.50 a day, but only if he collects his entire 40-bundle quota. If he feeds himself, there’s almost nothing left to send home to his family. Here’s Edinaldo’s frank summary of the situation: “Whoever gets land gets a home. Because these days, the poor who don’t have a place to live are the poor that beg. Got it?”

Joao Pedro Stedile, a leader of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, elaborates: “The natural resources from Brazil—and in fact from every country—should be used to solve the problems of nutrition of their own country, given that in Brazil we have 50 million people [lacking basic nutrition] every day.”

A Maasai community in Kisumu, Kenya, despairs over rotted maize crops and flooded homes, and one woman laments the proliferation of malaria, typhoid, and diarrhea in recent months. Why? She points down the road to an American industrial complex, run by Dominion Company of Oklahoma. In the name of development, their river was dammed and now vegetables from fields where the Masai’s crops once grew are shipped back to the U.S. Nothing for the locals but the aftermath of aerial spraying: diseased and dead children.

“It is actually the South that is financing the North, to the tune of about $200 billion a year,” says Susan George, author of Another World is Possible, If ... and a staunch critic of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Sub-Sa­haran Africa, for example, is currently paying a staggering $25,000 a minute to foreign Nor­thern creditors, according to her calculations.

Poverty is a disgrace to humanity, but it’s also no accident. It exists “because of the system we’ve created,” says activist John Perkins, a former economic “hit man” who knows a thing or two about the under-workings of economic foreign policy. “We can say, without a doubt, that this system is an absolute failure .… Less than 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States. We are consuming over 25 percent of the world’s resources and creating roughly 35 percent of its pollution. That’s a failure.”

The End of Poverty? irritates the conscience. If there is an answer to the film’s question, it seems to be a communal one. Rather than valuing growth, French economist Serge Latouche suggests we begin “exiting the religion of growth, of economy, and rethinking a social organization.”

“Either we all emancipate or no one will,” Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera says at the film’s closing. “The stability of each person in your country or mine can only guarantee their continued well-being if the other’s well-being is guaranteed also.”

Kaitlin Barker is editorial resources assistant for Sojourners. For more, visit

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