Why Poverty Persists in a World of Wealth

By Becky Garrison 12-03-2009

The forthcoming documentary The End of Poverty? opens with the question "Why does poverty persist in a world of growing wealth?" Through a series of interviews with newsworthy leaders like John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Bolivia's Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, and Nobel Prize winners in economics, filmmaker Philippe Diaz traces the historical roots of this current worldwide poverty crisis back to exploitative practices that began during colonial times. In a touch of irony, most of the economists Diaz interviewed for this film in 2006 predicted that the current financial crisis was inevitable because the current policies such as unfair debt, trade, and tax policies penalized those countries even further. The solution offered by these experts to remedy this worldwide problem is justice, not charity.

Given the role charitable organizations play in the Global South, I wondered why international charities and figures such as Jeffrey Sachs, author of The End of Poverty, were not included in the piece. In the director's statement, Diaz noted that his original intent was to document both sides of the poverty debate. As he stated:

We even filmed several experts who were proponents of the "progress and technology will solve everything" mindset which supports the notion that mosquito nets and bags of fertilizer could solve the poverty. This is the theory that Bono's economic sidekick, Jeffrey Sachs, has touted all around the world. But the first cut of the film was more than three hours long, so many of these interviews were left on the hard drive of the editing system.

However, the real stars of the film were not the experts but those living in the Africa and Latin America on a dollar a day or less. A seemingly dry statistic such as that fact that currently 20% of the planet's population uses 80% of its resources and consumes 30% more than the planet can regenerate comes to life when one confronts stories from those directly impacted by this crisis. For example, a worker from Bolivia could barely take care of his family's basic needs on his $4.50 a day income when the World Bank pressured the government to privatize the water in the 1990s. The additional $7.50 he now had to pay for water meant that he could not even provide his family with this essential necessity. See Frontline/World for a timeline of this story.

Anyone who doubts that our individual actions have a ripple effect would benefit from hearing the range of stories from those who are directly impacted by decisions made by governments and multinational corporations. Still, as the closing credits rolled, I found myself reflecting on the myriad grassroots endeavors that crossed my desk. Just how effective were tools such as education and micro-loans in helping to eradicate poverty?

As if on cue, the UPS delivery person rang my door bell with a review copy of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. In this book, Nicholas D. Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn tell the stories of women being abused around the world as a result of sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender-based violence, including honor killings, and mass rape and maternal mortality. Even though some of these stories were even harder to read than the visual images I saw in The End of Poverty?, I found inspiration in these reports of how even one individual brought healing to a situation that upon first glance seemed hopeless.

In particular, I was struck by the story of Mukhtaran Mai, a woman I first met when I caught a screening of the documentary Shame during the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. After she was brutally gang raped, she used the reparations money granted to her by the Pakistani government to set up the first school for girls in her hometown of Meerwala, hoping to empower the next generation of women. If this admittedly illiterate woman can find her voice and in her quest for justice transform her community, what prevents us from doing likewise?

Missiologist and blogger Andrew Jones (Tall Skinny Kiwi) predicts the role of the church in social justice endeavors. "Emerging church energies will be re-directed from creative worship arts to creative social enterprises which will enable long term sustainability. In both realms, women will come to the front as some of the most successful missional entrepreneurs." If women-led social enterprise organizations like Nomi Network and Sweet Notions are indicative of the changes predicated by Jones, then as I wait in darkness for Christ to come into the world, I definitely see a lighted Advent candle that beckons me to move forward in faith.

portrait-becky-garrisonBecky Garrison's next book Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ will be published by Zondervan in August 2010.

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