When Aid Doesn’t Help

Michael Matheson Miller gave a lecture titled “Inclusion for the Poor: Poverty, Charity and Justice” in his lectureship series, “Capitalism and Society” Thursday, April 26.

Miller, who is also the producer and director of the documentary “Poverty Inc.,” also held a free showing of his film at the Fargo Theatre Monday, April 23.

Miller is a researcher at the Action Institute and gives lectures internationally on topics of political and social philosophy, economic development and ethics and entrepreneurship.

Miller said we need to really think about how we do humanitarianism and charity.

“We are called to have a heart for the poor, but I also think we need to have a mind for the poor,” Miller said.

Miller stated how it is not enough to just have feelings for the poor. You need to do something about it and do something that will actually help. He said poverty is often looked at as an urgent, emergency thing, but in reality, this is an ongoing chronic battle for the people that live in these conditions.

“The main reason people are poor is not because they lack stuff. It is because they’re excluded from the institutions of justice that would enable them to create prosperity in their own families and communities,” Miller said.

Miller said that though people try to solve this, eventually, a poverty industry emerged, and, like other industries, part of the goal is to stay in business. He believes that most of the people dealing with poverty have good intentions and are trying to help, but this industry is somewhat of a byproduct.

Miller pointed out that the help that is often being provided is foreign aid.

“The National Bureau of Economic Research finds little to no correlation between aid and development,” Miller said.

Miller said foreign aid can help in emergency situations such as natural disasters, but the problem lies when we use that same urgent model across the board.

There are also other ways that the foreign aid model harms the people in poverty, with one being population control.

“Sometimes our foreign aid is made contingent on countries using the foreign aid money to control population,” Miller said. “This includes providing abortion.”

Miller said there is no evidence saying that population causes poverty. He said that making these countries provide these services for population control has caused a problem that The Economist magazine calls “gendercide.”

“When you encourage people to have small families, what kind of child do you think they choose?” Miller said. “They choose boys, and we have seen an unprecedented boy to girl ratio.”

Miller said this example and other models like it harm poor people not only in the moment, but for generations to come.

Miller’s documentary, “Poverty Inc.,” concentrates on these issues and much more. The key question the movie opens with is the question of power: are people living in poverty empowered by foreign aid? Does foreign aid give the power to donors, governments, non-governmental organizations or other groups?

When foreign aid is applied to extreme poverty outside of an emergency situation, other problems arise, such as a false image of the communities living in poverty and a disconnection from global trade.

This false image is created when the poor are seen as helpless or unable to move upward within their society. The natural reaction is to help these people, which isn’t bad. However, the movie highlights that people have trouble ending their efforts once the problem has passed, which creates an opportunity for them to get free and destroys local economies.

For example, after the 2006 earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. sent rice down to help, which was good in the disaster scenario. The problem started when the U.S. continued to send rice long after Haiti had regained a sense of a functional society. This sent the Haitian rice farmers out of business, creating more poverty, not minimizing it.

While providing economic basics to a society that has suffered a disaster is good and can lift the society back to upward economic movement, according to the film, an excess of this aid can do the exact opposite.

Even when the aid is in the form of social entrepreneurship, like the early years of TOMS shoes, it’s contributing to the problem.

This is being called the poverty industry, and the film states that it creates more harm than good.

An individual interviewed in the film even called foreign aid condemnation under dictatorships, stating that humanitarian aid shouldn’t be a way of life because the impoverished individuals don’t stand to benefit from the aid, but the governments are given incentives to not change the country’s dependence on foreign aid.

The film then asks audiences, who is really benefitting from this aid?

However, the film states that there is aid that builds up the society it intends to benefit: projects that employ the people living in poverty in a sustainable way to give them the opportunity to move upward and better themselves.

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