Filmmaker, students talk poverty


A screenshot from the "Poverty, Inc" documentary.

By Leo Dornan / Staff Writer

.After watching “Poverty, Inc.,” a group of Pitt students learned their charitable efforts may not be as helpful as presented.

More than 150 students gathered in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium for a screening of “Poverty, Inc.,” a film that critiques aid initiatives that neglect the complexities of international poverty. The 90-minute film, which began at 4:30 p.m., explores an alternative response to poverty, critiquing the recent rise of non-governmental organizations and companies. Following the screening, co-producer Mark Weber was on hand for a question-and-answer session.

Pitt charity and community service clubs Nourish International and Global Brigades hosted the event in hopes of helping Pitt’s community understand how to address charity and as part of Pitt’s Year of Humanities. Student Government Board and the Global Studies Department funded the screening in their joint effort to focus on humanities fields for the 2015-2016 academic year.

“This event should help students think about how they can engage globally in development work,” Anish Kumar, Pitt Nourish international awareness chair, said.

“Poverty, Inc.” argued aid that supports local businesses is more effective than constant free aid because it allows members of the community to provide for themselves.

The film asserted that both charity-based companies and charity-obsessed celebrities fail to account for the short-lived nature of their efforts.

For instance, Weber said during the question-and-answer session following the film, charitable companies often “fix” problems and then move on, assuming the problem will stay fixed indefinitely. Weber said charity must be ongoing to succeed.

During the question-and-answer session, Weber said foreign aid initiatives can sometimes be more detrimental than beneficial because they aren’t comprehensive fixes.

“I’m not bashing aid. It’s good that people respond so generously to crises, we need that,” Weber said. “But countries don’t turn into developed countries solely through aid.”

Rather than relying on aid systems to address poverty, Weber said he encourages a more personal level of engagement with poverty.

“What are my passions? What’s my background? What do I see in the world?” Weber said to the crowd. “Where my talents meet the needs of the world, that’s where I’m called to be — to make a change for good.”

Tracy Soska, chair of outreach for the School of Social Work, agreed that aid from a distance was not the most effective system and encouraged students to focus on local businesses.

“It’s important to invest in local businesses, in training people so that they can support themselves,” Soska said.

Kai Pang, a senior economics and philosophy major, said Weber’s film is a good start, but his approach exploits workers in impoverished countries by providing them jobs within the global market instead of helping them build their own livelihoods.

Pang said working from the bottom up — encouraging worker-owned markets instead of opening access to existing ones — is a better method for solving poverty.

“The solution posited by the filmmakers of “Poverty, Inc.” is not satisfactory,” Pang said. “The intent is well-meaning, but access to the global market is not a sustainable means of alleviating poverty.”

Weber said he accepts critiques like Pang’s because poverty is such a multi-faceted issue — no single idea will solve it.

“We can’t solve the problem in 90 minutes,” Weber said. “We’re not going to give you a silver bullet solution to poverty.”

For Soska, the best way to address poverty is to focus on the idea that students’ decisions — even here at Pitt — can have a positive impact on people and communities thousands of miles away.

“Buy products made in those countries, buy in support of those small businesses,” Soska said. “There [are] stores now and charities that sell small business goods from these other countries.”

Weber said poverty discourse is just as important as charity itself.

“It’s important for people to discuss how to address poverty,” Weber said. “It should be an important issue for all of us.”

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