This book is a continuation and elaboration of the film The End of Poverty? It tells the story of what has caused the persistence of poverty despite substantial growth of the global economy over the past century. It contains an introduction by the director of the film, a complete transcript, and over seventy interviews conducted in making the film.
The themes of the film and the book can summarized as follows:
1. Poverty is not a natural phenomenon, at least not in the modern world. It arises because of institutions that enrich a small number of people and deny opportunities to billions of others.
2. The institutions that generate poverty today have a history. Approaching the problem of poverty without historical understanding creates a skewed understanding of why people are poor and leads some people to “blame the victims.” In the same way that wealth inequality in the United States is related to a history of racial oppression that restricted property ownership among racial minorities until quite recently, the enduring consequences of colonial history still afflict the citizens of many countries.
3. Relief efforts that attempt to overcome poverty are doomed to failure unless they address the causes of poverty. Some external factors causing the poverty of entire nations are international debt, unfair trade practices, externally imposed privatization programs, resource wars financed by dominant global interests, the power of multinational corporations to avoid taxes and regulations, intellectual property regimes enforced by international institutions, and inherited patterns of trade and marketing that enable former colonial powers to reap most of the profits of commerce.
4. Factors within nations that cause poverty and extreme inequality include centuries of concentration of land ownership that ignore traditional norms of reciprocity, the dominance of national economies by monoculture and the export of a few raw materials, corporate and state-owned monopolies, limited availability of credit to small-scale businesses, the breakdown of laws and practices that have sustained the commons, and traditions that ignore the productivity of women.
5. All of the factors that cause poverty on a large scale are systemic problems. Efforts to improve the lives of a few individuals will not change those patterns. The problems that give rise to poverty are not localized. They are connected to a centuries-old geopolitical order that enables elites to become rich from the work of others. That global order will change only if the poor become organized to resist domination and if some elites actively work to overturn the systems that give them privileges.
6. To achieve systemic economic reform, what is most needed is political change. However, when nations have attempted to gain control of their own resources and their own economies, the leaders who have done so have been accused of being communist and have been assassinated, often by agencies of the US government. In extreme cases, the US (or European powers) have sent in troops to regain control of foreign nations. These actions have been extensively documented (see interviews with Perkins, Blum, and Golinger in this volume), but this film and book are unusual in making a direct connection between the violence perpetrated by the US and the poverty of billions of people. Essentially, the problem is that governments can either be loyal to their own people or loyal to the corporate interests protected by the US government. The most important step US citizens could take to end global poverty would be to change the overall direction of American foreign policy so that other nations can direct their own economic affairs.
7. A topic emphasized in only a few interviews (Latouche, Lander, Guillet, and Garcia Linera), but which plays an important part in the film, is the question of how resources can be shared on a global basis. Leaders have always been faced with the difficult question of how to distribute income and wealth within a single nation—according to merit or need or productivity. Now, however, the question is being asked on a global basis. How should the remaining oil, water, and other scarce resources be shared among nations? How should rights to add greenhouse gases be distributed? The film ends with the hope that we can find a way to resolve those questions by sharing the gifts of nature equitably.
The ultimate purpose of The End of Poverty? is contained in the tagline “Think again.” If viewers take seriously the challenge posed by this film, that is exactly what they will do.
We realize that the film raises far more questions than it answers. Some solutions are provided in the film regarding specific polices. But debt relief, tax reform, land reform, and policies to restore the commons are only a beginning. We need to change the direction of American foreign policy and reframe the economic ideology that underlies current policies. Those are giant tasks. That is where you as viewer and reader come in.