Most anyone who’s taken a college economics course understands that the engine driving capitalism is cheap/free labor. In order for the economic system of the West to flourish and continue expanding, resources and raw materials need to be harvested at a grossly deflated cost to major First-World nations. Herein lies the crux of Philippe Diaz’s exploration of world poverty and the root causes of its prevalence in what he refers to as the “Southern” countries of the World (Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and Central and South America). The End of Poverty? is a thought provoking, sometimes illuminating, and devastatingly poignant meditation on the perennial crisis of inequality and poverty in the formerly colonized areas of the world.
With Martin Sheen’s impeccably folksy voice supplying the film’s narration, Diaz lays bare the history of mercantilism and imperialism from 1462 to the present, outlining the necessity of denying the tools and techniques of production to those who mined, farmed, and drilled the precious resources that made it possible for a few privileged countries to enjoy previously unimaginable wealth. The silver mines of Bolivia, the sugar cane of Brazil, and the textiles of India all played an immense part in building the empires that to this day make the rules that govern the world’s economy.
What is most staggering in The End of Poverty? is Diaz’s realization that Sub-Saharan Africa supplies Northern countries with an average of $25,000 a minute to repay debts incurred by the very countries collecting payment. The solid historical research and attention to detail that go into supporting this still (astoundingly) greatly contested historical black mark on capitalism are devastating. With a distinct tone of authority, good ‘ol President Josiah Bartlet fills us in on the illustrious history of the diabolical treatment of colonies by their “mother” countries. The practice by colonizing countries of running up huge amounts of debt in colonies, then granting those colonies their “independence,” thereby transferring that debt to the new government of the colony, is an almost universal feature of colonial history, and examples from all across the globe are both illuminating and gut wrenching throughout The End of Poverty?
It is true that the exploitation Diaz covers in The End of Poverty? is nothing that would surprise anyone with an even cursory familiarity with colonial history. However, the director’s meditation on the legacy of brutality that helped shape every single one of the world’s impoverished nations goes a long way in supporting his ultimate point. Namely, the poverty-stricken nations of the world are, for the most part, asking for justice, not charity. The financial burden placed upon powerless nations through loans that they themselves did not generate is nonsensical… and completely legal, thanks to the forward-thinking and supposedly financially progressive World Bank and IMF.
At the end of the documentary, Diaz attempts a milquetoast diagnosis for solving the problem of third-world poverty, and this is the film’s only flaw – unfortunately, a glaringly obvious one. Diaz spends nearly an hour and a half illustrating just how multifaceted and complex the problem of Third-World poverty really is. To spend the last 15 minutes suggesting that nationalizing a poor country’s resources would eradicate the bulk of the problem is an oversimplification that verges on non sequitur.