Poverty, Inc.

Co-producer of award-winning film speaks at Mackinac Center screening

Poverty Inc. co-producer Mark Weber.

Is it really helpful to purchase a pair of Toms Shoes? What about donating all your old t-shirts to a war-torn country in Africa, or tons of extra rice to Haiti? 

The documentary Poverty, Inc. convincingly argues that the answer to those questions is an emphatic “no.” The Mackinac Center hosted a screening of the film at Northwood University in March, followed by an illuminating question-and-answer session with Mark Weber, a co-producer of the movie.

A very full room at the screening of Poverty, Inc.

The goal of Poverty, Inc. is to provoke viewers to consider the unintended effects of charity work. People donate money, food, clothing and time with the best intentions, but often make conditions on the ground even worse. Consider the glut of free shoes Toms drops into a village. Everyone in the village gets a new pair of shoes at no cost, including the local cobbler, who suddenly has no demand for his product. He must close his business, which is no help to him or to his neighbors, who may need new shoes before another free pair comes along, and now have no way to get some.

In America, it is the common refrain that people don’t need handouts, they need opportunities. The same is true in developing nations. Weber didn’t rule out donations in sudden and dire situations — Haiti’s devastating earthquake, for example, or the tsunami that flattened Indonesia — but suggested that making conscientious decisions on an everyday basis is a much better way to support the aspirations of impoverished people around the globe. In his hometown of Grand Rapids, he said, he enjoys patronizing MadCap Coffee both for its excellent brews and for its strong relationships with the people who grow the coffee it serves.

Free markets are already recognized as the most effective way to lift people out of poverty. In this era of globalized commerce, the most effective way to help the poor is not to donate to groups that simply give them money or goods, but to buy directly  from them.