Reframing the Debate on Poverty

Courtesy of PovertyCure
Courtesy of PovertyCure

Enersa is Haiti’s only manufacturer of solar panels and appliances. The company hires and trains employees from some of the poorest parts of the country, as well as develops products tailor-made for the local economy.

The company is creating new opportunities for wealth creation in Haiti championed by PovertyCure, an international network that fosters free enterprise and entrepreneurial opportunity in the developing world. The John Templeton Foundation is supporting efforts to expand the connectivity, communication, and vision for this project.

“Enersa is a success not because it is the recipient of humanitarian aid,” explains Michael Matheson Miller, director of PovertyCure and an Acton Institute research fellow. “It is a success because it is helping people by creating wealth for their families and communities.”

PovertyCure aims to refocus the discussion on poverty from poverty alleviation to wealth creation. After all, economic opportunity has proven itself to be the most effective way in human history of lifting people out of poverty. “But we need to think not only about nurturing free exchange,” continues Miller. “Another crucial element is thinking about the human spirit. This is a central part of our mission too.”

PovertyCure explores how to treat individuals as subjects, the agents and protagonists of their own story, rather than as objects that are the targets of humanitarian designs. “Such social engineering may be undertaken with the best of intentions,” Miller says. “But it has created a poverty industry that fails to focus on the good of the other. It treats poor people as somehow different from ‘us,’ when the wellbeing of all people is connected to the ability to flourish in activities such as free exchange. Humanitarianism operates within limited horizons in its attempt to meet material needs, and so fosters an ethic of pity and sentimentality that often does not respect others with their own desires and creative capacities.”

This insight is far-reaching. For example, it is often assumed that if donors were more generous, extreme poverty could be ended. “We can’t buy our way out of poverty. People are not poor simply because they lack material goods; people are poor primarily because they lack the institutions of justice that enable them to provide and thrive for themselves.” PovertyCure stresses a practical desire to undo what denies companies like Enersa access to free markets. “Individuals need to be able to seek justice in the courts, obtain title for land, and be able to start a business and not be locked out of the formal economy by capitalism,” Miller says. “The moral ecology of the developing world matters as much as the economic environment. Civil and religious institutions have a key role to play alongside those of commerce and government because we are talking about cultivating virtues such as respect and trust.”

The philosophy of PovertyCure can only effectively challenge the status quo if it is discussed and spreads. This was the aim of the funding from the Foundation. “Poverty is very complex and there is no single solution to it. But if we want to help reframe the debate about poverty that means nurturing conversations, distributing content, and facilitating change,” Miller explains.

Many materials including the PovertyCure DVD Series, widely used by college professors and among faith-based audiences, are available on the network’s website. Miller hopes that a new documentary film titled Poverty, Inc., to be released later this year, will boost discussion further. The film has already won five awards from work-in-progress screenings at three film festivals, and has received critical acclaim from experts such as Philip Sansone of the Whole Planet Foundation.

The PovertyCure network of 300 partners in 144 countries has spread by more than 150% during the lifetime of the Foundation-sponsored campaign. Although PovertyCure can claim to be a leader in the field, there is still much to be done and, Miller affirms, the work of PovertyCure will go on.