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To Hell with Poverty: Global Broadcast Project to Address Inequality

By Justin Ridgeway

From Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim's <em>Solar Mamas</em>

The Denmark-based nonprofit organization Steps International's upcoming global broadcast project, Why Poverty?, asks a single but infinitely complex question: Why do one billion people in the world live in poverty? There is no one answer, of course, only more questions that will arise. The project's eight hour-long documentaries and 30 short films, however, seek to explore this central question and the surrounding issues concerning education, gender equality, climate change, financial and political stability and corruption, and war and disease. Fundamentally, these are human rights issues, as Don Edkins, Why Poverty?'s South Africa-based executive producer, suggests: "The continued existence of poverty is one of the worst violations of human rights today. We have the means and tools to deal with it, but the structural causes of poverty and inequality are not being addressed adequately."

Why Poverty? follows two previous Steps International projects—Steps for the Future (2002), which focused on the AIDS epidemic in Southern Africa, and Why Democracy? (2007), an examination of the contemporary, dominant form of global governance. The common goal in all three endeavors has been to utilize international broadcasting and an expansive outreach network to allow unprecedented access to contemporary documentary film. "Documentary film can highlight these issues in a powerful and provocative way," Edkins asserts. "The human narrative is one that audiences can relate to and is thus more effective in creating debate and thinking out solutions."

Why Poverty? was commissioned and developed by a consortium of 21 broadcasting partners and funded by eight foundations, government agencies and film institutes. A total of 62 broadcasters on five continents will air the project in November, and Why Poverty? will also be available on a multitude of platforms, including online and mobile devices, ensuring viewing access to all films. Steps International will launch the outreach component in December for educational distribution of the films. In total, the project anticipates reaching 500 million viewers.

The films are a result of consensus, upon reviewing proposals, by an editorial commission comprised of broadcasters. Edkins describes the process: "We spent time researching the subject and surrounding issues, and wrote a brief for filmmakers, which was distributed by a core group of commissioning editors working on the project." A significant component of the project involves teaming professional filmmakers with emerging, aspiring ones who may not have the training and production support; it is a system of mentorship. "We see the training aspect as providing more equal opportunities to documentary filmmakers in poorer parts of the world, and allowing a greater spread of voices and stories to be heard," says Edkins.

When exploring the systemic and structural roots of poverty, the challenge is not only to identify them, but to find narratives that illustrate and represent them. The films of Why Poverty? embrace human, personal stories. This creates a relationship between viewer and subject, while also illustrating the micro level from which this global-scale crisis derives and how it continues to operate. The films aim to generate awareness and highlight possible solutions through stories based in Jordan, India, Kenya, Zambia, Ethiopia, Mali, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, United States, China, United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Russia, Spain, Greece, Haiti, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Colombia, Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil and South Africa.

Among the hour-long films, Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim's Solar Mamas follows the journey of three women who travel from their home villages in Africa and the Middle East to India to attend social activist Bunker Roy's Barefoot College, where they will train to become solar engineers. Noujaim had met Roy at a Sundance Film Festival event at which social entrepreneurs were introduced to filmmakers. "Outside in the freezing snow, he told me about a school he'd started halfway across the world called the Barefoot College," she recalls. "He would soon be taking off to Jordan, Colombia, Palestine, Kenya, Burkina Faso and the Congo to recruit the next class—convince 30 mothers and grandmothers to leave their families and villages, get on a plane and fly halfway around the world to learn how to be solar engineers. I asked him when his next class would start; I wanted to be filming it."

Upon completion of their training, the women will return to implement this life-improving technology in their remote and rural home villages. The women's stories exemplify personal life change and the potential within individuals to bring about greater change to their communities.

"[Solar Mamas] acts as neither a critique nor a solution film," Noujaim maintains. "This film is a universal story, following a person's journey as she sets out to do something that she never imagined was possible."        

The film focuses on a young Jordanian woman, Rafea. Mona Eldaief, co-director and director of photography of Solar Mamas, says of Rafea, "Although she had never left the country before, she jumped at the opportunity without an ounce of fear or hesitation, packed her bags and left for India the next morning. When she got into the classroom, she immediately absorbed the training like it was second nature to her." She finished first in her class. This is the transformation Eldaief and Noujain intended to capture. "When she came back home, her confidence started to infect the other women in her community to risk change for a better life," says Eldaief.

On another continent, financial inequality in the United States is the subject of Alex Gibney's Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream. The film questions the existence and validity of the American Dream, exploring a system of indoctrinated class privilege that is structured to prevent the lower class from moving upward. The timing of the film's release will seem all the more salient given a US Presidential election that will likely be decided in favor of the candidate who successfully convinces the populace that he holds the key to future economic prosperity.

Solar Mamas and Park Avenue suggest shifts in previous beliefs in economic realities along North/South and East/West divides. "It is a global issue, where people in the South are increasingly taking a role in creating solutions and wanting to lead the movement for change," Edkins asserts. "There is also a global movement against greed and the multi-national corporations that control the world economy."

The issues and potential for change pivot on the role of political governance. Steps International, through Why Poverty?, can also play an influential role in this change, as Edkins explains, "by supporting human rights, and therefore the proper practice and not abuse of democracy, providing information about how people can participate and improve their lives, which can lead to greater well-being. It is about using the opportunities that we have to achieve success. Documentary film can do this very successfully.

"Change will not happen overnight and through Why Poverty? alone," Edkins cautions. However, awareness of the potential for change is vital. "We have the skills, the resources, even the tools. What is stopping us to ensure that people do not go hungry, and have adequate shelter and financial security? If we can deal with that question effectively, with human solidarity and citizens across the world taking a lead, we can help create a new campaign to eliminate poverty."


Justin Ridgeway is a Toronto-based writer and art consultant.