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Why poverty? Because we do not share resources

08 December 2012

The recent documentary and debate series called 'Why Poverty?' highlighted the extreme differences in living standards and life chances around the world, and once again emphasised that there can never be an end to poverty until the world's resources are more equally shared.

Broadcasters in countries across the world recently took part in a ground-breaking documentary and debate series called Why Poverty? which showcased a set of eight feature-length documentaries as well as several short films and animations that explore poverty in the 21st Century. The ambitious cross-media event involved 72 broadcasters and reached over 500 million viewers in 180 countries, and many of the films provided incisive and progressive views on the long history of dispossession that has resulted in extreme poverty (see Poor Us: An Animated History), the limitations and complexities of aid and trade (see Give Us the Money and Stealing Africa), and the greed and selfishness that underlines inequality (see Park Avenue), among other themes.

The first documentary to be screened by the BBC, Welcome to the World (screened in the UK as ‘Four Born Every Second'), looked at the different life chances experienced by the 130 million babies born each year, depending on which part of the world they are born into. BAFTA-winning filmmaker Brian Hill focussed on four stories from Cambodia, Sierra Leone, the USA and England, all of which were moving and provocative in their varying depictions of poverty or hardship.

What was most striking about these different case studies was the clear difference in life chances for those with access to at least some form of state-provided welfare in the economically-advanced nations (although notice the distinct variations in government assistance between Britain and the United States), compared to the poorest people in developing countries who often have barely any form of social safety net at all (in this case, Cambodia and Sierra Leone with their equally tragic stories).

The study of a Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) team in a Sierra Leone emergency hospital was particularly poignant and terrible, as summed up by the MSF obstetrician in the documentary, Dr Philip de Almeida. As the doctor explained, the MSF referral centre was only for emergency cases, so most of the women in the country were forced to rely on traditional healers in villages with little or no medical facilities. Without publicly-provided and decent hospitals accessible for all people in the country, the MSF centre could cater for only a fraction of the need. We see one woman come into the hospital in a semi-conscious state whose baby is already dead in her stomach, and after an emergency caesarean the mother also passes away later that night - even though her death could probably have been prevented with much earlier medical care.

The doctor was then filmed reflecting on the extreme poverty in Sierra Leone that results in 840 women dying in childbirth for every 100,000 babies born. In comparison, only 4 women in every 100,000 die as a result of childbirth in Italy, we are told. Each year, around 287,000 women die in childbirth somewhere in the world. And of the 20 worst places to be born in terms of the global childbirth lottery, 19 are in Africa.

‘Sharing of resources is very important'

The doctor says: "It's every woman's right to have a safe delivery. You do know that if a mother has children and she dies, 50 percent of those children who she has given birth to will also ultimately die. We as Doctors Without Borders, we don't get into politics. But sharing of resources is very important, isn't it. Sierra Leone is not a poor country - it has a lot of diamonds, it has iron. If you saw the [data] which was produced here before, it said ‘land of iron and diamonds'. But is this wealth going to the people? These are questions you have to answer, and the politicians have to answer. I am a simple doctor."

Later in the film, he again says: "My mother gave birth to me, and she was taken care of. I think it is necessary to take care of mothers. There must be a distribution of resources - I think we are rich enough to give everybody access to this kind of care. But if there are people who are not willing to share..."

Another MSF doctor then says that their facilities - an antenatal caring clinic, an ambulance service and a hospital with 24 hour emergency cover - was a model that proved how easily maternal mortality could be significantly reduced in the world's poorest regions. The cost of providing maternal care for everyone in Sierra Leone would cost only around 1.7 Euros per person, they estimated. The doctor said: "It's not huge amounts of money, it's not hugely expensive, the interventions that we carry out are not hugely difficult to do."

The message may be simple and old-fashioned, but this documentary highlighted how relevant it continues to be in a world of extreme differences in living standards and life chances around the world. There is plenty of food and resources to feed, clothe, house and care for everyone in the world, as long stipulated as a human right in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration. What still lacks is a collective willingness to share the world's resources with those who need them most - even when the sums required are trifling compared to other global priorities, such as the trade in armaments or in luxury goods and services.

There can never be an end to poverty until the world's resources are more equally shared. As STWR writes in a campaigners booklet: "At this critical juncture in human history, only a united global public can pressure governments to reorder their distorted priorities, cooperate more effectively, and share the resources of the world more equitably. A crucial first step is for governments to implement an international program of emergency assistance to eliminate hunger and unnecessary deprivation, followed by a longer-term transformation of the global economy in order to secure an adequate standard of living for all within ecological limits."

Further resources:


Megaslumming: this book published by STWR also highlighted the tragic neglect of the poorest people in an informal community in Nairobi, Kenya. 

An interview with Dr Philip de Almeida (the Médecins Sans Frontières obstetrician) - MSF

The Danger of Being Born Poor, by Brian Hill (the filmmaker of Welcome to the World) - Huffington Post

Global broadcasters in partnership ask 'WHY POVERTY?', by Nick Fraser (commissioning editor) - BBC blog

Open University on the BBC: Why Poverty? (see data on life expectancy) - Open University

See also the excellent documentary Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders (2008) about MSF's work in the war-zones of Liberia and Congo.

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