Poverty Inc.

The basic premise of the film Poverty, Inc. is that the west has built a huge industry around international development, and that this industry does not always have the best interest of the poor at heart. Often this anti-poverty industry does more harm than good. The movie includes standard critiques of TOMS Shoes, a thought provoking look at orphanages in Haiti, some harsh words for Bono, and a general call for more entrepreneurship as a solution to poverty. It also had this great story in it about how a church in Atlanta ruined the egg market of a village in Rwanda.

While not without its shortcoming and room for critique it is a good film, if you have any interest in helping people it is worth watching. Then go read Walking With the Poor, that book is probably more important.

Community development and helping people is a big, important part of my life. But it is not my intention for the current iteration of this blog to be about international aid and how the west basically destroyed Haiti. The premise of this blog is that we can learn ideas in business, non-profit, strategic planning, Lean, etc. and apply them to living intentionally and effectively as a family.

So, what comes from Poverty, Inc. that we need to be thinking about in our family?

The big idea from the film that really stood out to me is social fact. This idea is not original to Poverty, Inc., having been first proposed by David Émile Durkheim. Durkheim defined social facts as “every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.”

Basically the idea is that there is a broad set of norms, institutions and assumptions that transcend individuals and define and constrain the way we act. It is “the way things are.” Durkheim argues that social facts have a coercive influence on us. Even if the social facts are immaterial (norms, meanings, assumptions, sentiments, etc), they are still external to the individual and control the individual.

Here is the interesting part to me. Even if we challenge our own assumptions, break the mold and do something innovative, we are still acting inside our social facts:

“The social fact puts constraints on how we think and act, leading us to take many things for granted. It becomes simply the way things are done. This does not mean that there is never innovation or attempts to fix the system…the trouble is that most of the innovation takes place inside the assumptions, beliefs and values of the social fact.”

We have assumptions within assumptions (Inception!). Even if we work really hard to challenge ourselves and think in new ways we are probably still acting in the framework of our social facts. We have to work even harder and think even deeper to break out of that box and do something truly new.

These social facts obviously impact the way a family operates. But, I think that it is probably helpful to think of family social facts also. We have social facts within our family that are not necessarily shared by other families. If we are going to make progress as a family to find a new way of living that is better for us and for the world we have to understand how these social facts are coercive in every level of our lives as individuals, a family, a community, country and world.

I have no grand conclusion, except that it is clear that we all have a lot of work to do to understand the world around us, and how to make it a better place.

If you want to really go off the deep end listen to Episode 5 – Spiral Dynamics from The Liturgists and think about how social fact fits into Spiral Dynamics.

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