Fighting poverty is big business. But who profits the most?
From 2010 through 2016, I had the pleasure of working with Michael Matheson Miller and an amazing team to produced the critically acclaimed documentary, Poverty, Inc. (available on Netflix), which has earned over 50 international film festival honors, the $100,000 Templeton Freedom award, TV broadcast deals in 12 countries, and praise across the political spectrum, from Michael Moore to Nobel laureate Angus Deaton. Drawing on over 200 interviews from 20 countries, the film critiques the Western development establishment and its tendency to undermine local markets, cultures, and governance.
In 2015, I deferred graduate school at MIT to tour with the film across the United States and internationally.
I had been working on this film since 2010 in parallel with other projects. We had already won over 30 international film festival awards (now over 50), travelled with the film, and spoken at Harvard, MIT, and numerous universities. There was a strong temptation to celebrate the film’s positive reception as the completion of the venture, put the awards up in the trophy case, write them down on the resume, and move on. But I couldn’t shake a nagging sensation of incompleteness. One day I wrote in my journal: You don’t make documentaries to win awards. You make them to change culture.
I called up a buddy who had DIY converted a white utility van into a mini-camper. In the fall of 2015, I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime screening tour covering 7,570 miles by road and 10,042 by air in just 50 days, doing a screening and Q&A nearly every night of each week. I was blown away by the passion and energy of screening organizers and participants in the dozens and dozens of cities I visited, with lengthy post-screening discussions ranging 30-75 minutes following the 91 minute film. I was struck by how big and diverse the United States really is.
To date, I’ve been honored to present over 100 guest lectures and Q&A’s (avg. 45-75 min.) to over 12,000 people. The film has screened in well over 200 cities, 16 countries, and 300 universities, high schools, and nonprofits (these are just the ones we know of). In 2016 it earned a Netflix deal, a successful release on numerous other platforms worldwide, and TV in 12 countries, and successful launch on iTunes, Amazon, and other platforms.