The poor may always have been with us, but attitudes towards them have changed. Beginning in the Neolithic Age Ben Lewis’ film takes us through the changing world of poverty. You go to sleep, you dream, you become poor through the ages. And when you awake, what can you say about poverty now? There are still very poor people, to be sure, but the new poverty has more to do with inequality…
“You are falling asleep. You are going to have a dream. It starts with this thought ‘If we want to make poverty history, then first, we need to understand the history of poverty.‘
So starts Ben Lewis’ funny and sinister animated odyssey through time, reviewing human need from hunter-gatherer food insecurity through to today’s capitalist meltdown. But what does history tell us? Is there an answer? “What can we do for them or what do they need?” asks Esther Duflo, Director of Poverty Action Lab “That’s a question which is a little too general in a sense because there is no one answer.”
Your impoverished avatar floats across continents and centuries, the sight, sound and the smell of poverty ruins your peace of mind and you wonder who’s to blame. But for most of history, “everybody in the world was poor”, points out economist Jeffrey Sachs. Poverty was the norm, so went largely unremarked. As historian Neville Morely notes Ancient Greek theatre is “more or less the first time, that there was any sort of debate or discussion about poverty”.
“Oh, it’s Poverty, the most evil monster that ever breathed upon the earth” cry the good citizens of Athens, “we shall drive you out of Greece!” “Drive me, Poverty, out of Greece!” the beggar responds, “That would be disaster for humanity. If wealth is distributed equally, then no-one will ever work again.”
So poverty is inevitable? Is it the ‘engine of the system’ keeping the rich, rich? Is the notion of charity, preached by all the world’s religions, the only relief? “The basic lesson of medieval poverty” observes historian Tim Hitchcock, “is that there are bureaucracies and systems being built on the sufferings of others all the time. And that is true now, as it has always been.”
But some arguments suggest poverty was not native to all civilizations, so how did they eventually succumb? “Poverty is the consequence of plunder,” states Oscar Guardiola-Riveria, a Latin American commentator citing the demise of the Incas. A view historian Emmanuel Akyeam Pong backs up “Pre-colonial Africans were economically savvy… When the Portuguese showed up… the sailors looked at these coastal towns buzzing with economic activity and they felt that, you know ‘We need to take over’”.
China too has only been regarded as poor in its more recent history. The Confucian idea that, “In a well-governed country, poverty is something to be ashamed of, but in a badly governed country, wealth is something to be ashamed of” has kept much of Chinese history out of the mire of extreme poverty.
So is the root of all this the establishment of international trade that overwhelmed traditional barter economies? The industrialisation of the world? “The industrial revolution has set the world on a course of huge reductions of extreme poverty,” argues Jeffrey Sachs, “that’s human progress.”
But progress also peopled the workhouses and swelled the ranks of the revolutionary proletariat. “The elite doesn’t just give way”, observes Development Economist Frances Stewart. “Mass improvements, I think come from people organising themselves; the poor get the poor out of poverty.”
So you wake up. Your fleeting brush with poverty was just a dream. Or was it? “There was an idea called trickle down economics. If you could just get the economy to grow everyone would benefit” says Nobel Laureate and economist Joseph Stiglitz, “That’s nonsense. It’s not true… It’s been a remarkable increase in inequality.”
Are things are actually worse than they’ve ever been, right now, in your waking life?