The BBC’s ‘Why Poverty?’ Series: A Missed Opportunity
4 February 2013 — New Left Project
The Why Poverty project is a recent collaboration between the Open University and the BBC that attempts to highlight the causes of global poverty and explain the different contexts in which it is experienced. The project was extensive, including a detailed website, radio programmes, and a BBC4 television series which will undoubtedly have had an impact on how poverty is understood by a wide audience. In my view, however, parts of the BBC 4 series, as well as the overall narrative of the project were not conducive to the project achieving its aims.
Take as a first example, episode one of the TV series, entitled ‘Four Born Every Second’, which focused on four pregnant women in different countries and how their pregnancy, birth and mothering experiences differed. We are first taken to a hospital in Sierra Leone, where the pressure on medical supplies and the limited facilities available are clearly shown. We learn that there are fewer than 200 doctors in the whole country. What we are not told, is why this is. Does the government not place a priority on health sector funding? Are there not enough jobs available for those who are qualified? Or has a brain drain meant that many in this profession have relocated elsewhere to practice? We are merely presented with the outcomes and not the possible causes. This is replicated elsewhere during the scenes in Sierra Leone. We learn that there are 82 deaths for every thousand babies born in Sierra Leone, compared to only 6 in the United Kingdom. We learn that of the 20 worst countries in the world to be born, 19 of them are in Africa, and that children born in these countries are more likely to die from malnutrition, less likely to go to school and less likely to have access to clean water. But no clear attempt is made to answer the question in the series title: ‘why?’
The viewer is then introduced to pregnant mothers affected by poverty in other parts of the world – including the United States and Cambodia – but again, no explanation is given of what has caused their situations, or of the differences between their experiences. The episode merely describes a ‘birth lottery’, implying that these are issues over which we have no control, where in fact there are wider determining factors at the root of these injustices which the episode leaves unexplored.
Episode two retells the story of Bono and Bob Geldof’s participation in global development campaigning. Viewers are rightly made aware of the criticisms of arrogance and a lack of progress that both celebrities have faced, yet overall, more air time is given to their personal experiences than to the actual issues they were trying to combat. The focus on the Band Aid concerts and single, for example, is problematic. April Biccum has noted how these practices echo neoliberal forms, whereby mass participation is passive and controlled for those of us who buy the tickets and participate in the experience more as customers than as activists. Geldof laments how “the cult of celebrity is now a currency”, yet we are still shown glossy images of Bono and Geldof at the Brit Awards, ‘spreading the word’ with polemical imagery and contrived speeches. There is little concrete discussion of the amounts of money raised and the specific improvements in people’s lives that their fundraising and campaigning did or did not lead to. Instead, Bono treats us to the story of how right-wing Republican Senator Jesse Helms was invited to and enjoyed a U2 gig. It’s not clear what this adds to a discussion of poverty and what can be done to address it.
On a more serious note, the episode does include interviews with prominent development economists such as Paul Collier and Dambisa Moyo, whose analysis of the Geldof and Bono facade is both realistic and appropriately critical. Collier warns against attributing too much of Africa’s development to the money donated by the West, whereas Moyo discusses how the actions of Geldof and Bono have altered the way Africa is represented in Western discourse. Images of starving children undeniably show a reality that does exist in many parts of Africa, but this evokes a sense of pity which does not do full justice to those being depicted. However these interviews themselves highlight another missed opportunity. Collier and Moyo are very much establishment figures, and it is notable that, over the course of the series, less conventional voices such as NGOs like War on Want, or figures from the broader ‘anti-globalisation’ movement, were not also given this opportunity to speak. Whilst one does not expect the BBC itself to adopt an anti-neoliberal stance, these views should at least have been acknowledged and aired within a series that is attempting to explain the varying definitions of and opinions on poverty.
There are a further six episodes in the series, each of an entirely different nature. Episodes three and seven provide accurate and well-executed descriptions of real poverty, focusing on copper mining in Zambia and land grabbing in Mali respectively. Here, the context of North-South relations is described with the required precision, nuance and clarity. Those who are directly affected by the processes are interviewed, and we are shown the detrimental effects that have resulted, such as displaced communities and a lack of consideration for local culture and relationships. But beyond effects, a sense of deeper causes is also provided; not simply in terms of lack of funds or inability to make the purchases necessary for survival, but also the lack of agency or authority to contest the relevant macro-processes. This was a distinct improvement on other episodes. But nevertheless, more explanation could have been provided of these political and economic processes and how they come about. Those of us interested in international development issues may be familiar with these aspects, but the wider public needs them to be fully explained, which is purportedly the task ‘Why Poverty?’ had set itself.
Episode five, entitled ‘Poor Us – An Animated History of Poverty’, seemed even further out of alignment with the rest of the series. This episode is a cartoon with a voiceover explaining the different ways that poverty has manifested itself over different time periods. The narration hints at the critical perspective lacking in other episodes;
“Poverty is what makes the rich rich.”
“There are democracies based on the suffering of others all the time and that is still the case now.”
If these thoughts had been explored a bit more, and a bit more seriously, it would have been a good deal more informative for the audience than Jesse Helms’ admiration of the size of the crowds at U2’s concerts. However, the comedic tone in which these arguments were presented effectively undermined the serious ideas that underpinned them. Compartmentalising these arguments into a self described ‘funny and sinister’ take on poverty trivialises economic inequalities which are part and parcel of the deep economic structures that cause global poverty, and which surely deserved better treatment than this from the series.
That more serious treatment could have described in solid terms how the wealth of the global rich is being allowed to increase, for example, by tax reductions and lack of enforcement. The injustice of global poverty could have been emphasised by pointing to the fact that, as Oxfam recently noted, the 100 richest people in the world accumulated enough wealth last year to end extreme global poverty four times over. This appears to be more at the root of ‘why’ poverty exists, yet there is, apart from superficial mentions in this animated episode, a general omission of these crucial facts throughout the entire series. There is a clear disregard of colonial history and its legacy, the use of sweatshops by multinational corporations and the international trade rules that benefit ‘us’ far more than those in the Global South. It is clear the series is insistent upon the viewer not feeling complicit in these injustices in any way, or to consider their own place in the structures that create global poverty.
Although the Why Poverty project includes a detailed website as well as radio programmes, given the current media culture it is arguable that the television series was perhaps an entry point to these other sources for many of those attempting to develop an interest in global poverty. Hence I have focused here on those episodes. The series left a lot unsaid, and failed more often than not to present an analysis on some of the key issues that exacerbate global poverty (such as inequality, and the biases of economic strucures and processes). The caveat that “we want people to ask questions and take action but we’re not pushing them towards any one single answer” appears on their website, but covering the full range of answers and explanations of global poverty that various people are offering, and in a reasonably detached way, would have been entirely possible. It is the approach that the BBC at least claims to take in its politics coverage generally, and poverty is no less a political and economic issue than any other.
In fairness, the Zambia and Mali episodes showed potential, and if the BBC were intentionally avoiding being polemical then these episodes presented enough information to let the viewer make up their own minds. However, the series overall presented a messy and hybrid definition of poverty not only with no ‘single answer’ but with little substantive explanation of any kind. Of course, the myriad ways in which poverty is experienced globally cannot be simplified. However, it is still clear that a paradigm shift in our understanding of global poverty is required, with new, more critical angles of existing practices becoming necessary. It appears that the series title of ‘Why Poverty’ was substantially inappropriate, as a true examination of the crux of the issues currently debilitating millions was not executed to its full potential.
Nicola F Pritchard is a PhD researcher in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow, researching the political economy of water in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.