That is What Poverty Looks Like

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Jan 24, 2007 5:15 PM

Whenever Lefties give me a hard time about globalization and free trade, I like to tell this story, told to me by a Kenyan friend and free-market activist, June Arunga:

June is a brilliant, young free-marketeer who had already done a documentary for the BBC at the tender age of 22. In "The Devil's Footpath," she travels the length of Africa trying to figure out why a continent so rich in resources has fallen so far behind.

Here's a great story she told me once. It takes place in a cab in Cancun, Mexico. June had arrived, if I remember correctly, for a World Bank meeting there, and had split a cab from the airport to the hotel with two Canadian women. I'll tell it from her point of view to the best of my ability.

We were traveling into Cancun and I was seeing Gucci stores, fancy restaurants, and big hotels. I was thinking, "Wow, I didn't realize parts of Mexico were this developed. This is great." But that's not what my cab-mates were thinking.


Woman One: "Yuck, look at this. It's so terrible."
Woman Two: "I know, you used to come to Mexico and see a different culture. Now, it looks just like home."
June: "What is it exactly that you miss about the old Mexico?"
Woman Two: "Well, there used to be tiny houses, dusty streets, and merchants selling homemade goods along the road."
June: "That's poverty that you were seeing. That's what poverty looks like."
Woman One: "But so much has been lost. The culture, you know."
June: "You said that Canada looks like this. That is prosperity. Do you think that Mexicans don't deserve that, too?"
Woman One:
Woman Two:
Woman One:
Woman Two:

Ouch. If you imagine it with June's perfectly calm voice, velvety accent and killer smile, it's even more devastating. June has a great story. It is voices like hers spreading the freedom she loves that can heal Africa quicker than aid can.

All too often, Lefties-- particularly environmentalists-- condemn globalization, free trade, free enterprise, and new development in other countries without thinking far beyond their own upper middle-class Western existences. They work to ban DDT to save bird shells without much of a thought for the million deaths malaria causes per year.

They work to prevent the building of mines in impoverished countries without much thought for the men and women in those countries who live in abject poverty and need jobs. To environmentalists, abject poverty is a way of life to be preserved over allowing the citizens of those countries to develop an economy and become more prosperous.

And, according to the writers and directors of a new film called "Mine Your Own Business," they do it with misleading, exaggerated, and often downright false literature, and are rarely called on any of it by journalists. I'm going to a screening of "Mine Your Own Business" tonight at the National Geographic theater. The head of Greenpeace was invited to the screening as a guest, since his organization comes under fire in the film. Instead, he and Greenpeace protestors have been working to get National Geographic to cancel the screening, according to the film's directors.

I'm going to try and get some pictures. See what the crowd's like. The screening, I'm glad to report, is more than sold out. They had to open a second theater for the screening. The film is hosted by director Phelim McAleer and filmed by his wife, Ann McElhinney. Both are self-proclaimed "British leftists" with backgrounds in journalism. When McAleer came across the story of Greenpeace's attempts to prevent a mine from being built in Romania while working as a business reporter, he discovered that the interests of the people in this small Romanian town and the interests of environmentalists were at odds.

For the film, they document the sagas of three mines on three continents-- Romania, Chile, and Madagascar. In all three spots they find the same things--lies by environmentalists to block the mines, and a strong desire among locals to work in the mines and get a better life. Some of the film, as I understand it, is hosted by George, a 23-year-old Romanian who lives in a house with his many siblings, mother and father. The only one in the house who works is his father, and George wants to go to work in the mine. He is incensed that folks from other countries feel they have the right to come to his town and tell them how to live.

The film is funded, in part, by mining interests, a point which Greenpeace and Lefties make often when attacking it. McAleer claims there was no editorial influence exerted. Of the four documentaries he and his wife have done, in fact, this is the only one that the funders haven't changed, he said. He's done work in the past for the BBC. The mining funders did not see the film until it was finished, he said.

Check out the film and trailer, here. I imagine my column this week will be on this. More to come later.