Global broadcasters in partnership ask 'WHY POVERTY?'

Thursday 15 November 2012, 14:38

Nick Fraser Nick Fraser Commissioning Editor, Storyville

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Solar Mamas Rafea in the village with her husband Alian in the background

Think about the best thing that could happen to you as a producer, film-maker or television executive. Winning an Oscar? Shaking hands with Robert Redford? Hearing films with which you've been involved called works of genius? Wrong. The best is WHY POVERTY?, the most ambitious attempt to date to ask why, in the 21st Century, a billion people still live in poverty.

WHY POVERTY? now involves dozens of people throughout the world - broadcasters, people helping out with the press and well wishers, but it began four years ago as the work of three people – Mette Hoffmann Meyer, the Head of Documentaries at Danish Broadcaster DR, Don Edkins who has run the operation from Cape Town, and myself. We've worked together from beginning to end. Much of what we have done has been unpaid, out of reasonable hours. We've burnt carbon, we've cajoled, we asked for more favours than we can recall. There were slammed doors, but many opened ones.

It has been more than worth it. We have huge pride in the remarkable eight documentary films that make up the season. At the launch at the UN, when 500-odd people filled a vast conference hall, a panel from all over the world chaired by Fergal Keane discussed the films for close to two hours. These films weren't just TV shows, the subjects they covered were of life and death importance. They did matter, terrifically so.

The work has been gruelling, and we've often fought our way from one crisis to another, but the boldness of our film-makers and the ambition of the project has made all that effort meaningful. Most of all I have to thank my co-labourers for sustaining their own commitment - and making sure mine didn't flag. 

WHY POVERTY? isn't a brand or a trademark. It's a simple idea. On or around November 25th, over 500 million viewers served by some 72 participating broadcasters, will watch these films about such subjects as the way in which women are held back from economic development, and what happens when they break loose; what it meant to be poor in the Neolithic Age; whether Bono and Geldof did indeed make poverty history; how poor, young Chinese are screwed by their education system; and how multinationals in Africa find ways of not paying taxes.

They are well-crafted, perceptive documentary films. And they will have a life after broadcast. They will be used for educational purposes. They will exist in different lengths for wildly different audiences – as downloads on mobile phones, in village screenings in Africa, classrooms in the UK, and university seminars in the US.

So how did WHY POVERTY? happen – and how did the BBC find our place at the heart of so ambitious a project? Go back a decade and you find a group of broadcasters clubbing together to make films about AIDS in Southern Africa. The films were shown throughout stricken countries, and in richer countries too.

And now go to 2007, and the showing of WHY DEMOCRACY? 40-odd broadcasters showed ten films about the paradoxes of global democracy. We hear that the films are screened at the UN by Ban Ki Moon. FUTURA, a Brazilian educational network sends them to over 1,000 villages in specially created 'democracy suitcases.' And the most popular film, Please Vote For Me, which depicts the vote-buying that goes on when Chinese nine year olds elect their class prefect, becomes a bootleg hit in non-democratic China.

WHY POVERTY? has taken close to four years. We have worked closely with colleagues (among others too numerous to name) at The Open University, Dutch broadcaster VPRO, ITVS in the USA, SVT Sweden, NHK Japan and ZDF in Germany. In Copenhagen, STEPS INTERNATIONAL, was created to provide the broadcast partners with a way to work together and commission the films.

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BAFTA-winning filmmaker Brian Hill talks about his new documentary Four Born Every Second which looks at child birth and infant mortality around the world.

The eight broadcast films are made for and funded by broadcasters. (the first - 'Four Born Every Minute' - is the subject of the audio slideshow above). There's a website ( and thirty shorts, which will be used on the internet, and for educational purposes. It's been more than a roller-coaster ride. Two weeks ago we signed a contract with Turkish broadcasting, and we're about to conclude a deal in India. The films will be shown in Moldova – Moldova? Yes, I kid you not – Indonesia, Palestine and Israel. The only two countries in which the films will not be shown are Russia and China. However, we talked to a Chinese broadcaster, who said there was a chance that they could be shown. Maybe not the Chinese film, which was too controversial, but the others… well, who knows?

Now that it's nearly finished we can say that it's been among the wildest experiences of our professional lives. WHY POVERTY? upsets our preconceptions about 'the poor.' WHY POVERTY? tells us that the lives of poor people are eventful, engrossing, sometimes heroic. They are, like the rest of us, only poorer. Somehow we have to see poor people as individuals. We have to do this without losing sight of the fact that poverty is something real, afflicting the planet.

There's no magic bullet when it comes to abolishing poverty. The concept of aid from rich to poor is coming to seem dated. No single 'solution' indeed exists, and a new generation of experts are telling us we must look at many factors in combination – better government, fairer trade policies, clever initiatives designed to enhance the potential of individuals. We can end poverty if we wish. This is what WHY POVERTY? has to say. You don't have to be poor to get this simple, important message. Maybe WHY POVERTY? will help spread it around the world.

Nick Fraser is the Chairman of Steps International and Editor of BBC Storyville. 

The WHY POVERTY? films will broadcast on BBC One from Monday 19th November and on BBC Four from Sunday 25th November.

For more information on the programmes visit the WHY POVERTY? website. An audio slideshow about the first documentary in the series is available via the Media Centre website.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    In the run up to Christmas it is important to remember those who are less fortunate than us at home and abroad. The message of the first programme is very simple, where we are born will determine our life chances. And where we are born is down to luck.

    The programme brought tears to my eyes, the child recyclers were just like those I met in India. Parents in India just needed £1.50 a month to send their child to school.

    The opening question of there is enough money in the world to prevent this reminds me of an old teacher who said people are dying for capitalism. Put the people before the ideology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Nick I just listened to your bbc podcast 'poor reporting' and sought out to find more. Sadly the bbc content is not available to "international" viewers. It's sounds like an amazing effort and I applaud you without even seeing ity, just on the basis of the podcast. Rich or poor we are all just people something those of us that are living comfortably can forget. You provided an interesting insight into the "unattractiveness" of poverty to rich nations. I will watch and wait for your series to appear in Australia...I would also be interested in your take on poverty within wealthy nations like America, Europe and Australia. Best wishes

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Rich people do play a minor role to the causes of poverty in the perception;countries with more rich people tend to have less poverty stricken people eg USA.

    For third world countries it is the attitude of the people and their leaders that has contributed to mass poverty.
    "Wealth can only be shared by those who participate in the creation of it(wealth)"

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    These are fantastic programmes. Why are they being hidden away on BBC Four?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.


    Magnificent films!

    The dedication shown by yourself and others shines through. I was unaware that the films were being broadcast worldwide but delighted to discover that they are and will be. Perhaps detractors of the BBC should balance their comments and consider the excellent unbiased work this series of films reveals. It is the first time in many months/years that I have felt someone was getting beneath the surface and revealing some unpalatable truths of which the majority are unaware. A heartfelt thank you to you and all those you have worked with.

    "Rich people do play a minor role to the causes of poverty in the perception;countries with more rich people tend to have less poverty stricken people eg USA."


    Did you watch "Money, Power and the American Dream?"

    If so, I think you missed the point of the film; if not, perhaps you may need to think again... What would be the consequence in America if Mitt Romney and those of his ilk had gained office instead of Barack Obama? It certainly would not have been a "tea party" but increased poverty for the already impoverished and greater wealth and power for those who already have far too much of both and threaten democracy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Hear, hear Oulipo. Why are they being hidden? The route to them through the website is convoluted and they're hard to find on iplayer. I wish there was more of a central message to the films though. There is no call to action. As statements of fact they are great and informative. Regarding the final message of your blog post:

    We can end poverty if we wish. This is what WHY POVERTY? has to say. You don't have to be poor to get this simple, important message. Maybe WHY POVERTY? will help spread it around the world.

    The poor get the message very well, it's the rich who need to take it on board and stop protecting and hoarding their billions. Distribution of resources is the real problem, this world could feed the people on it if only we really, really wanted to. "Money, Power and the American Dream" was great on this. Never mind showing it in schools, get it shown in the stock exchanges and board rooms of the Merryl Lynch's of this world!

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 8.

    Thank you for this very interesting and diverse series of programmes. The variety is impressive and they are all informative yet thought provoking. The radio programme 'Poor Reporting' was the final push I needed to launch my 5050 project, all about helping alleviate poverty. I am briefly reviewing the programmes in my blog and hoping more people will watch them on TV or on i player. My only complaint is that they are on SO late?! Not every thinking person with a conscience is a night owl!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Just returned from Cambodia, they desparately need help they don't appear to have a voice we need to give them one.This video will explain hope it passes the moderation.


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