Good Fortune

PBS Premiere: July 13, 2010Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement

Landon Van Soest

Four years ago, as I was setting out to begin production on Good Fortune, a wave of enthusiasm to end poverty in Africa began to build. Billions of people tuned in to watch the Live 8 concerts; celebrities lined up in television commercials to snap their fingers and endorse massive advocacy campaigns; and the G8 pledged to double international aid to the continent. There was a warm, inspirational feeling that we, as Western citizens, were finally going to do something to help the world's less fortunate.

But what impact do these efforts have on the people they are intended to benefit, and to what extent do they merely serve to make us feel better about ourselves? Good Fortune is about reconciling fantasy with reality. The film explores how the lofty ideals of Western humanitarians intent on solving world poverty play out on the ground in the developing world. Though the film profiles two Kenyans on the receiving end of foreign aid, it is really meant to be a reflection on us as Western citizens and the sense of paternalism we project on the developing world, even when we have the best intentions.

The concept for Good Fortune was born over six years ago, when I was a student of economic development in Kenya. Like most Westerners, I was deeply affected by the extreme poverty I had seen traveling in the developing world and felt overwhelmed by feelings of compassion. I decided to study in Kenya in an effort to learn how I could use my energy and resources to be part of the solution, but I found the reality far more complex than I had anticipated. For starters, I was shocked at how many foreign dollars were already at work — the West has spent more than $2.3 trillion in aid to Africa over the last 50 years — and by the sheer number of organizations working on the ground.

The longer I spent in Kenya, the more I sensed a disconnect between the values of the people administering aid and the people targeted by it. Many of the communities I visited felt completely disenfranchised by the international aid organizations. Not only were donors failing to meet the needs of these communities, but they were often not involving them in the decision-making process at all. I became incredibly sensitive to the fact that outsiders often were taking it upon themselves to dictate the futures of entire communities.

I spent the next three years traveling to Kenya and following the lives of people at odds with large international development organizations. In the rural countryside, I met a billionaire American investor who told me, "We want these people's lives to change to the same standards that the rest of the world has." Jackson, a local farmer, countered, "I'm not poor. I have a resource that can make me rich, but that resource is being taken away by a developer."

In Kibera, a sprawling slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, the United Nations is working with the Kenyan government on a massive "slum-upgrading" project. "It's not acceptable that Kibera exists," a U.N. representative told me. But I found a surprisingly vibrant community in Kibera.

I focused on Silva, a woman who moved from a small farm to work as a midwife in the slum. This allowed her to support her family and send her four children to good schools. "Leaving Kibera is like quitting my job," Silva told me as she grappled with how to continue to support her family.

I was constantly amazed at the courage and conviction that Jackson and Silva showed in the face of immense hardship. Both of them helped organize their communities, contacted local politicians and fought for their communities. The mission of Good Fortune is to provide a platform for people like Jackson and Silva to bring their crucial voices into the discourse of international development. My hope is that the film can play a small part in promoting community-driven initiatives and local leadership in international development.

Landon Van Soest, Director/Producer