Biting off less than they can chew

One of my fellow TheatreSports players, Brett Fish Anderson, writes a fascinating blog, mostly about Christianity and relationships. I love reading Brett’s blog, even though he is the most deliberately flagrant misspeller I’ve ever met and even though (or perhaps because) his beliefs are so vastly different to mine. Heinous punctuation and theism notwithstanding, I return regularly to check in on his consistently passionate and committed views on All Things Fish.

This week, Brett and his wife Val are participating in the Live Below the Line challenge. The challenge goes like this:

“Join thousands of people … living off just £1 a day for food and drink for 5 days in May to get a better understanding of the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty, and to raise funds for crucial anti-poverty initiatives.”

Brett and his wife are doing this: limiting their food and drink to a maximum of R12 dailyfor a week, and donating the money they would’ve spent on food to a charity instead.

With all the best intentions for expanding their own understanding of ‘poverty’, Brett and his wife are carefully sticking to their R12 daily ration. A big concern is eating regular, balanced and healthy meals. Some comments on their blogs (perhaps from others doing the challenge?) suggest cheap and cheerful menu options. Lentils and rice. Noodles.

As a gesture of solidarity towards those suffering from a scarcity of food, all kudos to these folks. But it seems to me that it misses the mark. The World Bank and IMF define the “poverty line” as £1 per day. It’s a statistic, an average. A bit like saying that most families in Country X have 2.4 children. Chopping every third child into decimal fractions is not going to give us much sense of what it’s like to live in Country X. Similarly, rationing yourself to R12 daily for a week, is not really going to give you much sense of what it’s like to live in the slums and ghettoes of the developing world.

Very few people living on or below that line actually have the luxury of knowing their R12 will arrive reliably each day. Living below the line is not an extended budgeting challenge. It’s not a challenge to Eat Healthy for under R12 a day. For many, it’s the rollercoaster of not knowing, from one day to the next, where the next mouthful of food will come from, if it will come. Which is a completely different thing.

Having less than R12 daily to feed yourself forces you to rely heavily on your community. The World Bank and IMF do not distinguish between the subsistence farmers, the self-sustaining communities supported by economies other than the market economy, the unemployed who are wholly supported by their communities or families, and the truly dislocated and dispossessed.

One of the regular themes in the blogs and tweets of the participants of the challenge is that they’re bored of eating low-cost food. This is part of what worries me about this challenge. If it were truly challenging people to bolster their sense of compassion and humanity, boredom wouldn’t be a major theme. When people really start connecting with their shared humanity, really start noticing the genuine ways they can help to alleviate the suffering of others. There is an excitement that kicks in. A willingness to move, to act, to do. To find ways to make things happen and change. Not boredom. One of the most inspiring examples I’ve seen of this was Jessica Jackley’s talk at TED.com:

Living on less is not necessarily lesser living. Pity is not the same as compassion. Inflicting suffering on ourselves out of guilt at the suffering of others is somewhat less useful than addressing the existing suffering and seeking to help in simple, direct and meaningful ways.

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About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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5 Responses to Biting off less than they can chew

  1. brettfish says:

    good post lisa and a lot of valid stuff
    you could have mentioned that pretty much all of the misspelling is on purpose and is more accurately a case or respelling [refusing to bow to the dogma of the norms of society, or something like that]

    i think also that if you read the three daily blogs i’ve posted on the event that there very much is the understanding that just doing R12 a day is nothing [because of all the extra things that that R12 has to cover besides just food and as you pointed out with your dissecting the kid suggestion it is probably way higher because the average is severely lifted by the millionaires and so on…] so it is really just a taste [hm.] and a comparative taste – it also comes at a pretty bad time for us in the middle of fulltime work [transcription] and preparations for leaving to go overseas and live in a more impoverished community which in itself will hopefully invoke much eye-opening… so i think if it had happened more in the time of ‘normal life’ if there is such a thing that we could have invested a lot more focus on it.

    i really liked your last line – “Living on less is not necessarily lesser living. Pity is not the same as compassion. Inflicting suffering on ourselves out of guilt at the suffering of others is somewhat less useful than addressing the existing suffering and seeking to help in simple, direct and meaningful ways. ” – and that is really true BUT i do think that this little exercise helping us realise how boring/hard it is for us to do it comparative to what we are used to is part of the eye-opening part of it – if we lived like that all the time we would surely make more effort to ensure that living on less is not lesser living – i think one thing it would definitely encourage is community because six people living on six peoples R12 a day would allow you to live much more differently than on one persons R12 a day – so i think that would definitely come into play if it was a longer term thing.

    i just think there are some very important lessons or awarenesses that can come out of this [especially compared to people not doing it, for example] in terms of realising that aspects like monotony, less choice, less extras and other stuff we take for grateful are enforced upon rather than chosen by those who have less.

    so yes, in terms of making any difference to those living at that level, this probably does nothing, but in terms of affecting me and val and hopefully at least being the least bit of a slap in the face of ‘do you get this even a little bit?’ i think the exercise is still helpful.

    i also imagine a lot of the things we have to cut down on [snacks, coffee etc] are probably bad things that we could well do without…

    so thankx for your post, i agree completely with the spirit of it and some of the challenges you make, while at the same time still think that our ‘experiment’ [as long as it doesn’t end there are a feel-good whatever whatever] has its merits in terms of eye-opening and starting in the smallest of ways to identify…

  2. Lisa says:

    oh, that’s what “deliberately flagrant” meant… 🙂
    totally appreciate that it’s a personal exercise, with its own personal merits. Hope you liked the link to Jessica Jacklyn’s talk – an interesting angle on how we “story” our relationship to those who have less than us, and how we understand and attempt the ways available to effect change

  3. Pingback: biting off less than we can chew « Irresistibly Fish

  4. baristabruce says:

    I love reading posts that challenge me to think beyond my frame of reference. There is a beautiful succinctness to your writing that really hits home. I have been following Brett & Val’s challenge with interest and your post added the different angle. Thanks

  5. Pingback: Reflections on the Live Below the Line Challenge, Part 1 « On Afternoons and Coffeespoons

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