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.