Why I’m not “Living Below the Line”

This week, if you have the slightest interest in international development and live in the Western Hemisphere, it’s likely that you’ll have been bombarded with people tweeting/blogging/facebooking/instagramming photos of lentils and noodles as they undertake the Live Below the LineChallenge’, where they live on £1/$1.50 of food per day for five days.

I’m going to put my hands up right now and admit that in 2012 I undertook this ‘challenge’ for a month and last year again for five days. This year, however, I am not taking part because I’ve woken up and realised just how bad this campaign really is… for a number of reasons:

My main issue with the campaign is the same issue I take with other Western international development campaigns – it’s (inadvertently) patronising. However well-intentioned, the campaign has, for many, turned into a funpersonalchallengetoseewhetherIcansurviveonapoundaday… LBTL is also, along with many other Western fundraising campaigns/NGOs/development organisations, designed to make the participant feel good about what they’re doing; believe that they are a little closer to understanding what extreme poverty looks/feels like and that they are playing an active role in eradicating poverty and going some way to ‘saving’ those who live in it (a) I know I am making sweeping statements here and b) these are the issues that I have with the majority of Western-led development orgs and campaigns). The harsh reality is that Live Below the Line is a shallow campaign built for social media – it’s the McDonald’s of international development campaigning and fundraising – fast, palatable, gimmicky and marketable, but damaging. This is yet another campaign that groups people living in extreme poverty as a homogeneous group with the same problems and issues and values, it labels them as poor, helpless and ineffective agents to be acted upon, saved and…not much else, thus dehumanizing. This campaign is not educating, it’s eliding the facts of poverty, reinforcing stereotypes and obscuring the real challenges being faced and the truth about the people facing them.

My second issue with the campaign is that, by focussing on extreme poverty purely in economic terms and drawing ‘poverty lines’, the campaign manages to trivialise the many complexities of poverty and what it will actually take to alleviate it. I appreciate that, for a campaign like this to be successful in getting people’s attention, it needs to focus on a single issue and that the Global Poverty Project and Live Below the Line do allude to some of these complexities if you dig a little deeper into the campaign. However, the general public face of the campaign, that has an awareness raising objective alongside fundraising targets, focuses on income (and the food that it can buy) alone, which is an inadequate measure of poverty –  and very shortsighted. As Ben Coleridge wrote in his blog post: “People’s capacity to translate income into wellbeing differs according to cultural, social and political contexts. While people’s incomes might set them above the determined ‘poverty line’, without access to a functioning justice system for example, their capacity to translate income into real opportunity is severely reduced.” The income focus of the campaign also ignores complexities such as the intra-household distribution of the wellbeing derived from income (gender is a huge factor here) and the fact that most people living on £1 a day spend only half of this daily income on food.

My third issue with the campaign is pretty much this:

Live Below the Line makes its first mistake in using the word “live.” To live, at least in my mind, means to really experience something, to understand an existence in such a way that you could describe its nooks and crannies with your eyes closed. Not spending a lot of money on food isn’t “living” below the line, because regardless of how you eat, chances are your home is still stocked with Ikea stuff, a comfortable bed, hot water, air conditioning, digital cable, etc. People forced to spend no more than $1.50 a day on food are also forced to live with violence, exposure to the elements, disease, and war. Saying you’re living like them because you’ve decided to give up fancy sandwiches for five days is like someone saying they can empathize with Nelson Mandela because they spent a night in the drunk tank.”

and this:

“Poverty is not a f**king game.

Poverty does not have rules except you have to do it again tomorrow. Poverty is not new or exciting. Poverty is not neatly quarantined to one area of your life. Poverty is not something you can control with neatly defined parameters. And it does not come with prizes.”

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on the Live Below the Line campaign, whether you’re in favour of it/have undertaken it or not. Am I being too harsh or too kind?

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