May 16 to 20 is The Global Poverty Project's (GPP) 'Live Below the Line' week. The project has challenged participants to eat only $1.50 worth of food per day to raise awareness for extreme poverty and encourage people to get involved. But is that enough to make a difference?
The premise for the event is that 1.4 billion people worldwide currently live in "extreme poverty," defined by the World Bank as surviving on US$1.50 a day (adjusted for inflation from the 2005 rate of US$1.25). Live Below the Line challenges the public to go for five days spending just that on food -- though, as its website points out, for people actually living in extreme poverty, that daily $1.50 has to cover not only food, but "housing, health, education, and transportation expenses" as well.
Besides trying to help people better understand the plight of those in extreme poverty, the project has a dual goal of raising money for international aid through sponsorships from friends and family. Participants create personalized fundraising pages and are encouraged to garner at least $50 in donations, which support GPP and its charity partners.
But aside from the donation aspect, which is the least publicized part of the project and isn't even mentioned in GPP's promotional video, it's unclear how the challenge is supposed to benefit those in extreme poverty.
A recent GOOD Magazine article questions whether the campaign really makes participants understand what it's like to live below the line:
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.
Many participants do appear to be missing the point. The blogosphere is teeming with posts by people who are pooling their funds and cooking bulk meals that can serve 10, distracting themselves from their hunger by watching T.V. or consulting nutritionists to make sure they're eating balanced meals for their $1.50. In light of the fact that many of the world's extreme poor don't even have access to basic necessities like sanitation and clean drinking water, eating lentils in front of the T.V. for a week seems like a rather trivial way to contribute. Even the project's celebrity front man, Hugh Jackman, told CNN that he won't be able to actually do the food part but he does plan to give up his computer, coffee and sugar for the week.
Of course, there are some insightful posts from people who seem to have truly gained perspective from the challenge. The Salvation Army's site features journal entries from an International Social Justice Commission policy intern, Chris Brekke, who writes that he was surprised by how isolated he felt while out at a bar, only able to afford water while those around him gorged on food.
"While the physical hunger was tough, the psychological aspect of living below the line was the greatest challenge... After only five days, I can quite honestly say that I can relate much more to the profound sense of disempowerment that accompanies the physical deprivation of extreme poverty. To me, the intensity of this feeling was unexpected."
Will these feelings last once people return to their normal lives? And is making people realize how good they have it enough to influence them to take action for those who are far less fortunate?
Founder of InvisiblePeople.tv and HuffPost blogger Mark Horvath was able to cast some perspective on the subject. Horvath has blogged about his own experience being homeless, and recently started working at a seasonal homeless shelter in California. While not familiar with Live Below the Line, he had some bigger-picture insight about how to support the battle against poverty.
"I'll meet people and they'll say, 'I'm going to live for a week and experience homelessness.' I'll say, 'Save your time and go volunteer at a homeless shelter and get people out of homelessness.' The downside of poverty and why there's so much hopelessness and pain is because you lose choice. If you're choosing to sleep outside, and then you go back to your cushy life, what's really changed?"
He said that he used to believe that whatever your support level was, the important thing was just to be doing something. That changed when he met a woman dying under a bridge.
"The bottom line is people are dying," said Horvath. "I met a girl, her name was Angela, dying under a bridge. I turned to the people I was with and said, 'What are you doing for her?' They said, 'We're giving her sandwiches.' Giving her sandwiches is not enough."
But he added that not everyone can or wants to donate, and that's fine -- the important thing is to do what we can to support organizations that are actually working to get people out of extreme poverty.
"It all depends on the results -- if the campaign is really getting people out of poverty," he said. "Make sure that at the end of the day, it's making a difference... Do what you can but support the ones that are having the most impact. Don't just go by any cool campaign you see on social media. Looks who's been doing it for a while, who's having the most impact, who's really on the ground fighting poverty."