You would be hard pressed to have missed the latest charity craze sweeping Oxford at the moment. ‘Live Below The Line’ challenges participants to live on £1 a day for 5 days in order to raise awareness of the global poverty which so many people across the world sadly live in. The website says that the project aims “to deepen understanding of the challenges faced by individuals living in extreme poverty.” They argue that to tackle poverty effectively, we need to understand it better.
This message was echoed by one student at Jesus who commented; “I’m often conscious that as students, we’re so fortunate to go out for nice dinners, meet up for ice-cream with friends, and have the freedom to eat what we want, when we want. This week has been difficult – mainly due to the fact that it takes careful planning how to stretch the daily £1 allowance and living mainly on plain pasta and digestive biscuits has left me feeling very hungry and bored of what I’m eating.”
However, it is questionable how much ‘Live Below The Line’ does enable individuals to empathise with the plight of those living in poverty. Those participating still have the benefits of central heating, electricity, shelter, running water and numerous other things that many people who face extreme poverty are not entitled to. By suggesting that it is possible to live on £1 a day, one diminishes the much more valid and horrific experiences of the number of people in abject poverty. Much of this comes down to the problematic idea of ‘understanding’ poverty. Poverty is not something that can be understood until it is something you have lived with. Really lived with, as opposed to choosing to live on just £1 a day. Knowing that you can’t give up half way through, knowing that you have no support network when you get hungry, knowing that you don’t have only two more days to struggle through, but a lifetime. Many ‘Live Below The Line’ teams have also worked together in order to cook bigger meals to feed all of them. Indeed, last week the whole Oxford ‘Live Below The Line’ team organised a massive meal at the East Oxford Community Centre. It’s much easier and cheaper to cook in bulk and when you’re actually living in poverty, you don’t necessarily have 9 other people with which to team up and pool your resources.
These criticisms should not serve to downplay the fact that the money raised by the initiative has been impressive. The Jesus College ‘Live Below The Line’ team have raised over £1500 so far for charities such as Tearfund and Unicef. But it’s important not to let the idea of raising money stop us from criticising the ways in which it has been raised. It’s important to challenge damaging assumptions about how we can ‘understand’ poverty. We need to understand poverty by listening to the experiences of those actually affected by it. Maybe then we can think about how raising money can help those people.
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