Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Insight and understanding

I first learned about Living Below the Line at the Wellington Candidates Meeting - it was not auspicious introduction. James Shaw mentioned that he was doing it and therefore he wouldn't be putting on weight to look like the other Wellington Central candidates; the audience laughed in that way people do when you mention fatness - there doesn't need to be an actual joke. And I sat at the back rolling my eyes - "because obviously there is no correlation between poverty and fatness in New Zealand."

"Living Below the Line" is a five day challenge where people live on $2.25 a day, with the purpose of both raising money and awareness. Apparently: "it allows thousands of people in New Zealand to better understand the daily challenges faced by those trapped in the cycle of extreme poverty"

This 'understanding' is facilitated through a completely arbitrary set of rules: you're not allowed to accept anything free, you must include the cost of a whole packet of anything you use a bit of, you don't have to count the travel to get food, you don't have to worry about the cost of cooking fuel, and you can use whatever fancy pants equipment you've got in your kitchen.

I find everything about it, the rules, the blogposts, the tweets, horrific and offensive on a very fundamental level.

Poverty is not a fucking 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.

If people want to use stupid gimmicks to fundraise then I'm probably not going to both writing a blogpost about it. But to pretend that this highly structured game will promote insight or understanding is an insult to the women and men (but mostly women) who have to feed themselves and other people with inadequate resources year in and year out.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this Maia. I feel much the same about the 40 hour famine that children are hounded to participate in like it's a cool weekend activity.


Anna S said...

Brilliant post, I completely agree. Also with you Meg, the 40 hour famine gives me the jeebs.

Wish I hadn't clicked the link to the prizes, that's just awful.

Often people say "I don't know how people are managing". And I think behind this is the thought that poor people make do in amazing ways, and "I just couldn't do it".

I'd like us to change our thinking to "I don't know how we can live with ourselves when we allow people to struggle this way in our communities".

I'm in favour of universality, for instance in the provision of health care, for this reason.

There may be more 'middle-class welfare' with universality, but it removes some of the us and them divisions.

David xvx said...

As a result of the participation of one of the charities involved in Live Below the Line this year, over $30,000 will be going towards the development of sanitation and other facilities for one or more poverty-stricken villages in Northern India.

I do not know the figures for the other organisations, or Live Below the Line across the board - but I expect that well over $100,000 will be going to people who desperately need the assistance.

I prefer measurable outcomes for the people who need them than vitriol on blog posts.

Justin Scott said...

Hi Maia

First of all, thanks for writing from your perspective. Although I am rather sad to hear you have this view, I can understand how you may have come to this conclusion. So here is my explanation:

Live Below the Line is not a game at all. It is simply a campaign to raise awareness and funds for projects that benefit people in poverty. As a participant and a volunteer for P3 Foundation I know a different perspective.

For me, this Challenge is very personal. It challenges me to think about how much I spend, how little one can buy, how challenging it is every day to eat so little. It gives me a framework for understanding better, the challenges faced by those who live like this every day.

This, I think, is the purpose of the campaign; to create empathy! And, I truly empathise.

Also, so far almost $100,000 (see this at has been raised  for the campaign; which I am glad to be a part of.

I hope this has helped you understand a different perspective and I would love to chat to you more about this, either in the comments, via email or over skype: justin.r.scott

Best regards,


Crash said...

More women than men live in poverty?

Got a source for that?

Maia said...

Meg and Anna - thanks heaps. I agree absolutely about the forty hour famine - and I want to write a little bit about the politics of food in all this. Also about the importance of universality - I think one of the other problems with this (which I'll write more about in a follow-up post) is the way it deliberately obscures the reality of poverty in New Zealand, and instead presents poverty in a way that makes it a foreign thing.

David (and this also deals with one of Justin's points): This could be done as a fundraising without the offensive suggestion that it raises understanding and insight. I specifically said that it was not hte fundraising I objected to - but the way the organisers said that it would promote great understanding.

Justin: It comes with elaborate rules and prizes - you can call it a challenge if you like, but it has all the elements of a game.

You say that this has given you a framework for understanding the challenge of people who live like this everyday. It's a framework built on air, because no-one lives like they're on Living Below the Line everyday.

If you couldn't empathise without doing an arbitrary and artificial practice, then I don't think the empathy you have gained will be particularly worthwhile.

It also worries me, the incessant centring of people who are not living in poverty in this campaign. More attention is being given to people pretending to be in poverty than is ever given to actual poverty (this is actually Julie's point and I stole it off her, because she's very smart). Then the mere awareness of pretendees is treated as a goal and a virtue. All this centres not those who are actually living through these realities, but people like you.

Maia said...

Crash - Yes worldwide, in the US - I'm sure you can find other examples elsewhere.

Although that wasn't what I was saying. I was saying more women than men are responsible for feeding themselves and other people with limited resources - women do most of the work of food preparation and management.

Aru said...

Women do tend to suffer more in more aspects than men when it comes to poverty.fair point.

Anyways I agree with David and Justin. And if all of this in your perspective is as low as a "game" a mere entertainment as you call it for people, I want to know how would you have done it? How do you want to get the attention of an everyday teenager and spread the word?

I can assure you I did not do this challenge as entertainment. With 3 tests and 4 assignments I did not enjoy doing this. What I did come to was an understanding. I was never the type to not be aware of these things but in those 5 days I understood it more. Unlike those less fortunate I ate a small yet more reasonable amount of food enough to get by each day. But unlike others I had a better variety, i could heat it and I was able to use transport and wear clothes and enjoy still the other luxuries.

And I told this to other people. People listened to what we had to say. People asked questions. People gained knowledge.

I want to ask you how you suppose we go about Fundraising? I agree with poverty not being a game. But to be honest in reality people have become so desensitized to such causes that its hard to gain their attention. And with Live Below The Line this kinda did work.

I think you're attacking the wrong people here. It can be put to better use to figure out more ways to get people involved.

Aru said...

One more thing. Have you talked to any 1 women in India. Or as a matter of fact anywhere actually? Have you seen an old woman with amputated legs along with her grandchildren begging for one rupee because I have. I have seen too many women in too horrifying a situation and I can assure you they dont give a dam where the money comes from because they dont have the luxury to ponder upon whether the fundraising was done by people in good faith or not. I think you need to appreciate more the fact that these days organisations like P3 for example are striving to not just ask for money but do so with transparency whilst trying to find a method to engage youth. Its EASY to tip $1 in the donation box at Starbucks because people tend to do it not because they care but because they feel good afterwards for having done a charitable act. But its hard to get people to commit, or even give 2 minutes of their precious time to listen to the reality and participate with actual purpose.

By all means, give more fundraising scenarios that raised as much money as this whilst educating people and doing so in what you define "good faith" to be, without it being a game

David xvx said...

Full disclosure: I am the Chair of the trust board for P3, one of the charities partnering in the Live Below the Line campaign.

A few comments:

1) P3 was founded by a group of people, including a doctor who has worked in areas of extreme poverty within New Zealand. I am a lawyer, and though financially secure now, have worked on some of the most horrific criminal cases arising from the worst depths of poverty in New Zealand. My family's financial position was often shaky growing up, but okay, and I know what it's like to not know where my next rent payment is coming from - but the things I have seen at work make even the lowest points of my life seem privileged and comfortable (which, make no mistake, they are!).

So, in founding P3, we initially intended to split our focus between overseas extreme poverty and domestic poverty. However, as a young organisation, we decided that it was best not to split our efforts and, frankly, that compared to groups like the Child Poverty Action Group (for example), we had relatively little to offer in New Zealand. We lack the expertise and standing (or at least we thought so). Which is why we focus on involving young New Zealanders in campaigning against extreme poverty in less developed states.

2) The point of the "game" (like the 40 Hour Famine, or Oxfam Trailwalker, or any similar sponsored event) is twofold.
First, to raise money. If I asked my friends for money and wasn't doing anything unusual, most of my friends would look confused and promptly give me nothing. When I did the Trailwalker (4x) I told people that I was walking 100km for Oxfam, and each year raised ~$3,000. It might be symbolically odd that acts of voluntary self-deprivation from the privileged are used to raise money for the less privileged - but that's common-place. And it works.

Second, to get people thinking about the issues. Unfortunately, those in positionsz of privilege in our society tend not to emotionally or intellectually engage with the realities of poverty. Things like Live Below the Line, I hope, help to change that. We want people to think about what the gross income disparity in New Zealand and worldwide actually means, and to realise the effects it has on our fellow people. You say that the suggestion that Live Below raises understanding is offensive. I think that is hyperbolic and plain wrong. Living on $2.25 a day for a week might not do much (compared to, for example, my own watershed experience of seeing teenage prostitutes on the street in Zhuhai, a 'small' Chinese city, trying to pass us, passing Westerners on our way back to the Macau border, their tiny babies...which fundamentally changed my worldview). But at least it will help to get people thinking about the realities of extreme poverty. At the very least, it takes a layer of abstraction out of the concept of the poverty line.

3) It is silly that we have to give prizes to encourage donations, but comparable groups do the same for comparable fundraisers. And it works - sponsors give us prizes, at no/low cost to us, we offer them to fundraisers, and they raise more money, which we can use to do more.

4) More attention might be given in the Live Below campaign to the participants than the beneficiaries (though I'm not sure about that, in any case - P3's page is very focused, for example, on where the money goes). But for P3 and the other partner organisations - 11 months of the year, at least, I'd say we're the opposite.

5) If you have better ideas about how P3 or any of the partner organisations could encourage young New Zealanders (P3 targets young professionals, university students, and high school students) to campaign against poverty and/or donate to support our activities, please do contact me. My email address for P3 is and I check my email several times a day.

Until that point - don't make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Justin Scott said...

Thanks David for outlining more about P3 and our intentions. I think the operative word is "intentions". On the other hand, Live Below the Line is an intention translated into action. For all the blog posts written, videos made, opinions given - action has always been more effective in creating change.

I am concerned to hear your distrust in using a "game". It is widely held in many industries (Gaming, Commerce, E-Commerce etc) that using rewards and recognition makes everything more effective. Gamification is a massive motivator and when used effectively can be a true game-changer. In this case, rewards and prizes are simply a physical recognition of our gratitude to outstanding fundraisers. Many people are driven and incentivised by prizes (some of our most inspiring people). If we didn't offer them, I suggest we will lose a lot of extra effort from these people.

Gamification is huge, FarmVille is a prime example of the use of gamification to get people to give time, money and attention for intangible rewards. They are so effective that Farmville (virtual farming) earns more money than Fonterra! It's a trend that is growing in mass and is being implemented everywhere. I feel sorry that if you are afraid of the "game" in this instance, you are up for some pretty scary times ahead, as it takes over.

Live Below does build a framework, and suggesting my framework was non-existent in the beginning is unfair and unjust (unexpected from a equal right advocate). My framework for empathising with people in poverty has always been formed, and has bee shaped consistently over the years.

I was born in South Africa and have personally been deep in the Soweto slums, handing out ice creams, building houses etc. I have seen ,first hand, the sight of poverty. I founded and ran a social enterprise that was focused on selling products made by people in poverty. My understanding of poverty has been quite complete and in-depth - however, my feeling towards it (unbeknownst to me) has always been quite shallow.

And as a direct result of Live Below the Line, I can say that I have a more direct connection to the way people live in poverty. I trust that you can understand that. If not, I challenge you to give it a go, and judge from experience rather than perception.

Finally, it disgusts me that you would call people "pretenders" in a derogatory way. There is no way for the people to support this cause and raise funds, and enact change without pretending (or empathising) with those stories they are trying to share. Poverty is, by virtue, a natural thing, or as a result of extraneous circumstances. We, having been born in the first world, have never and will likely never live in poverty - and despite our attempts will never be able to accurately replicate it for ourselves. However, that is not a good enough reason to sit back and not act.

Where would the world be if only the people who had the direct experience acted with no support from the majority of people who had not had that experience?

Justin Scott said...

Around Gaming: I recommend reading this article...

Anna S said...

David, Justin, Aru - I have read all your comments. I appreciate that criticism of your valuable work hurts, because you are genuinely working to alleviate poverty.

Here is my perspective:

When I started seeing tweets and blogposts from people involved in the challenge, it seemed as if they wanted me to be aware of how aware of poverty they were becoming. Even better if I responded, and made them aware that I was aware about how aware they are.

This puts them at the centre of the poverty narrative, and also 'others' the poor.

But perhaps this kind of self-focused gesture is the only way that we can make ourselves engage with the issue. Perhaps gamification is a great way to raise money to alleviate poverty. Instinctively I react with distaste to this, but maybe I need to get my head in the game.

David xvx said...

Anna, I'm not sure if that is really a commentary on Live Below the Line or if it is indicative of the general narcissism of Twitter and social media in general: Most people's tweets are, mostly, about themselves. It's a very self-promoting medium.

Anna S said...

Good point, David!

Aru said...

Hey Anna I get where your coming from, fair enough and David makes a fair point.

Thing is its human nature. Like I said people have a tendency to share the spotlight. We donate to feel good, when we achieve something we want to share, we thrive on recognition and encouragement. Most of us anyways. But this goes for everything. LBL challenge and how people shared it on fb and twitter isn't any different to other things. Besides that's the whole point of social websites like fb and twitter. Not all of them wanted there comments to be taken how you took them. Don't forget that how you construe other people's comments is subjective. A lot of people have been blogging and video-logging about it mostly because its encouraged to share our perspective. It allowed others to find out whats happening and to be honest, only by sharing such things I got more people asking me what it was about and I got more donations!

stargazer said...

i think many commenters are missing the point of maia's post. this event is possibly better than doing nothing but maybe not even that. poverty occurs because of structural factors - the way our economies are structured, the way our markets are structured, the way our legal systems are structured, the way our political systems are structured, and the way our power systems are structured (who holds power within society often has little or no connection with who holds political positions).

this particular event does nothing to challenge any of these structures. raising awareness and empathy means what in regards to this event? that you know poor people have it tough? that's not a huge revelation, and it's not worth too much if you're not prepared to challenge the structures which create poverty. does your event promote critical thinking? does the "action" you carry out actually create any meaninful change? and by meaningful, i mean something that will prevent poverty happening in the first place or deal with the underlying causes.

to fight poverty, we need activism not charity. and what this event does, and where it is most dangerous, is that it makes people feel complacent and good about themselves because they've done "something", and so they don't need to do the really hard stuff, the really self-sacrificing stuff. the stuff that will threaten your personal safety and security, the stuff that will take up your time & attention, the actions that will actually cause a fundamental shift in society.

that's why i agree with maia that the "understanding" provided by this event is not anywhere near what's needed nor what is effective.

what's more, a few of you talk about how a gimmick is the only way to make people pay attention. that's the way society is, you say. it's exactly that attitude of accepting what is an unacceptable status quo, and in fact perpetuating it by working within it that is the essential problem. do you know the number of times we hear that at this blog, in regards to a variety of issues? "that's just the way the world is, get over it". but until we accept the fundamental fact that the world does not have to be that way, and centre our actions around making sure that it no longer is that way, then how can meaningful change occur? i'd say it can't.

some of you are asking for suggestions of what you can do. i'll start from my own religious perspective, which won't appeal to many, but i'll go with it anyway. this is the month of ramadan, and for muslim people it's a time when we go without food or water during the hours from sunrise to sunset. we don't do it for sponsorship, we don't do it as a gimmick. we do it as a means of improving ourselves as well as understanding others. a whole lot of charity happens in the month of ramadan, but it's done quietly, without show. during the month, we promote values counter to materialism and consumerism. as i say, it's my religious perspective and i acknowledge that most people won't identify with it. but i think there are principles that can be translated to other activities. (cont...)

stargazer said...

for those of you who have had contact with poverty and social injustice and want to take action, i would think meaninful action would have to centre around political activism. it's not about how much money you can raise, but how much change you can push through. the work should centre around collective action, and raising awareness - not of the fact that the poor have it tough, but around the fact that poverty is unacceptable and structural change is imperative.

i'll finish by saying that i don't doubt anyone's intentions. most people who work on events like this do it from the strong need to do something in the face of the horrors they have witnessed. but doing anything is not the same as doing "something". maia is giving you a well thought out and valuable critique. you can choose to take some time to think about that and to reassess, or you can push it aside and be defensive. if you choose the latter, effectively nothing much will change.

Anonymous said...

Awesome Stargazer!


Suzanne said...

I decided to do Live Below the Line on a whim, though I have been involved in fundraising for Oxfam before and donate monthly. I was curious to see how much money I could raise, and to see how I'd fare living on so little.

Living Below the Line has its gimicky aspects, like any fundraising drive. But preaching to the choir doesn't achieve change. It seems bizarre to criticise this particular campaign for the gimicky aspects when that is precisely what enables people to have conversations about poverty with those who wouldn't ordinarily listen. And at the risk of stating the obvious, there are a lot of people who don't think about poverty at all - let alone think about what they can do to be part of the solution.

I work in a large company where all the employees earn above the average wage, and this week I've been able to talk about poverty without anyone becoming defensive. They can see that I'm putting my money where my mouth is (like many people, my partner and I are donating the money we're saving on food), and participating in the challenge means the discussion becomes concrete rather than abstract. In the lunch room, as I heat up my beans and rice, people ask me how it's going and what the money is going towards. I've had discussions about what needs to be done globally to eradicate poverty. I've had discussions with people who have always thought of poverty as inevitable, or too big to solve. I've forwarded links to Peter Singer's website to colleagues who've never previously thought about giving to aid organisations but are now interested to know how much they "should give". I've debated the merits of eliminating first world farming subsidies and forgiving third world debt with people who think that buying fair trade bananas is a waste of money.

This is what raising awareness means - it means raising awareness of how we can achieve change. It means having discussions that facilitate the mind shift away from "oh that's awful" and towards "so what can we do?" So what if it takes a few gimicks to get us there? In an ideal world, the gimicks wouldn't be necessary... but then again, in an ideal world, there wouldn't be poverty.

Suzanne said...

@ stargazer - I hadn't read your post when I posted mine, though as it happens we touched on many of the same issues. I wanted to address a few of your comments in more detail.

From my own religious perspective, I believe that we need to adopt a justice-centred approach rather than a charity-centred approach, and we all need to acknowledge our collective responsibility to creating a more equitable world where each person can flourish. In Judaism, these concepts are called tzedakah and tikkun olam. I think the critique from Maia, Anna S and yourself are important to be mindful of in any fundraisng campaign - but in my experience, this particular campaign has provided a very good platform for raising awareness of the structural causes of poverty, and our ability to change these.

As regards political activism, I think that change is most likely to occur if there is a broad support base, and the first step needs to be creating that base, seeking consensus about the sort of world we want to live in, and undermining complacency and cynicism.

It's not enough for people to have awareness of the existence of poverty, and it's not enough for people to have awareness of its causes - but this awareness is required before meaningful action is possible.

Aru said...

I understand where you are coming from. I support that money as aid is not the only answer. And I know exactly where people come from when they say "not enough is being done" or "poverty is not being taken seriously"

I find it strange though when you mention political activism. We see that in UN even for example. Though I acknowledge its importance I find that all this "lobbying" at a political level is all talk and no action. The third world is at the mercy of the first world. International law is eurocentric. It took YEARS for the UN nations to decide whether Darfur genocide should be classed as a genocide or as as a homicide etc. By the time they got past the paperwork damage was done. In third world, political activism ends up in blackmail, and life threatening situation. However actions do speak louder than words.

In India like in many other conflict ridden third world countries engaging in political activism gets you killed, your family threatened or it turns out the one doing the activism becomes corrupt with power. In India for the first time, youth had stood up and conducted a march against corruption. People are sick of getting engaged in slow pointless political banter and are taking action at a direct level. IN our instant surroundings.

These fundraising events try be realistic and even though they dress up events with "prizes" they do so in order to appeal to an audience that is so hard to get the attention of. People take action.

I don't know about everyone but for me and my friends I can safely say we learned something. We did not feel good about ourselves. Every day since I did my challenge which was about a week ago, I have a certain guilt at the back of my mind. I know for a fact she no longer throws away half her food, and I try to not indulge in more than whats necessary. Some of my friends have even started buying fair trade grocery continuously.

I have seen poverty at its worst, having grown up in India, and having had a grandfather with stories of the Pakistan India split who build his life up from poverty. I know this challenge does not offer the exact conditions of what poverty is. But it involves taking action. And unlike the 70's getting today's youth to take action is believe-you-me the hardest thing. You will find that even in schools censorship of reality takes place.I have stood up in a school assembly and shown videos of what actual violence takes place and received severe criticism for it. Even then, only a handful of people took interest.

Show is for those people who chuck that dollar as they pass by to a beggar. But getting people who wouldn't otherwise be interested in poverty issue or are ignorant, getting them to do the challenge let alone support it means a lot wouldn't you agree?I think we owe it to events like these to encourage such participation.

Justin Scott said...


Thank you for joining the conversation. I am glad that you have refined the points that Maia has made, as I think they are very valid. If that was the purpose of the article, I understand and respect the criticism - however, maybe next time it could be less aggressive and more suggestive of improvements.

I am grateful you have raised this issue, as I had overlooked it myself. As I am very aware of the structural and systematic problems that poverty is caused by, I some how forgot that not everyone is the same, and never thought to push this further.

I am very much aligned to what you talk about, and agree that there are of course other ways that we need to address the problem. I think the first world has a large and necessary role to play in fixing the problems of poverty and environmental sustainability. However, the problem has long been and continues to be disconnectedness.

For example, a boy in the supermarket who is packing lettuces on to a shelf -fills the shelf only to find there are two remaining lettuces. He proceeds to crush the ready packed lettuces in order to fit the spares on the shelf. He does this because he feels no connection to the buyer; who, unfortunately, will buy this lettuce and get home to find it was not in full condition. Here is an example of disconnectedness.

I see this problem everywhere when talking about poverty - people consistently say "it's Africa's proble" or "we need to focus on our own problems first". Despite there being a strong link to those people and ourselves.

Poverty and environmental sustainability IS OUR PROBLEM. It is our role as activists to connect people to the problem in such as a way as to make them act as accountable and responsible individuals. If there is no connection, they will feel they have no responsibility to do act.

I am a strong candidate for activism - or proaction. I have formed and continue to run businesses that promote ethical products, awareness, connectedness, and storytelling. My ambitions are probably above that which I will achieve in my lifetime, and as a result I aim to work with people like yourself, who act and promote these forms of change - whilst understanding the intricacies of the real problem.

Please stargazer, I would like to continue this conversation, can you get in touch

Maia said...

Ugh - I just had a long comment eaten by my slow internet connection.

Short version:

It's interesting to see discussion (and I particularly appreciate stargazer's point about structural change, which is always a good place to take things). But I don't think anyone defending this challenge, has acknowledged or responded to my point. I was not criticising this as a fundraising effort because it was gimicky - I don't really care about that. I was objecting to the way it claimed to be able to do more than that. Taking part in this challenge may give those who do it experiences, but those experiences are no closer to the reality of living in poverty than if you'd decided to only eat food that is brown for a week. The experiences of a challenge such as this cannot give insight into other people's reality. To claim that it does is ludicrous.

Suzanne said...

@ Maia - what do you think would promote insight and understanding of poverty among people who spend almost their entire income on luxuries?

LadyNews said...

I feel a bit squicked about it, and I think Maia's statement that the challenge doesn't really get to the real experience of poverty is the reason.

Thinking about that made me realise that part of the reason I'm not a fan of this is that people who participate are being praised for doing it tough and rising to the challenge, and depriving themselves, whereas actual people in poverty are routinely slammed (both by the government/people in power, and just general people musing on poverty and engaging in some beneficiary-bashing) and their experiences criticised or dismissed. For me this is another way in which the challenge doesn't get to the real experience of poverty, because there is no associated shame and blame that people who actually do live this experience have to deal with. It's probably a great (and by "great" I meant "pleasant", not effective) way to experience poverty: time-limited, with no shame associated with talking about your situation to other people, and with admiration from people who know you're doing it and think you are doing such a "brave" thing.

Muerk said...

I too have a religious experience, I also have a personal experience. Personal first...

I grew up as poor as you get in New Zealand - on a benefit. The hardest thing I found about poverty was the hunger. By the end of the week you would run out of food. Walking past the fish and chip shop with the smells and knowing there was a supermarket full of delicious food was just so hard.

Often the full shelves of the supermarkets sicken me. All I see is the starving faces of people around the world, people who would be pleased with maize porridge. We fill ourselves on meat and dairy while these people can't even afford a basic grain.

My religious perspective (Catholic) is this, every year we have Lent, a time of six weeks where we give up something, traditionally it was meat, fat and eggs, hence Pancake Tuesday because the household would use up these before Ash Wednesday the start of Lent. It's also why there is carnival (carni - meat) the week before Lent.

The idea with Lent is that this is the time for special charity towards the poor. The idea is that what you save on food is what you give for others. Nowadays in NZ we have special Lenten envelops which go to Caritas for their work.

I think poverty has to be dealt with in two ways. First is initial aid - feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bury the dead. This is a basic work of mercy and love.

Second we have to work towards social justice where we choose to promote the dignity of each human person. Poverty is an attack against human dignity and we have a responsibility to change political and social structures to respect human dignity.

I don't think we can ignore either way. Clearly Live Below the Line is mainly focused on the first part. It gets money to give as aid. Personally, pretending to be poor and hungry with a warm bed and the security of knowing it's only for a few days is not for me. I've been actually hungry and not out of choice, and I don't want to pretend about that.

However, I'm glad of the money that will help people. I can't begrudge what LBtL is doing.

stargazer said...

hugh, cut the snark. it's not necessary or acceptable.

stargazer said...

i wanted to get back to some of the people who responded to me.

aru: you miss the point with your example of the UN. we know that system is broken, which why i'm talking about changing structures - that where political activism needs to be directed. also, i know that the kind of activism that would bring about such change is hugely dangerous. i'm indian by birth, and i know exactly what the costs are in that country. and yet there are still those who do it - arundhati roy remains one of the people i admire most. around the middle east, millions of people have been putting their lives on the line across a whole range of countries to try to force change.

suzanne, "how much they should give" is entirely the wrong question. the question is "what should we do?" and "what's the best way of going about it?"

as to your question of how to promote understanding, even if we went with the basic scenario of LBtL, there could be some basic changes that at least improves the event. for a start, i'd get a 2-bedroom apartment in a poor condition, in a poor neighbourhood. i'd have at least 10 of the participants living in it (overcrowding is one of the most basic aspects of poverty). i'd give very limited appliances, definitely no internet connection & no paid tv channels. i'd provide them a wardrobe from the op shop of old & threadbare clothes ie clothes that identified them as people living with poverty, and the same with shoes. given that most overcrowding involves infants and children, as well as people having to work odd hours, i'd be making sure that there were loud sounds within the apartment of kids crying and the general noises of people going about their lives, happening at all hours of the night. lack of sleep is also one of the basic aspects of poverty. definitely no form of transport other than your own two legs, and be situated far away from the supermarkets.

all this for a week? total waste of time. do it for a month. at least. then i think it might be close to the actual experience.

Suzanne said...

I agree that LBtL doesn't even come close to approximating the actual experience of poverty. It doesn't say it does. It says it allows people to better understand, not fully understand.

I'm not likely to ever understand the real experience of poverty, thankfully. The best I can do is empathise. At any stage of this week, I could have called it quits. No set up could mimic the day to day powerlessness and desparation of extreme poverty. But the set up of LBtL isn't trying to do that - it's trying to be an effective fundraising platform that also gives participants a better understanding of one key aspect of poverty: worrying about having enough to eat.

For me, the most awareness raising part of the week was the shopping last weekend. I don't normally notice whether potatoes are a dollar or two dollars a kilo. The cost of staple foods is completely invisible in my usual shop. The concern that I might not have enough money to buy everything on my list has never featured before. This didn't so much raise awareness of poverty, as of the extent of my own privilege. I don't normally think of buses as a luxuory but this week I've spent more on bus fares than on food. In light of my experiences, I'm much less complacent and more likely to take action.

Also, I absolutely agree that "how much they should give" is the wrong question, but it's a damn sight better than "why should I care"

Jason said...

Why are "how much they should give" and "why should I care" the only options?

Just because something raises money for a good cause that doesn't mean it should be above criticism.

pixiegirl said...

Hello Maia,

You are right in some regards. Yes we are living below the line in regards to food only and only for one week. Which we finished last night. I am now enjoying a muesli breakfast and enjoying it rather than my 100g of oats which costs 30c. The 1.4 billion people living below the line are not going to see an end to their poverty.

but let me say a few other things.If someone give you a present with a good intention is this not a good thing?
however, if someone give you a present but their intention is for self benefit/gain or even to harm you is this not then a bad thing?

If people do things in this world, with good intentions to bring awareness to the people in there communities that might not have the same awareness, or who are caught up in their consumerist worlds with not even a single though of empathy to other in this world who do not have the same basic standards of living. Are these people doing a good thing? Their intentions are good?

Let me ask another question, if someone give you something or does something nice for you with good intention but you don't trust them, or feel there must be something wrong with it, is the giver at fault or the person receiving this who's fault?

If someone does something good, with good intentions, and a kind heart, and you presume it must be negative, is it not your perception that is at fault?

There are many people doing the live below the live challenge, all with their own positive intentions.

It is harder for one individual to create social change but as a group there is great potential. The 100th monkey syndrome!

I would also like to know what you are doing, actively doing to help to change this global poverty problem? please share your plans to make change and we will support them.

I like the name maia, or maya in sanskrit, is means the illusion, shinning light on the illusion or is it lost in an illusion and cant see reality? There are ulitamtely many truths and many illusions.

But even if you have good intentions but your words and actions harm others then this is not a good thing? I believe you have good intentions. You are a thinker, and that what the world needs, people who think independently. One good thing leads to another, and maybe something else wonderful will come from our living below the line even if it was only one week.

Thank you for sharing.

katy said...

Interesting that when food is involved these issues come up. My teenaged sister recently shaved her head to raise money for cancer research, I am trying to imagine the kinds of things people are saying here being said to people like her undertaking a different kind of "self-sacrifice"-based fundraising activity.

"Part of the reason I'm not a fan of this is that people who participate are being praised for doing it tough and rising to the challenge"

Sorry to single out this comment because this sentiment has come up elsewhere in this discussion but I just find this response so dreary and also misplaced. Dreary because of the implication that there is only one "right on" way to approach these kinds of issues. Misplaced because I think the criticism misses the point that people have been making about the value of the ongoing conversations that this has stimulated, the idea that someone saying "wow what an amazing sacrifice you are making" is not the end of the discussion but as participants have said it has been the beginning of genuinely useful conversations. From reading the discussion here I am actually more hopeful about the challenge than I was at the beginning for the very fact of the conversations that people say this stimulated as person-person contact is such a powerful tool of change.

Maia said...

katy - I agree that the food aspect is interesting, and I'm planning to write a follow-up post about that. When people shave their head for cancer I assume that they're not told that they're learning what it's like to have Cancer. Certainly that understanding and empathy isn't treated as a huge benefit in and of itself (and if it is I have exactly the same objections).

Suzanne - Your comment supposes that "insight and understanding of poverty among people who spend almost their entire income on luxuries" is a particularly important or worthwhile goal. I'm not convinced. Partly because it's concentrating on the minority of people in New Zealand spend almost their entire income on luxuries. But I don't think 'awareness' is necessarily valuable in and of itself.

But my answer would be - whatever is done to raise awareness should centre the voices of those who are actually experiencing poverty.

pixiegirl - I can't answer most of your questions - we have very different assumptions. I will say that I don't think the goodness or otherwise of people's intentions is a good reason to avoid analysing the meaning of what's going on.

Thanks for the moderating stargazer - Hugh please don't comment about moderating on the thread.

katy said...

"When people shave their head for cancer I assume that they're not told that they're learning what it's like to have Cancer"

Yeah, I didn't disagree with that point in your original post which I agree is repugnant. Kind of interestingly though (and something she didn't expect) she has been getting a hard time from strangers about having no hair which made her think quite broadly about appearance-based discrimination perhaps for the first time.

As an aside I also understand that people usually don't see cancer in a political/social context, which I think is interesting given that causes, experiences etc will be hugely influenced by where you are in the world/society and the forces you are subject to, in general I would like to see more discussion of this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you stargazer and maia.

This is the kind of thought and analysis that needs to take place when we look at these issues. Frankly, I find it quite scary that David and Justin Scott (perhaps I am conflating David with what Justin said) have not considered many of these issues and yet are running such an event.

How do we expect to facilitate meaningful change in this world without questioning what we are trying to (actually) do in the first place... People need to stop and ask themselves what the real issues are, why are they issues? What can we do to challenge them and hopefully... eventually... if we're heading towards ideals... eradicate them? Also, how can we act in such a way that will treat people as ends in themselves rather than mere means? (don't worry not claiming that one as my own).

Too often we approach a situation as the beneficent donor, forgetting that these people who are accepting our charity are in no position to do otherwise... The power imbalance at play is so often overlooked. I'm not saying there should be no charity but how are we offering it? What are we offering? Not that this is necessarily what LBL is doing but these are questions that should be asked. I'm sure I don't have to go into the oppressive systems inherently perpetuated by measures such as giving outright food aid to those living in poverty.

Thank you for starting a discussion about the fundamental structural changes that must occur. I think we should all be worried about the ways in which people living in poverty are effectively marginalised further from the discourse through events like this which focus so much on the participants. It is supposed to be about them. It is supposed to be for them. I sincerely hope that those following this discussion will heed your words and ask questions next time they decide to gain a bit of 'understanding.'