Living Below the Line

January 15th, 2013 5:43 pm



There are 1.4 billion people living below the extreme poverty line in the world; the World Bank defines this as living on $1.25 or less per day.[1] I recently undertook the challenge to “Live Below the Line” in a bid to raise awareness of extreme poverty around the world and to raise money for the work Christian Aid is doing to help to combat it. This meant that I lived for five days with only £1 a day – roughly equivalent to $1.25 – to spend on food and drink. Whilst my experience during the week was a very watered down version of poverty, it made me think about things in a new way. It made me consider my day to day lifestyle more carefully in comparison with those who are deprived of such luxuries as I take for granted, and it made me think anew about why it is that one fifth of the world’s population is forced to live in conditions which deny their rights to dignity.

I started off by planning for my week below the line very carefully. My £5 budget stretched to cover the following: a large bag of lentils, a large bag of potatoes, a bag of flour, a packet of rice, a packet of porridge oats, three onions, three carrots, half a tablespoon of ground cumin, a tablespoon of salt and five bananas. I drank tap water, which was considered free of charge. On the first day, I made a huge pot of daal, with lentils, potatoes, onions, carrots, cumin, salt and water. I ate this twice a day, once at midday with chapattis which I made daily with flour and water and once in the evening with rice. Breakfast each day consisted of porridge, made from oats and water, and I had a banana a day.

Sugar and caffeine are luxuries

This diet was actually more than enough to live on; I was not hungry at all during the week. Whilst it filled me up, though, it was still a struggle to adapt to living on mainly lentils and carbohydrates. With our hectic lifestyles, many of us rely on processed sugar and caffeine to get through the day, but my diet had neither of these elements in it. The result was that I quickly began to feel lethargic, and had noticeably less energy right from the start of the week. Sugar and caffeine are luxuries, however, that one can learn to live without, and in general the food I was eating was nourishing and sustaining. I approached planning my week to try to ensure that I would cover as many essential food groups as possible in a bid to have a balanced diet; I consumed three different types of fruit or vegetable each day, had plenty of carbohydrates, and lentils are a good source of protein and fibre.

Poverty as a lack of choice

What affected me most was not hunger or tiredness; it was the lack of choice in what I was eating. I was bored with eating the same thing after two days and by the end was craving something different. People living in extreme poverty in the Global South, however, have to eat the same thing again and again, day after day. In many parts of the world, especially in rural settings, there is only one staple food available, and that is what people have to spend their money on. In Sierra Leone, for example, the staple food is cassava. Cassava provides virtually no protein and this leads to serious problems of protein deficiency amongst much of the population. Even if some people are getting enough to eat in terms of quantity they can still suffer from malnourishment. Poverty is not just a lack of spending power; it is a lack of choosing power.

Was it really below the line?

This is why I came to realise that my five days living below the line were merely a pale reflection of the experience of somebody living genuinely in poverty. I had choices; I had the ability to plan my food carefully, using the internet to inform me on the prices of food and where best to buy from and using my education to plan a relatively balanced diet. On top of this, my £1 a day only had to cover food, in the Global South this would have to cover everything. I worked out roughly the other costs of my day to day living during that week, and whilst I tried to limit the money I spent on other things, it brings my expenditure considerably above the figure of £1. On any one of those five days, I spent an average of £9.57 on rent, £1.24 on transport, £0.25 on internet, £0.70 on my mobile phone, £0.65 on energy, £1.68 on council tax and around £0.25 on water and sewerage. This brings my total daily expenditure to a total of £15.34, including £1 for food, on just the things which I would consider essential or obligatory. Whilst in the UK this is quite low, mainly due to the reduced food costs and the fact that I split bills with housemates, in terms of percentages it’s astronomically above the figure of £1 a day that those who are genuinely living in extreme poverty have to live on. On any normal day when not living below the line that figure would probably be around £20; the essentials of my day to day lifestyle are worth twenty times those of somebody living in extreme poverty.

Exploitation, rise in prices and corporations

The poverty and poor food security of billions is a result of the blind profligacy of those leading overly privileged lifestyles, mainly in the Global North. Corporations exploit vulnerable people by paying wages a fraction of what they should be; they use legal loopholes to avoid paying billions in taxes every year to the impoverished countries in which they operate. Governments support arms deals and wars which contribute to death and destruction, creating and exacerbating poverty. We live carbon intensive lifestyles, leading to climate change which affects mainly those in the Global South. I live a privileged life in a wealthy country, yet my country’s wealth was created largely by the inhuman exploitation that occurred during the colonial era. The disastrous rise in global food prices in recent years has little, if any, root cause lying with those who have suffered the most from it – the poor. The power and influence of global market forces on food prices, influenced and directed largely from the boardrooms of the Global North, carry increasing weight as power is conglomerated in an increasingly globalised structure of unaccountable multi-national corporations.

We are each complicit in these structures which keep millions in poverty. How much of the guilt should be placed with us, though, and how much with the corporations and the governments? Multi-national corporations can defend any number of actions by saying that they are responding to market demand, governments can say that they are acting in the interests of their people and to a certain extent these things are true. I believe we are all guilty of not creating a market demand for socially and environmentally responsible corporations and governments. We may not feel rich or powerful, but most of us in Europe still enjoy the power of choice, this is something that my week below the line taught me. We vote politically for our leaders and mandate them to represent our views on the world stage. More than that, however, we vote with our money. Where we spend our money and where we save, invest and donate our money has a massive impact on the lives of the disadvantaged.

Am I guilty?

Our individual culpability for extreme poverty has to be considered limited; I was born into this lifestyle and I do not feel I, at any point, knowingly chose to be complicit in a system that exploited millions of people worldwide. A lack of individual culpability does not deny individual responsibility, though. Even if we are only guilty as part of a collective, we each individually have a duty to contribute to the atonement for that collective’s wrongdoings. Indeed, there is no other way in which the collective can hope to atone. The reduction of hunger is not simply a question of individuals being charitable; each person on this earth has the human right to food and that right is being denied, either by inaction or by unjust structures, to 1.4 billion people. We have individual responsibility to end this injustice, we may not each be guilty but we are each responsible.

I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Tajikistan with Christian Aid in January this year. Tajikistan is one of the world’s most disadvantaged nations. It is the poorest of the ex-Soviet states, and faces a plethora of problems, including increasing climate change, rife corruption, emigration and HIV/AIDS. I met people first-hand who were living in extreme poverty, as well as seeing some of the work that Christian Aid and other NGOs are doing to help them into a position where they can help themselves. I visited several projects which are doing innovative and important work to lift whole communities out of extreme poverty. Access to Market schemes put into place by Christian Aid and their partners enable rural communities to be economically active and secure by teaching them the skills and giving them the equipment and support to grow, preserve and sell food in increasingly difficult climatic conditions. This includes education and training programmes, the provision of solar greenhouses and support for those experimenting with new farming techniques.

I cannot feel individually responsible for the conditions that I witnessed in Tajikistan, even though I recognise that the lifestyle I have inherited is part of the root cause of the poverty of people worldwide just like those I met whilst I was there. I do feel a responsibility to try to redress the balance. The work of development NGOs is vital in redressing the balance and as Christians surely we are duty bound to support it. However, our responsibility cannot be simply to set up a direct debit to a charity and then to let them get on with righting the wrongs of the world. In choosing who we buy from and who we vote for we have the political and economic clout to make a difference to the global structures that deny dignity to 1.4 billion of this world’s people, and we have a responsibility to use it. In Europe most of us are in the privileged position of being able to exercise our right to lobby politicians and big companies.

The form that globalisation has taken thus far has meant that the Global North has been enriched at the expense of the Global South, creating a global economic system of which the enforced poverty of 1.4 billion people is an integral part. Globalisation has always meant exploitation and its exponents have a lot to feel guilty about. If globalisation carries any message, though, it should be one of our shared humanity. The African philosophy of Ubuntu, roughly translated as ‘I am because we all are’, is helpful in understanding why it is that we have a responsibility towards those in poverty. It is not simply because we feel guilty for our part in creating poverty and need to try and redress the balance, but because of our common humanity and common future. We can see those amongst us who are hungry, we have to try to the best of our ability to feed them; we can see those who are thirsty, we have to try to give them something to drink; we can see those who are naked, and we have to clothe them.


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[1]               “World Bank Updates Poverty Estimates for the Developing World”, Research at the World Bank 26 August 2008.

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