This weekend, in advance of a 12 week volunteering placement in Ghana (a placement organised through the DfID backed ICS scheme), I spent four days living on £1 per day, to help raise money for the charity I will be volunteering with. My few days ‘living below the line’ secured a great deal of sponsorship, and I would like to reiterate my thanks to everyone who supported me. But it also had deep value in making me think about how I live.
First, some context. About 1.2bn people live in ‘extreme poverty’, which the World Bank defines as having $1.25 income per day, before any expenses. $1.25 is about 85 pence (but £1 is a much nicer, round number to work with for fundraising). About a quarter of Ghana’s population lives in extreme poverty. These numbers are frankly shocking, but it is one thing to think about the numbers, and another to live them.
In a spirit of openness, I should point out that my £1 per day went on food – I didn’t have to cover the cost of heating my home, or cooking my food. I also didn’t cut out things like internet usage. I DID make certain concessions – I only went places by car if other people were going to be driving that route anyway, and didn’t let people buy my drinks – I didn’t do anything which was not free at the point of access. But I wont pretend that my experience wasn’t far easier than that of most people living in extreme poverty. I wasn’t worried about the gas being cut off, or losing my home. I didn’t worry about where the next meal was coming form.
Still, I learnt a lot from my experiences. First of all, with an Asda as my local shop, I could easily source four days’ food for only £4. I was expecting to live on plain bread and pasta; in fact, I was able to get not only some tins of tomatoes and beans, but some fresh fruit, vegetables and even a tin of Tuna. Of course, most of the developing world isn’t stuffed with Walmart. This is probably a blessing of sorts – globalisation has its drawbacks – still, I can’t help but wonder who Asda is under-paying to keep their prices so low.
And that’s the rub. What this weekend really showed me is that all to often I *don’t* think about what I am doing. I absent-mindedly snack during the day, I grab a cup of tea and don’t finish it, I get into the car and pick up a sweet from the bag in the glove box, I have a glass of wine with my parents because it is what we do on a Saturday evening. It was the lack of freedom which most surprised me.
Of course, I knew my constraint was self-inflicted and temporary. On Monday, I could indulge my sweet tooth, or grab that cup of coffee I had an urge for. But imagine living in such poverty that you aren’t even free to eat what you like – if you have enough to eat at all. It would be so easy to slip into the belief that other parts of your life are not free, that you are doomed to a life of struggling and suffering. It is all to easy to see how cycles of poverty and isolation are reinforced and perpetuated.
And of course, just as I was frustrated by my family being able to eat and drink and live as normal, with the freedom to control their diets and their lives, so too do people living in extreme poverty live alongside those with great wealth. In South Africa, there are gated communities to separate the haves form the have nots, but these very gates are reminders of what people are denied. Living with the reminder that you do not have enough, but other people have more than they need, only ingrains the isolation and subordination of people in poverty. They can see a better world, but it is a world out of reach.
It is down to those of us with enough to make sure everybody has that same luxury. This is why the Fairtrade movement exists, why the UK commits 0.7% of GDP to foreign aid (a lamentably small amount, but second only to the EU and the US in value, and to Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg and Denmark as a percentage of GNI), why activists tirelessly campaign to cancel Third World debt, and why people like me take part in schemes like ICS. If life were a hundred-meter race, people in poverty would be running just as fast, but they would be starting 20 meters behind everyone else. The least we can do is help them catch up.
To find out more about what I will be doing in Ghana, or to make a donation, visit justgiving.com/jfefleming