New Internationalist

Living below the line

I’m hungry. In fact – I’m ravenous. Not even for quantity of food, but just for something that has taste. Anything has set me off in the last four days – the smell of a microwaved meal, walking past a café or just even talking about food leaves me in a fantastical weak-kneed state.

Why am I so hungry? Because for eight days, I’m living below the line – in extreme poverty.

Some 1.4 billion people around the world live on less than what you can buy in the US for a $1.25 a day. It’s enough for some rice, some vegetables, cooking fuel and some clean water to make two basic meals. Then there’s 10 cents left over for everything else in life – housing, transportation, education, clothes, healthcare – anything else they might need to survive.

So what’s happening?
We’ve made great progress – reducing the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty from 52  to 25 per cent since 1981.

In 2000, 190 world leaders came together at the UN to create the Millennium Development Goals – eight goals that would halve extreme poverty by 2015. In September 2010, the UN met to discuss the progress of the MDGs and how to ensure we achieve them.

So for eight days I was only allowed to spend 93p a day on food, with which I was able to buy some muesli, milk, fruit and pasta – or put differently: a marathon of boredom for my taste buds.

Why was I living in extreme poverty?
I’ve been very lucky in my life – the example of my family has both been quite daunting but most of all inspirational. My South African family gave up so much, in some cases even their lives, for what was the challenge of their generation – ending apartheid.

When I was 10, at my granddad Oupa Natie’s 80th birthday in South Africa, I ended up sitting next to an old man on the sofa in our lounge. I had no real idea who he was – but no person has had greater impact on my life. Nelson Mandela was one of Oupa Natie’s oldest friends. I was in awe of him that day and I immediately went to find out everything I could about him and the giants that he stood shoulder to shoulder with.

Reading about how these men dreamt and hoped for a better world inspired a life-long desire to make a difference. It’s a desire that has informed my life so far – and it’s why I chose to live below the line in order to raise vital funds.

It was an amazing, tough week. I came face to face with only a fraction of the challenge of extreme poverty – having to make careful decisions about what to buy, when to eat, when to go hungry. But I didn’t have to face the challenges those who really do live in extreme poverty must struggle with: what would you do if you were in charge of the spending and a member of your family became ill? Would you pay for them to go to the doctor or would you pay to feed your family? If you pay for the doctor, then your family goes hungry. If you feed your family, you can only hope that your brother, your sister, you mother or father – whoever it is – gets better.

I’m not sure I could make that decision. But the week showed me that a partnership of people can take action – governments and leaders, charities and local communities, people living in extreme poverty themselves and people just like us. Working together we have and can achieve great things as we face the challenge of our generation.

Thousands will be taking the challenge of living below the line this May – sign up at www.livebelowtheline.org.uk

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