Living Below the Line… Sort of


Living Below the Line week starts on 23 September. During this week, kiwis will take up the challenge of feeding themselves for only $2.25 per day, which is the internationally recognised extreme poverty line (adjusted for purchasing power parity). The brave lot volunteering for this will be sponsored for their efforts and the funds raised will go to some well respected aid agencies. $150,000 has been raised at the time of writing; an amount that will no doubt multiply by the time all the money is brought in.

There’s a lot to like about this fundraiser. I admire its creativity. I like the fact that a bunch of organisations are working together on this and I respect the participants for attempting to experience something of what it is like to live in poverty. I hope it is a success.

But, the Global Poverty Project, which organises Living Below the Line claims this is not just a fundraiser, but that it also aims “to change the way New Zealanders think about extreme poverty”. This is an admirable objective, but here is where I have some issues.

To start off with, the people participating in this fundraiser will not actually be living on $2.25 per day; they will just be eating for $2.25 per day. For the extreme poor, $2.25 is not just your food budget; it’s your entire income. It’s got to cover your rent, your phone, your electricity, your kids’ school fees; the lot. Amazingly, many people around the world find ways to factor these expenses into their daily $2.25. But, then come the unexpected things, like medical bills or funeral costs. When it becomes necessary to find money for these, you’re no longer talking about cutting nutritionally unnecessary luxuries out of your diet; you’re talking about actually not having enough to eat. A perhaps surprising fact is that it is possible to eat on $2.25 per day (the Living Below the Line people have even prepared a menu and a shopping list to prove it). But, covering all your basic costs with only $2.25 per day is much more difficult. In fact, it’s impossible.

My bigger problem, though, is with the Global Poverty Project’s leading assertion that the world can end extreme poverty within a generation. Clearly, this idea has enormous appeal (who could not be excited by this prospect?). But, frankly, this is as naive as the once-believed notion that the United Nations would end all international conflicts.

This claim suggests that poverty is a simple problem. It is not. It implies that we fully understand the causes of poverty. The uncomfortable truth is that we don’t. It presumes that because so many people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in Asia, that people can be easily lifted out of poverty in Africa. If only wishing made it so.

I can understand the need to simplify messages for a wide publicity campaign. In a crowded media world, it’s the confident, catchy message that is going to penetrate rather than the complex one. The aid agency that stands up and says that “poverty is a complex issue that we’re all struggling to figure out” is not going to raise as much money as the one claiming “we know what to do and we only need ten bucks from each of you to get the job done”.

But, the message that poverty is a simple issue that can be resolved in only a few decades is a dangerous one because if that is what people believe, then that is what they will demand from aid agencies and concerned governments. And make no mistake, those agencies and governments will give the public what it wants (the former in exchange for your money, the latter for your votes) and they will continue applying poorly planned, quick impact fixes at the expense of implementing well thought out, longer term solutions.

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To be honest, I feel a bit guilty about criticising Living Below the Line; like I am raining on what is actually one of the better charity parades around. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone who is taking part in what is still a very worthy cause. But, organisations like Global Poverty Project need to do better by resisting the easy slogans and attempting to genuinely raise the level of awareness and debate. And we – intelligent, concerned Daily Blog readers – need to demand that they do.

There are no easy solutions to extreme poverty and we are kidding ourselves if we think that there are. Poverty cannot be eliminated quickly and we stand only to delay reaching that monumental goal by pretending that it can be.


  1. I agree with the article, but my brain is fixated on the picture … it misuses venn diagrams … all three of the lefthand problems are first world, and all three of the righthand ones are real problems (not just when all three coincide).

  2. My daily rent is well over 40 dollars, then add other “basics”, so this is an exercise that is virtually impossible to do in New Zealand. Even eating for only $ 2.50 a day will be stretching it. It is possible, and an exercise that may create awareness of what poverty means. I think fasting now and then is also something worth doing, as one learns to appreciate what we can normally enjoy in the way of food.

    Poverty on a global scale will not be remedied ever, as sadly human population has grown to a size that is totally unsustainable, even if we all start living as humble vegetarians.

    Population growth decreases with growing incomes and wealth they say, but then who can offer the resources to do this in an affordable way – and that also in a sustainable way – to achieve this?

    The inter-dependencies in trade of resources and products are now so great, that the whole world economy and social order will break down eventually, necessitating new starts on regional levels. And that will mean living within means, that some will actually find unbearable. I dread the future. In New Zealand, despite of all our problems, we are kind of sheltered by isolation, from the worst scenarios that already exist in other places.

    I fear this is only on borrowed time.

  3. More or less agree with the article but also find the venn diagrams problematic. Rape is also a problem in the first world, and so is hunger for that matter. Thinking in exclusive binaries like this tends to not be helpful.

  4. Thanks for this post, it addresses some of the issues that are at the forefront of our discussions at Global Poverty Project and the Live Below the Line campaign.

    We believe that an educational journey of a ‘thousand miles’ has to begin with a ‘single step’. In this sense, Live Below The Line is a gateway experience for thousands of kiwis to begin what we hope will be a lifelong learning journey about the issues of extreme poverty.

    The effect of taking the $2.25 challenge on body and mind should not be underestimated. Check but a couple of the reflections from past participants:,

    Time and time again we get anecdotal feedback from our participants that this challenge, simple as it is, really does change their understanding of what it means to live in poverty. They say that having to think and plan everything so carefully, knowing that they’re only doing this for five days, but that this is life for 1.2 billion people every day, is eye-opening. They realise that their $2.25 is only for food, not transport, clothing and rent as well. They realise that they’ve still got running water, good schools and free health care. They realise they can never understand what it must be like to have to spend every day on just $2.25 a day, but Live Below the Line is their way of saying that they won’t stand idly by while it happens.

    Stimulated by this powerful challenge, tens of thousands of conversations will take place about poverty this week (we know this because we’ve done rigorous surveys with our past participants). Some of these conversations will be very simple, some of them will be more academic and some of them will be more emotive. But they all matter. They all grow the capacity of people to question the ethics of a world in which 1.2 billion people go hungry.

    Furthermore, the journey does not end with the challenge. Every participant continues to hear from the charity they have fundraised for (unless they opt out). Their chosen charity takes them on a continued journey of engagement and understanding of poverty issues. In this sense, Live Below The Line is not just a fundraiser, it’s an ‘ambassador recruitment’ tool for the best anti-poverty charities in the business.

    Here at Global Poverty Project we are a solution-focused organisation and always encourage participants to engage more fully with the issues. To that effect, any participants that opt to hear more from us are invited to join our Global Citizen platform ( Global Citizen is a cutting edge online learning dashboard that helps kiwis learn more about issues they care about, see how they fit in with a global movement to end extreme poverty, and most importantly, how they can take action to make a difference.

    Despite the complexity of the issue, we strongly believe that the international community has the technology and resources available to end extreme poverty by the year 2030 (for our reasoning for this, head halfway down this page: But to make this happen we need the will power and energy of a movement. And that is what Live Below The Line and our other educational initiatives seek to catalyse.

    Thanks again for taking the time on this blog, we really appreciate putting this discussion in the public forum.

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