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What do celebrities ‘Living Below’ the poverty line accomplish?

Ben Affleck, Josh Groban and Sophia Bush are a few of the celebrities who will spend next week (April 29 to May 3) living on only $1.50 a day.

They join thousands around the country in the Live Below the Line campaign, an awareness campaign launched by the Global Poverty Project. The advocacy organization sets forward the ambitious goal of launching “a campaign that’s challenging the way people in the U.S. think about poverty — and making a huge difference.”

So will it make a difference?

Singer Josh Groban is doing it for the second time citing the positive experience from last year.

“Taking on this challenge last year was such a humbling experience for me, and I was so proud and heartened by my fans that joined me. I wanted to capture this in Below the Line, which was inspired by this experience,” Groban said. “It’s amazing how much we take for granted not having to live in hunger, and I am honored to have been asked to help spread the word about this eye-opening campaign again this year.”

The campaign posits that people can make a difference by participating in the challenge for five days next and raising money for a series of partners that include World Food Program USA and Opportunity International. With 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty, the campaign hopes that people will gain a better understanding of what it is like to live on so little.

Being the advocacy skeptic that I am, I reached out to Global Poverty Project co-founder and COO Simon Moss to ask him a few questions about the campaign. He is rather open about the challenges to poverty eradication (see the above video) and advocacy campaigns themselves.

I wanted to know what is really accomplished by having a bunch of celebrities and people willfully choose to live on $1.50 a day. Here is what Simon had to say:

Humanosphere: We first spoke when I criticized Live Below the Line. I argued it created a false sense of poverty because people participating have choice to enter and leave while the world’s poor are stuck. After next week ends, participants will return to their normal lives. What do you hope that they take from living on $1.50 a day? Why do you think I am wrong?

Moss: I think it’s really difficult for those of who live in the USA, UK or ‘developed’ world to ever truly understand what it must be like to live in extreme poverty. Live Below the Line can’t ever, and won’t ever replicate that experience, but it can give participants and their communities a small insight into the sorts of challenges that the extreme poor deal with every day.

In our experience of the 15,000 people who’ve done the challenge in the past, the 5 days spent doing Live Below the Line are pause for reflection, and rather than people feeling like they’re ‘playing poor,’ they emerge out of the week much more aware of the impact of their attitudes and actions on others.

They tend to come out of the challenge being less likely to waste food or have negative assumptions about the world’s poor (i.e., that they’re poor because they’re lazy), and more likely to get involved in advocacy. Our hope is that the experience of Live Below the Line can be an entry point into deeper and sustained advocacy, a recognition that more than a billion people live in extreme poverty not because of their own inaction, but because of the systems that they live in.

And, I think importantly, Live Below the Line is a conversation-starter. Participants typically have 30 or more conversations with others about extreme poverty and hunger during the challenge – and these are generally with people who don’t think or know much about poverty and development. We’ve seen countless examples of jokes from friends about losing weight and playing the martyr turn into really great conversations about whether it’s even possible for people to survive below the line, respect and admiration for the resilience of those whose lives are affected by extreme poverty, and a much deeper engagement with why extreme poverty persists and what people can do about it.

This year you have a group of celebrities, such as Ben Affleck, taking part in the campaign. Why include them as part of the promotion for the campaign?

We’ve got more than 10,000 people around the world signed up to do the challenge this year, including a couple of dozen celebrities and politicians. We encourage everyone to share their experiences in the media and online, and obviously, celebrities have much larger audiences and better access to do that than people like you or I. So in part, it’s just a reflection of the diverse range of participants in the challenge.

And, in part, it’s because Live Below the Line aims to change the conversation that people have about extreme poverty, and celebrities can use their reach and influence to help us get that conversation started in more than places than if we just stuck to grassroots outreach. We want to move the conversation away from a simple transactional view of “see suffering, give cash” – a story that celebrities are often involved in promoting, to a more nuanced and engaged view that allows for reflections like the sorts we saw from Tom Hiddleston a few weeks ago (https://twitter.com/twhiddleston for a stream of his comments and interactions with people)

It is common to criticize young people for having short attention spans and not really caring. Your work seems to think that is a wrong assumption. Why do you disagree?

I think that we’ve done ourselves a great dis-service in the development arena by trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In my experience the general public might not know much about the issues, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a strong sense of fairness, justice and empathy.

At the Global Poverty Project, we’ve spoken to more than 165,000 people face-to-face at education events in the last few years, and we’ve got hundreds of grassroots ambassadors out there, and we’re constantly hearing stories and meeting people who are thinking deeply into the issues, and who want to go further than clicking a petition or writing a check.

I think the huge amount of energy that we saw around Kony 2012 is a great example of that – our challenge as a sector is to channel this energy into increasingly constructive and impactful actions.

Now that you have spent more time working on poverty advocacy in the US, what are some lessons you have learned in terms of reaching an audience here?

I’ve been impressed by how many talented and committed people are working for change in what is at times a really challenging environment. The sheer size and complexity of the US government means that seemingly obvious campaign opportunities – like untying US food aid – are massively difficult to get traction on. That there are so many who campaign despite the odds is inspiring.

That does however make for a really noisy environment where I think the sector has split its focus into quite a few sub-audiences, and there’s not nearly as much collaboration across groups as there could be, especially outside of Washington, D.C. That means that there’s fantastic messaging and campaigning going deep on specific issues, but not enough work to join all the dots for the public, dealing with the underlying questions that the public have around the role of aid, the effectiveness of donations, and the overarching perception of failure, when actually there’s a huge amount of good news out there.

Hugh Jackman says in a video for your campaign that this is an opportunity to cross the lines of poverty. It is apparent how people above the proverbial line are crossing it, but how does the campaign impact the people living below the poverty line?

In the couple of years that we’ve run the challenge, we’ve seen $5m raised for charities who are fighting extreme poverty. All things going well this year, we’ll see another $3m or more raised for more than 50 different charities, vital funds that go towards education, health, water projects, to peace-building and training, and to advocacy campaigning.

We’ve also had some great feedback from people living below domestic poverty lines in the US and UK – one story from a Salvation Army soup kitchen in particular sticks with me.

One of our participants volunteered at a soup kitchen, and said that they took to leaving about 10 copies of our recipe guide every session. On average, only one or two were left at the end of the session. The feedback from the clients was fantastic, too. One said he had rediscovered his love of cooking, because of the book. Several others started to believe that they could actually manage their limited funds. In an email they sent us about, they said:

“I now have about a dozen people, who had been coming to us for food for several years, who have openly stated that they do not need our emergency food parcels any more, and will only come to the soup kitchen to socialise with their friends – their food budgets are now under control. That was certainly not the goal of Live Below The Line – but it’s certainly a fantastic result, in my opinion! It’s made a difference – isn’t that what counts?”

I realize this is a complex question, but what do you think it will take to end extreme poverty by 2030?

It’s going to take a generation’s work from all of us as global citizens to create a world without extreme poverty, and as the recent figures from the World Bank attest (extreme poverty down from 1.4b in 2005 to 1.2b in 2010, but numbers up in Sub-Saharan Africa from 388m to 414m), it’s going to be a long and tough journey. The boom in world trade and the growth of China and India have done much to lift hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty in the last twenty years, but their successes aren’t enough to lift everyone out of extreme poverty.

As we look to the next 20 years, the big gains are only going to be made when we ensure that our aid is targeted and effective, when citizens all over the world can hold their governments and businesses to account for how money is spent, taxes are paid, and policies are made for the good of the poor, not to their detriment.

To be honest, I’m not sure how realistic world leaders are being when they talk about 2030 as the likely date for the achievement of eradicating extreme poverty, unless they’re also ready to announce a sea-change in the sorts of policies that governments and businesses are pursuing. I think it’s possible, but improbable, and a big part of our role as a community of concerned/engaged global citizens is to make it more probable by creating the political space for governments and companies to do the right thing.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.