Friday, March 15, 2013

What happens when you see the problem?

I've taken the Live Below the Line challenge, which has given me a great opportunity to speak about extreme poverty to friends and colleagues. These conversations have not gone the way I anticipated: most of the people I've spoken to don't see the problem. And they push back when I start talking about the reality facing 1/3 of the world's population living off $1.25 a day. Here are some of the ways the people I've spoken to imagine extreme poverty:

- Not being able to afford organic food.

- Buying large quantities of rice in bulk, which is "much cheaper than those little bags you get at Trader Joe's" and eating small portions of vegetables and meat.

- Delighting in fresh fruits straight from the forest, the luxury of which we could imagine here.

- Hunting wild game on the Savannah.

- Living in tribal societies without the distractions of technology.

They don't see the problem. In fact, some sound almost envious of the simple, pollution free life these "impoverished" societies enjoy. Of course, the situations they are imagining are not extreme poverty, but they seem unable to imagine something much, much worse.

Here is how those living in extreme poverty have described what it means to them (from

- You are short of food for all or part of the year, often eating only one meal per day, sometimes having to choose between stilling your child’s hunger or your own, and sometimes being able to do neither.

- You can’t save money. If a family member falls ill and you need money to see a doctor, or if the crop fails and you have nothing to eat, you have to borrow from a local moneylender and he will charge you so much interest that the debt continues to mount and you may never be free of it.

- You can’t afford to send your children to school, or if they do start school, you have to take them out again if the harvest is poor.

- You live in an unstable house, made with mud or thatch that you need to rebuild every two or three years, or after severe weather.

- You have no close source of safe drinking water. You have to carry it a long way, and even then, it can make you ill unless you boil it.

Really think about what these words mean. Imagine how hungry you would feel after a full day of work, with no lunch, and how unsatisfied you would feel with a small bowl of grain at days end. Think of the physical weakness, the mood swings, the lack of concentration that comes from being really hungry, and imagine feeling that way every day. Think of the last big storm you sat through, safely in your home. Now imagine that you weren't safe in your home, because your home was falling apart around you. How terribly frightening! What would happen to your things? Imagine the emotional trauma of having your house destroyed, and imagine using what little money you have to rebuild a weak house that you know will be destroyed again.


Today, I had a long phone conversation with one of my board members who just returned from vacation in Africa. He has been changed. The need he saw was so great, and so heart-wrenching, that he was sickened by the excess of his own life. He wants to go back. He wants to help. He wants to leave his job and commit his life to helping the people he met in the villages where he stayed. The experience was so far removed from the suffering he has witnessed to this point, that he was at a loss for words to even describe it. He doesn't know what to do, and he doesn't know who to talk to, because how could anyone who hasn't seem what he's seen understand it?

-Selfish Blogger

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