How do you change the way Australians think about poverty?

Actor-comedian Stephen Curry will be among over 8000 Australians taking the Live Below the Line challenge this year

Actor-comedian Stephen Curry will be among over 8000 Australians taking the Live Below the Line challenge this year

This article was first published on WhyDev.org on behalf of the Live Below the Line charity campaign.

How do you change the way Australians think about poverty, let alone extreme poverty?

That’s the number one question we have to consider every day while working on the Live Below the Line campaign, Australia’s fastest growing anti-poverty movement.

The campaign began four years ago, when two Melbourne housemates wanted to find a way to engage their friends with an issue in which they felt so passionate. They challenged one another to see who could survive the longest on a diet of $1.25 – the World Bank’s definition of the extreme poverty line. Less than a year later, their idea had translated into half a million dollars worth of donations.

Live Below the Line has greatly evolved since their private contest, but the elements that made the campaign an overnight success still remain. Much like others campaigns that invite people to make temporary lifestyle changes – like World Vision’s 40 Hour Famine or CARE Australia’s Walk In Her Shoes – Live Below the Line intends to change the perspectives of participants and donors alike.

The first thing Live Below the Line does is start conversations. When you’re eating the same unexciting meal for five consecutive days, it’s all you really feel like talking about. It’s all that your friends want to talk about as well. Whether they’re enquiring after your physical health, your mental state, or your coffee cravings, people are genuinely curious when you tell them you’re living off a $2 budget. They want to know what on earth you’re doing and why.

Not all conversations will necessarily be “on message”; I cringe whenever I hear people mention weight-loss and Live Below the Line in the same sentence. But as a people-powered movement, you have to take the good with the bad, and trust that the top-down messages you are providing are steering participants towards conversations about extreme poverty and development.

The second noteworthy aspect of the challenge is that it is difficult, and subsequently thought-provoking. I found this last year when I lived below the line for the first time. At the time, I was merely a curious participant, with no prior involvement in the campaign. I’d visited overseas aid projects before, and thought I was pretty in touch with the issues surrounding poverty. But I was also a hungry young man with an enviable metabolism, who wouldn’t have thought twice about the food on his plate.

The first 24 hours aren’t too hard. You have to skip a few meals you’d usually eat, but you revel in the novelty. By day three, the novelty begins to wear off and you wish you’d included a bit more flavour in your weekend shopping. By day five, you’re accusing your housemates of stealing your half-eaten carrot, only to later realise the ridiculousness of your complaint.

Just as I couldn’t sugercoat my meals, I don’t want to sugercoat my reflections to make Live Below the Line sound like a Road to Damascus experience. With that said, taking Live Below the Linemade me seriously consider – for possibly the first time ever – my excessive consumption habits and how they compared with those less fortunate.

It’s funny how it works like that. Years ago, while travelling around sub-Saharan Africa I would regularly come in contact with people living in extreme poverty. I naturally felt sorry for them, yet felt disconnected from their plight. As evident as their hardships were, it was far easier for me to feel pity than any sincere form of understanding.

I’m not going to pretend that what I experienced while living below the line last year can compare to the struggles endured by people who rely on food for survival (as opposed to food for entertainment or self-reward). Indeed, people living in extreme poverty must spend their daily budget on things like housing, healthcare, transport, water, and education – not just food. Nevertheless, taking the challenge helped change my perspective, insomuch as when I now read about people surviving on a solitary meal a day, I feel empathetic as much as I feel sympathetic. I feel nauseous as much I feel angry about their unjust circumstances.

Like many other fundraising events, the public purpose of Live Below the Line is to raise millions upon millions of dollars to support overseas aid projects. Indeed, since the campaign’s inception in 2010, Australian donors have contributed over $3.5 million to the campaign’s sponsored educational projects in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and South Africa. The success stories are endless, and none are more touching than the story of Channa, a bright Cambodian teenager who was last year given the opportunity to return to school with support from the campaign.

While these are powerful and uplifting achievements, those of us behind the campaign are aware that the impact Live Below the Line has on thousands of Australians can be just as critical. One anecdote after another, we hear that the experience of eating on less than $2 a day – even for just five days – is transformative and eye-opening. Life-changing for some, even.

Not everyone participant will go onto commit their lives to the aid sector, and not every supporter will mature into a long-term monthly donor. But, in the context of Australia – where few seem interested in engaging with a complicated yet deeply important issue – Live Below the Line can be a worthwhile first step.

You can donate towards Live Below the Line at www.livebelowtheline.com.au/me/kevinhawkins

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