Sitting in my local Italian eatery opposite my good friend, I was four forkfuls of my linguine alla pescatora in when I made the blunt discovery that over 3 billion people worldwide live on less than $2.50 a day, almost 50% of the global population. My good friend informed me that’s almost the entire European continent times five. It is hard to conjure an image where the whole of Europe live on $2.50 (€2.23) a day.
It begged the question, “could I survive on less than $2.50 a day?”; all of my food, heating, electricity, rent, travel, education, health, clothing, entertainment and every cup of coffee in between on $2.50 a day. If so, quite soon artisan scones, specialist coffee, craft beer and Italian restaurants would be a thing of the past.
The issue of worldwide poverty is addressed in the first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). The SDGs are a universal set of 17 aspirational UN mandated goals that aim to end poverty and hunger, improve health and education, make cities more sustainable, combat climate change, and protect oceans and forests. All UN member states are expected to use these goals to frame their agendas and political policies for the next 15 years. The first goal No Poverty aims to end poverty in all its forms everywhere by 2030.
Sitting back, about to take my fifth forkful of linguine alla pescatora the question still lingered at the back of my mind, “…how could I possibly live on $2.50 a day?”
In order to help realise and raise awareness of the SDGs, Development Perspectives an Irish Development Education NGO have created the SDG Challenge. Throughout the challenge participants are invited to engage with each SDG over 17 months through a variety of challenges encouraging understanding, learning, action and change.
The first SDG Challenge is the Poverty Box challenge. It tackles just one of the expenses while living in poverty – food. If I took on the challenge I would have to shrink my food and drink budget to €2 every day for a week; I could stuff as much food and drink into a box as long as it came under €14. In other words, I would have to dramatically restrict the lavish lifestyle that my total weekly budget of €150 allowed – no more linguine, specialist coffee or craft beer for this guy.
I cancelled all my reservations for the week.
On Monday May 9th, I began the Poverty Box challenge. I started with the great intentions, in the right trajectory and somehow somersault spectacularly off the wagon onto sandy shores and sunny beer gardens. On the face of it, it was an unequivocal development education disaster, upon reflection it turned out that manage to learn a few things.
My first attempt at the Poverty Box Challenge was unsuccessful for two reasons:
- The Poverty Box contents I chose were as reliable as the Irish government’s flip-flopping these last few months.
- My resolve to step out of our culture and my lifestyle was similarly as reliable this last week.
Trying to outsmart poverty and hunger, I made my poverty box nutrition biased and mistakenly missed out on the important calorific food needed to keep me full. Of course, in our modern world nutrition is a synonym for expensive. I chose items than no one should ever choose when on a weekly budget of €14. To put my stellar spending into a framework of the understandable, and the absurd, I have inflated some of my spending as if it was based on a weekly budget of €188, the highest rate of basic social welfare benefits in Ireland.
My first smart purchase was basmati rice; a fantastic food on a low budget, a food full of nutrients, a food of the people. But at €2.40, 17% of my €14 budget, the equivalent of €32.23 of a €188 weekly social welfare payment, it became an item for the aristocracy.
My next luxurious item was a net of healthful tomatoes at €3, an outstanding 21.4% of my budget or the equivalent of €40.29 of a €188 weekly social welfare payment. €40.29. On tomatoes. Inconceivable.
That was just a cool €72.52c on rice and tomatoes or nearly 40% on two food items. Factor in the cost of toiletries, rent, utilities, travel, schooling and all the other living expenses and this becomes more than astronomical spending. I also bought garlic,Greek salad cheese and baby leaf spinach, all of which are gorgeous together with a little vinaigrette (and tomatoes) but are unlikely the items to be found on the shopping lists of the 3 billion forced to live on less than $2.50 a day.
The main point of failure was not my diet however; I could have made it.
My main point of failure was my lack of resolve to step outside my lifestyle and our culture. Exciting things came up in my life during that week; dinners, dates, beach parties, wild Atlantic adventures, the sun; all of which invariably involved food and drink.
Initially I was able to integrate the poverty box into my life but as the week progressed it all slipped away from me. I forgot why I was doing this; empathy, to foster a sense of restriction in my choices, a restriction in how I can live my life, to raise awareness.
The experience did however offer an insight into the staggering difference between my lifestyle and that of someone living on less than $2.50 a day.
The happenstance that I was born in a country that gives me greater opportunities due to its context within the EU, its secure infrastructure and superior economic gains, is unjust when you compare it alongside the poverty that exists around the globe. The basic freedoms that my life offers me as a 24 year old male living in Ireland should not be exclusive.
Poverty is not a hop-on-hop-off tourist bus.
I had the great, great luxury to choose to opt out of controlled poverty this week when it did not suit my lifestyle but over 3 billion men, woman and children do not have that luxury and live in true uncontrolled poverty. But, is it uncontrolled? I would argue not.Governments, institutions and corporations make the big choices about the direction of how we end poverty but we all can make small choices to affect the trajectory of poverty.
From my first SDG challenge I have learned it will take more than good intentions in order to keep moving forwards with the SDG’s. It will take a few failures, a willingness to be honest, a curiosity to learn more about the issues in depth, an openness to adapt and act, and more. Over 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day and simply do not have the choice to step away from poverty. The fact is poverty is man-made and that means we have the choice to move towards ending poverty in all its forms.
We can change society, we just have to remember the times when it did not seem possible; the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of apartheid, legalisation of homosexuality in Ireland, the gay marriage referendum; when cynicism and scepticism led the majority to believe it would not happen but inspired the minority to keep pursuing what was right. To quote Nelson Mandela:
“It always seems impossible until it is done.”
My poverty box challenge did not go to plan last week but I have not walked away from the experience empty handed. I have been able to reflect on my experience and learn from it.
On Wednesday, May 17th I took the reins up once more to begin the Poverty Box challenge afresh with a new perspective and a renewed engagement. I may go without my flat white and artisan scone this week but they are a big price to pay to when you are living in poverty.
Written by Josh Quinn
Edited by Alessia Agostinelli
Also available on my personal blog here.