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I read a really good blog post about the "Do-Gooder Industrial Complex," which offered alternative outlooks on aid, poverty, volunteerism, etc. (specifically in an international context) to the ones fostered by the Do-Gooder Industrial Complex. I was nodding vigorously as I read. But the article ended with a link to the "Two-Dollar Challenge." Almost half the world's population lives on less than two dollars a day, the site says. It exhorts readers to try living on two dollars a day for a couple of days in order to "push ... outside your comfort zone to critically engage with, and empathetically reevaluate global poverty and your role in its end."

This challenge strikes me as wrong in so many ways.

(1) The whole two-dollars-a-day statistic. You hear this in literature from aid organizations. But two dollars isn't the same everywhere. It may be pretty miserable to try and live on it everywhere ( though even that's not a for-sure thing), but the money simply has different purchasing power. In Timor-Leste I could buy an armful of avocados for fifty cents. Here avocados often cost a dollar a piece, or more. It's wrong to talk about people living on two dollars a day as if that's equivalent to living on two dollars a day here.

(2) In fact, in the United States, no one could live on two dollars a day. Think how much your rent or mortgage is for a month, and divide that down to days. Unless all you're paying is $60/month, you're already over your two dollars a day, and you haven't eaten or clothed yourself or paid for your heat or your transportation.

So from the start, the challenge is fraudulent. And indeed, if you check out the particulars of it, basically all you're doing is trying to pay for food and hygiene items for a few days on your two dollars. Meanwhile, your whole *circumstance* is still worlds different from the circumstance of the people you're supposedly trying to empathize with. Are you carrying water from a public pump? No? Walking several miles to get to work or school? Crossing military checkpoints? No? How about your electricity--do you have it all day? And so on.

(3) And what does it mean to live on two dollars a day in those various locales? Many places are only partially monetized--exchanges can be made without money. And there, like here, there is a whole web of support that doesn't feature in statistics. People who do have cash incomes will support siblings, cousins, sons, daughters, etc., who don't; people may have children from their extended family live with them to go to school, and so forth. I'm not suggesting that therefore people don't need help, but I AM saying that status, security, and, generally, how society works involves more than how much money you spend in a day. Failure to acknowledge that fact and to take it into account when you offer help sets you up for the very mistakes that the article on the Do-Gooder Industrial Complex was criticizing.

What would be a better way to push people outside their comfort zones and get them to "empathetically reevaluate global poverty"? I'd recommend one of the following challenges:

Try living on the number of calories much of the world have to live on. This is a much more honest assessment of how their resources match their needs. US average caloric intake is 3770.[ETA: dubious. The source is the UK Daily Mail. The US Centers for Disease Control estimates a still quite hearty high 2000s (Source)] In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the average caloric intake is 1590 (Source) Muslim refugees in the Central African Republic only were getting 850 calories a day (source).

This challenge already exists: 850 Calories

Or, try drinking, cooking, and bathing with only three to five gallons of water a day. That's how much water people in sub-Saharan Africa live on, on average, per day. Americans, by comparison, use 100–150 gallons of water a day. (Source) You probably wouldn't have time in your day to also carry this water the hour or two hours it takes many young people in different parts of the world to fetch water home, but you could add that in as a bonus.

Well! That was quite a rant. Glad to get that off my chest.


( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 2nd, 2015 06:12 pm (UTC)
Sign it, sister!

Mar. 2nd, 2015 08:33 pm (UTC)
It got my goat. (So then I had to go out and get my goat back. Like with llamas, only goats.)
Mar. 2nd, 2015 06:13 pm (UTC)
This sort of thing really does get me going!

Try going without food- any food- for three or four days or better yet, go without so your kids get to eat.

That's the reality for an awful lot of people.

Try only having a polluted water supply several miles' walk away then have western multinational companies sell you overpriced formula milk because they claim it's 'better'.

And damn your warm fuzzy pretending to live on two dollars/pounds/euros a day when you know you don't really have to do it day after day after day!
Mar. 2nd, 2015 06:16 pm (UTC)
Yes, for the people in those camps, that's all there is.

And almost certainly no "two dollars a day" in addition.
(no subject) - asakiyume - Mar. 2nd, 2015 09:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Mar. 2nd, 2015 08:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 2nd, 2015 06:14 pm (UTC)
For the record, typical caloric intake in the Łódź Ghetto was between 700 and 900 calories a day.
Mar. 2nd, 2015 08:39 pm (UTC)
I did not know that. I think I saw that an average person needs something like 2200-2400 calories a day to sustain themselves. So yeah. 850 is dire.
(no subject) - yamamanama - Mar. 2nd, 2015 08:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 2nd, 2015 06:35 pm (UTC)
And when people do various monetary/caloric challenges with food, they/we are almost always using a Western stocked pantry to do it. Eating on $2/day is bad enough, but the people who do it often are able to store food that would go bad without a refrigerator--or food that they couldn't carry around if they were homeless--or food that wouldn't fit in a mini-fridge--or or or or or. And unless we're using something like saffron, most of us take for granted that we will have something like a spice rack and don't figure it directly into the cost of the meal, because it's not like you're going to use the whole jar of dried nutmeg in a meal. Yesterday's stew had nine spices in it, six of them at only 1/4 teaspoon each--that jar of coriander lasts quite some time! But if you don't have the money or the storage space, you're having to make your meal palatable without a full foodie spice rack.

Mar. 2nd, 2015 08:42 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. The refrigerator was one of the things the two-dollar challenge granted you. *eyeroll* I think any challenge has its problems, but the monetary one strikes me as wrongheaded on an understanding-of-basic-economics level in addition to all the ways that you mention here (which are equally good criticisms of the caloric-intake challenge).

Anything that spurs people to think at least accomplishes the task of spurring people to think, but in my own experience, it's going the next step that's more important. What are you going to do with your thoughts?
(no subject) - amaebi - Mar. 2nd, 2015 09:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - c_maxx - Mar. 2nd, 2015 11:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 2nd, 2015 08:58 pm (UTC)
I agree with you about the meditative quality. I'm not 100 percent opposed to the challenge, I just find it frustratingly wrongheaded. But that doesn't mean good can't come out of it.

People being curious and interested in other people is excellent, and people wanting to help other people is excellent too. But if you're dealing with people you know, you don't just run in and assume you know all the answers to their life problems (one hopes...), and the same should be true many times over if you're dealing with people, and cultures, you don't know so well.
Mar. 2nd, 2015 08:11 pm (UTC)
Nope, you can't live on two dollars a day in Denmark either. Far from it. Two dollars a day would buy you two litres of milk or maybe 1 kilo of rice if on cheap sale, and you could forget all about housing, clothes, shoes, heating etc.

I do occasionally get just 850 calories a day, but then I'm small, and it certainly wouldn't be enough to sustain me over a longer period of time. On the other hand, 3770 is a crazy amount of calories, unless you have a job that involves a lot of hard physical labour, or are doing high level sports.

So yeah... these kind of challenges do give a slanted perspective. Even if you were to do everything the same, it still wouldn't be the same because for you it would be a challenge, not your actual life.
Mar. 2nd, 2015 09:02 pm (UTC)
Even if you were to do everything the same, it still wouldn't be the same because for you it would be a challenge, not your actual life.

Absolutely. It's at best a physical prompt to help you arrive at breakthroughs (or to reinforce breakthroughs you've had) in how you think about things, but at worst it's a game.
Mar. 2nd, 2015 08:52 pm (UTC)
Thank you for getting to the center of that.
Mar. 2nd, 2015 09:06 pm (UTC)
There are probably other aspects I haven't thought of, but those are the ones that jumped out at me. Thanks for reading!
Mar. 2nd, 2015 09:06 pm (UTC)
As you know, I think you're entirely correct. And I am very grateful that you wrote and posted this.
Mar. 2nd, 2015 09:08 pm (UTC)
My pleasure! I had enjoyed the article so much; I was so disappointed to have the capstone be a link to that challenge. (And as for explaining things, I have good teachers--you among them.)
Mar. 2nd, 2015 10:53 pm (UTC)
Do Americans actually eat 3770 calories/day on the average, or does the number include food that gets wasted?
Mar. 3rd, 2015 12:42 am (UTC)
Good question; it's only a newspaper article; I'm not sure where it's getting its numbers. The CDC has a much more moderate estimate in this pdf. I'll update my post.
Mar. 3rd, 2015 12:23 am (UTC)
Very well put.

And even with the shorted water and cut calories, we always know it's an experiment--that we can break it whenever we want to, whereas people in those circumstances are also gnawed by the constant worry of where those next scant calories, or gallons, are going to come from.
Mar. 3rd, 2015 12:48 am (UTC)
Yes: no challenge is going to be able to capture the wear of that long-term stress.
Mar. 3rd, 2015 12:36 am (UTC)
The article you linked to read as pretty darn smug and hubristic and full of itself to me, actually.
Yes, he's right about much of what he's saying, but it feels like self-promotion ("Hire me to speak", the page says - and the whole narrative is about how terrific "we" are) and it ends, as you point out, in what's essentially the same sort of feel-good exercise as the one he's so scathing about at the beginning.
Plus I'm allergic to anyone who argues on the basis that "we are on the right side of history".
Mar. 3rd, 2015 12:38 am (UTC)
Yeah, that line about being on the right side of history made me raise an eyebrow too. Oh really? You've got it all nailed down, now, do you?
Mar. 3rd, 2015 04:09 am (UTC)
I agree with you about the two-dollar a day thing, but I would like to note that many poor people in this country don't actually pay rent because they are homeless.

Not that any of the people suggesting the two-dollar a day challenge are likely to give up their apartments/houses for verisimilitude. Also, I'm pretty sure even homeless people can't manage on two dollars a day in most of the US.
Mar. 3rd, 2015 04:28 am (UTC)
Although now that I've read the description of the challenge, it sounds like their most extreme level does involve going camping. Heh.
(no subject) - asakiyume - Mar. 3rd, 2015 11:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Mar. 3rd, 2015 02:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 3rd, 2015 01:48 pm (UTC)
Can anything good come out of playing poverty?
Thanks for taking the time to express your concerns about the Two Dollar Challenge. I started the experiential learning exercise in 2006 in one of my university courses. It has taken me a number of years to get to a place where I felt comfortable enough to push for a national movement in the US. Having said that, I am not fully comfortable with the Challenge. I never will be. Your thoughts and your reader's comments are valid. All of them. However, I am a teacher. And, after many years of trying to give my students insight into the economic lives of the poor and my attempts to create a safe space for participants to challenge their notions about poverty and why it exists, this tool has been the most effective (albeit still limited). Here on my thoughts on that: http://shawnhumphrey.com/dos-and-donts-for-do-gooders/inquiry-versus-insult-redux/).

I am also the author of the "Do-Gooder Industrial Complex." It is my belief that an effective way to get the message of that post out is through a shared experience. We want to move participants beyond a recognition of how "lucky" they have it. We want to move them to a place where they are considering/taking action to restructure a system of power the keeps so many poor. I may be wrong in my belief that this is the tool to do it with. We will see.

A few thoughts on your post regarding the Two Dollar Challenge:

1. We are very forthright regarding the limitations of this experiential learning tool (http://twodollarchallenge.org/our-limitations/). We are also very upfront about the experience being a simulation, playing poverty, and in your words "fraudulent." It is. There is no way to get around it. Indeed, we use its fraudulence as a teaching tool. A number of participants find simulated poverty challenging enough. In turn, for them to even flirt with the notion of understanding poverty...well that is beyond their reach. This recognition humbles them.

2. Participants have the choice to adhere to additional constraints beyond the $2 a day income constraint. With these additional constraints, we create interdependence among the participants. A number of them work together to fulfill their daily needs and desires. This behavior allows us to talk about the many strategies that the materially poor utilize to complement their low and uncertain daily income - networks and social capital.

3. I think if you look into our rules you will see that we enumerate a number of exceptions when it comes to your daily income constraint. Essentially, participants (who are primarily university students) are spending their income on food and hygiene products. We are aware of difference in the purchasing power of $2 in different communities. However, give the pre-existing wealth (dorm rooms, central air and heat, clean water, low cost mobility...), we are comfortable constraining their income to $2 a day.

4. I am aware of the 850 Calorie Challenge and I am a supporter.

5. I think if you review our communications strategy for the Two Dollar Challenge, you will see that we are heavily focused on asking our audience tough questions about their motivations, their understanding of poverty, and why they believe they have role in ending another's poverty.

Once again, thanks for taking the time to discuss this topic. I grow with each critique. And, I am more than willing to continue the discussion with anyone who leaves a comment - shawn (@blucollarprof)
Mar. 4th, 2015 08:25 pm (UTC)
Re: Can anything good come out of playing poverty?
So sorry I only saw your comment today!

It got marked as "suspicious," but I've unblocked it so it will appear.

I'll point people back to it in a new entry.
thank you - asakiyume - Mar. 4th, 2015 08:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 3rd, 2015 04:13 pm (UTC)
I'm a bit uncomfortable with all those challenges, to be honest. There's this quote whose author I don't remember: 'It's always easier to live in a cage when you've got the key.' And basically, that's what's happening with Westerners taking those challenges (either the $2 a day, the 850 calories a day, the 3 gallons a day...): they can choose to stop. It's poverty tourism: you spend a couple of days visiting the life of someone who's less lucky than you are, and then you can go back to your normal life and say, 'Phew, thanks God it's over!'.

And that's a problem, as far as I'm concerned. Because when you reflect on how bad other people have it, it may also distract you from focusing on how unjustly good *you* have it. The central message here should not be that other people are poorer and that you should help them get richer if you can. What it should be instead is: people in other countries are poor, largely so you can enjoy your wealth. They get low salaries because you need cheap, mass-produced goods. They often get food shortages because in pany cases, food exports make the prices rise and the food becomes unaffordable for the very people who produce it (exactly what's happening with the quinoa craze...). There are finite resources on this plant, and it's just a matter of basic math that if some people get more than their share, then other people will get less. In short, your wealth and their poverty is not disconnected. It's not just a matter of putting yourself in their shoes for a while. It's a matter of acknowledging that their very poverty is what makes your wealth possible.

So yeah... Plenty of good intentions here, but I'm still wary of those empathy challenges in general.
Mar. 3rd, 2015 05:16 pm (UTC)
It's always easier to live in a cage when you've got the key

That is an awesome quote, and it absolutely sums up the problem of any sort of challenge.

I think the zero-sum-game, rich-versus-poor mentality is probably a harmful one, though, even if it has lots of elements of truth. If faced with statements like "This poverty is your fault; these people suffer so you can have cheap T-shirts and quinoa," people are likely to feel paralyzed--or, worse, to decide to hunker down and defend what they've got.

[fill in this space with lots of thoughts and scenarios]

Okay but finding my way back from the jungle of my musing, I do agree, in any case, with what you say about the problem of the challenges.
(no subject) - cecile_c - Mar. 3rd, 2015 06:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Mar. 4th, 2015 08:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 4th, 2015 09:42 pm (UTC)
I honestly have no idea how to make people emphasise with poverty. The same people here who feel that £13.5K/year is plenty of money to live on say they can't live on £68K a year, and they mean it. It's possible for people on $$$ to feel poor even when they take home several times of what is a good salary for everyone else.

The main thing I've seen is that people on challenges start and end in good places - they eat a good meal and fill their pantry; do a challenge of 'I only spend £65 this week' and go 'but that was easy', forgetting or ignoring that a) they're not playing fair (all their bills continue to be paid out of their bank account) and b) even should they fall behind everything for that single week or fortnight, they can easily say 'I'll pay next week' and KNOW that they'll be able to catch up and absorb any fees easily.

The constant stress of *not* knowing how you'll get out of holes, of depending on friends and family to keep your head above water and hoping you'll be able to do the same for them; of watching other people get socked in the teeth by life and knowing it could be you any moment if your job folds, your landlord throws you out, your car breaks down, you develop a health problem... that really isn't something you can do with a week's role play.

You could probably create a video game, though, where the easiest setting is 'you own a reliable car, you have $1K in the bank, you have friends with a basement apartment they'll rent you for $nominal, you have a steady part-time job that treats you well' and move on from there.
Mar. 5th, 2015 12:55 pm (UTC)
Your idea in the last paragraph is an interesting one.

I guess the thing to remember is that anything--one of these challenges, a lecture on poverty, a video game--that is designed to teach or enlighten is only a teaching tool. A really good teaching tool may really stretch people's empathy muscles in a good way, but it's not going to change the person's lived experience. In that sense, the well-off have to always be humble in the face of those who struggle.
(no subject) - green_knight - Mar. 5th, 2015 03:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
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