Should I fight poverty by going hungry?

As you may or may not be aware, Live Below the Line has just finished. For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s a recent food-related way to raise money for development, where people volunteer to live below the poverty line, by spending less than NZ$2.25 per day on food. It’s in the tradition of World Vision‘s ‘40 hour Famine‘. I’ve always felt a little uneasy about this kind of fundraiser, but never asked why. So I did a bit of research and gave the matter some thought.

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I have lived and volunteered for about a year each in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania. I feel like many of the subsistence farmers I met would’ve been a little baffled that people who have easy access to nutritious and delicious food would voluntarily go hungry. Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has an interesting observation on this. He claims this kind action basically stems from liberal consumerist guilt, and that we like our guilt because if we are guilty, then we have the power to change. That is, we have the power. Also, in doing so we give ourselves an ethical ‘pass’ for not radically challenging an inequitable system.

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1- The inevitable contrast
It supports a simplistic monolithic view of developing countries. Firstly, food-centred fundraisers inevitably invites contrast with hunger. Historically, Live Below the Line is influenced by the 40 Hour Famine, which stems from the Ethiopian famine. The famine shaped our views on development, but also a generation’s views on Africa and Africans. It seared Africa in western consciousness as ‘the starving continent’, a hellish monolith of helplessness and hunger that exists in contrast to the powerful and comfortable (and wasteful) West. It’s like Edward Said’s Orientalism- we make sense of ourselves as a culture by comparing ourselves to an ‘Other’. We create our ideas of this Other to feel better about ourselves. In this case, we create a contrast where we are powerful, generous, good-hearted and successful.

2- It’s all western
Secondly, both of these food-related events are fund-raising for western organisations. These organisations are based in the west, largely staffed by westerners, and are repositories of western values. Globally, development best practice now tends towards local ownership for a number of very good reasons. A couple worth mentioning are; local ownership is sustainable (because the project continues after the donors/volunteers leave), local ownership is more effective (because locals know what is applicable, appropriate and achievable within the culture), and local ownership is empowering (because it’s not western experts bringing the answers). Where are the NGOs from developing countries in these fundraisers? I know from experience that there are plenty of great NGOs based in developing countries. They know the culture, they know the problems, they know the people.

3- It’s self-interested
Another criticism can be made from a ‘rational choice’ perspective. People working at NGOs (such as World Vision) know that jobs of that kind are scarce, and that their jobs require fundraising. Thus this kind of fundraising is, to a degree, self-serving. That is, the challenges faced by some of the world’s poorest are being used to keep westerners in feel-good jobs that confer moral superiority.
Institutionally speaking, NGOs also have a strategic interest in placing themselves at the centre of development efforts, instead of developing country governments. I know grass-roots alternative development is all the rage, but enormous power to enact change in developing countries resides in the hands of national governments.  The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (signed by the OECD and developing countries) requires that ownership is handed over to aid recipient countries in a meaningful manner. Ideally, this takes the form of Budget Support, where funds are transferred directly to recipient governments.

4- It’s a bit narcissistic
At the individual level, it’s also a little narcissistic. The centre of focus is the person doing the famine/living below the line. It places their voluntary experience of hardship at the centre of the hardship-alleviation efforts. Definite ‘white martyr’ tones here.

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5- Hunger is not good
Ethically, There is a good argument to be made that we should not lionise hunger. Also, the famine and live below the line give a false impression of hunger and poverty, where one can claim ‘it was hard, but it was do-able’. The practice of ‘visiting poverty’, whether it’s in developing countries or the west, misses a crucial point: the desperation and crushing weight of hopelessness. The experience of waking up and feeling like ‘this is my life and there is probably no escape’ cannot be simulated, and this is one of the devastating effects of hunger and poverty. You are trapped, and so are your children.

I’m not saying no good comes from these fundraisers. Nor am I saying that being problematic means they are useless. As usual, I’m short on solutions. Generally, I think developing country leadership is the way, and that the role of development workers is to put ourselves out of a job. As such, capacity building and empowerment are a must. But since that is an enormous topic, I’ll have to save it for another blog.

I guess the relevant question is whether or not these fundraisers are; 1) making things better or worse in terms of development outcomes, and; 2) taking scarce resources away from more effective efforts. In regards to the first question, it seems likely these efforts are, on balance, doing good. Regarding the second question, I think it’s unlikely they are taking scarce funds from other efforts, due to the fact that most donations come via personal networks, and are supporting the person as much as the cause. So what am I saying, then? I guess it’s a typical post-modern argument: we need to be aware of the nested power-relations in our efforts. I know that’s a weak conclusion and a total anti-climax.

Welcome to development.


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