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Life Below the Line

Posted by Jamie Livingstone Head of Oxfam Scotland

9th May 2014

Looking back it was said with embarrassing dismay: "what do you mean we can't afford coffee?"

The reality of surviving on £1 a day for all food and drink sunk in fast at 6am last Monday morning.

I was joining thousands of people across the world in the Live Below the Line campaign, agreeing to spend just £1 per day for five days on all my food and drink.

All of us who willingly signed up for the challenge were joined by the 1.2 billion people across the world that live below the extreme poverty threshold of just £1 per day, every day.  As well as food, their £1 has to cover accommodation, clothes, medicine, education - everything.  My five day participation has provided barely even a snapshot of their reality and even then, I found the experience tough.

I knew when a spreadsheet was involved that it wasn't going to be straight-forward.  After touring three low-cost supermarkets for the best deals, something simply not possible for many people, my wife and I had spent our combined £10 allocation. With so little to spend per day the 3p saved on bread or 2p on potatoes really counted.

Our stock included lentils, pasta, bread and noodles, all sourced at the lowest price we could find. A 55p pepper was unaffordable, 3 bananas would need to suffice - this was quantity over quality. Water was the only drink available; no coffee, certainly no alcohol. Our shared luxury item was a 30p value bar of chocolate - two squares each per day. Yet still there was still genuine concern that we simply wouldn't have enough food.

As the week wore on the awareness raising purpose of the challenge really came through with conversations over who got what and when we could allow ourselves to eat.  When my wife gave up her share of a tin of beans to make sure I had enough, it brought to mind news headlines of parents going without food to ensure their children can eat. Such shocking realities put the challenge of eating on a budget in stark focus.

The truth is that many of the difficulties I have faced over the last 5 days were minuscule in comparison to the fact that one in eight people around the world simply don't have enough to eat.

Having to plan out meals and portion sizes and attending 'working lunches' only to drink water and munch my pre-packed sandwich outside was awkward but by no means life-threatening.

I have seen the harsher reality of extreme poverty during my time with Oxfam Scotland, including smallholder farmers in Tanzania battling the changing climate to eke out enough to survive. Underpinning this scandalous reality is deep-rooted and extreme levels of inequality both between and, crucially, within countries.

As it stands, just 85 people share half of the world's wealth and seven out of ten people live in a country where economic inequality has grown over the past 30 years. It isn't something that has passed the UK by either. Here the poverty may be relative but the inequality remains shocking: just five families own the same wealth as the 20% poorest people - that's more than 12 million people.

And, for those at the bottom of our economic ladder, access to enough food is an increasing problem; 71,000 food parcels were given out in Scotland last year by the Trussell Trust alone. Other providers, like our partners the West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare, echoed the exponential surges in demand recorded by the Trust's outlets. It's not just those out of work who need support.  Increasing numbers of people in work simply don't have enough money to feed themselves and their families.

Across the world, Oxfam believes inequality - of wealth, income, and power - underpins and exacerbates such poverty and we believe it has reached levels which demand action.

I am under no illusion that my five days 'below the line' remotely compares to the daily fight for survival of so many people around the world.  I have now returned to my usual diet - for them there is no such choice.

As such, we owe it to them, and ourselves, to continue to fight against extreme inequality.  

Blog post written by Jamie Livingstone

Head of Oxfam Scotland

More by Jamie Livingstone