Lord McConnell Lives Below the Line

by Lord Jack McConnell

With over one billion people in our world living on less than £1 a day, the challenge of tackling extreme global poverty in our world can seem both overwhelming and, for many, far removed from our own reality. The solutions for this situation, like the reasons behind it, are complex and challenging. But it is unacceptable that, in the 21st Century, so many continue to live and die in such circumstances.

That is why I agreed to take part in Live Below the Line 2012.

For me, the Live Below the Line challenge serves as a small opportunity to bring the issue of extreme poverty directly into our daily lives here in the developed world.  Although it is one very small dimension of what is a daily reality for so many, eating and drinking for less than £1 a day is an enlightening experience itself. And it is also an opportunity to raise awareness and funds to tackle the issue of extreme poverty.

You can read more about my experience here.

Yes, I wanted to raise money and all the money I raised (over £13,000) will go towards a new youth project run by Positive Women, engaging young people in the UK to help young people obtain skills in Malawi and Swaziland. But I also wanted to raise awareness of this scandal: to keep it in the news, to provoke debate and answers questions, and to help build the movement that will end it in our lifetime.

A relatively healthy adult living in the UK (me!) eating and drinking for under a pound a day in no way replicates the life lived by those who have to provide everything for that amount every day. But it does highlight the issue, and it develops understanding too.

Extreme poverty directly impacts on education, productivity and work output – which in turn leads to less income, leading to more poverty, which then leads to even less income. This endless cycle of extreme poverty fosters ill-health and aggravates conditions like HIV/AIDS due to its direct attack on the malnourished and already struggling immune system. So food security and economic development are essential if improvements in education, health and social conditions are to be sustainable.

And yet, there are more than enough resources in our world to ensure everyone has a chance to live beyond the age of 5, or go to school or have a fulfilling adult life. No-one need live like this. But we do need the political will globally and nationally to make it happen.

Many lessons struck me during my 5 days in May. There really is a lack of choice – and even more so if something goes wrong with the foodstuffs you have chosen. Eating on this budget takes time, planning and energy in itself. And it is relentless, dull, and impacts on how you feel.

I began my LBTL 2012 on the day of the Queen’s Speech deliberately. It seemed a strong way to make the point – eating homemade soup and little else on the day when everyone else seemed to be enjoying special lunches – but I had also expected the government to include the legislation to secure 0.7% of GNP for aid and that would have been a great encouragement for the campaign. But it was not to be!

What a let down. They seem to have given in to the reactionary populists who exploit ignorance to whip up opposition to such a move. I really hope this is a short-term lapse in commitment. The all-party consensus on Overseas Development Assistance from the UK is so important for our global leadership on this issue. And it repays some of the damage from our colonial past.

Living Below the Line 2012 was not fun, but it did have its moments. Baroness Jenkin’s ‘soup kitchen’ in the House of Lords where all those taking part joined together for a 35p lunch; Baroness Jolly’s speech welcoming the Queen’s Speech mentioning our campaign; Come Dine Below the Line on the Channel Four website; and the sometimes totally unexpected generosity of friends old and new who supported my efforts.

But Living Below the Line is serious stuff for those who have no other choice. And, for them, this campaign will go on. Investing in agriculture, in infrastructure, in trade and better governance, in education and in health and clean water saves and transforms lives. We can change this situation, and we certainly have a moral obligation to try.

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