Living in the Congo line

On Monday 7th May, several thousand youths across Australia will take up the White Man’s Burden and, for a week, live on less than $2 a day (excluding rent and utilities) to raise money for people living in abject poverty across the world. Or is it awareness they are raising?

The Oaktree Foundation, the charity responsible for this annual media stunt, says both. According to its website, Live Below the Line’s purpose is for: “raising funds for educational opportunities in the developing world, and creating widespread awareness of this important issue (HINT: conversations are the key!)”.

Firstly, it escapes me how anyone alive in Australia today could not be aware that there are people living in the worst kinds of poverty – their lives bared to the whims of nature and the global economy, and without a hope of ever attaining an education due to their nation’s peripheral economies being hoovered clean.

The Oaktree Foundation is a charity run by and for shiny young spivs looking to accelerate up the slippery careerist totem pole, and their efforts are by and large supported by the labour of a gullible conga-line of youth suffering from an acute case of liberal guilt. Almost half of their directors have attained, or will attain the trusty Arts/Law degree, the staple path of study for gormless sycophants Australia-wide.

For every dollar received, Oaktree plunges 35 cents down the sink in administration costs, advertising and investment. The rest of the money is spent on campaigns in Australia and internationally, such as ending poverty and education.

Live Below the Line was started in 2009 by a couple of young Melburnians and since then, this week of poverty-chic has spread to the USA and the UK.

The structure of Oaktree is such that it is organised into regional branches, with the express aim of grooming the young leaders of the future. A bit like a pyramid scheme selling the next-best-thing, if you’re the first into the pile, there’s a significant chance to earn a mountain of social capital, but if you’re last in, your role is simply to boost those in charge of your particular area or campaign.

With Live Below the Line in particular, their goal is not to directly gain donation money, but to make Australian youths live on less than $2 a day and have them solicit donations for Oaktree. To support them is a slick social media and advertising campaign, just to reinforce the message that poor people are poor and the kids who engage in this campaign are just great people.

This method of charity campaigning is a form of conspicuous consumption, where the product being sold is an absolution of guilt, peace of mind, and, for those donating their labour, a complex process of positive social signalling.

Charity, rather than being sold as a duty, is cheapened, repackaged, and consumed as a desirable statement of taste and selfhood. At least the trust-funders who spend their gap years digging wells on African dirt farms can say they gave a considerable amount of labour and money to their cause; those Living Below the Line will have a week of saved pocket-money, horrible constipation and enough social capital to bank.

If you fancy yourself the next Kipling, perhaps think about some community work, or give anonymous donations to a charity that does not piss your money down the toilet on administration fees. The issue at heart is not that the charity done is unworthy, but that we are collectively enabling a campaign that acts to build the resumes of over-privileged careerists.

The fact that living below the poverty line is a novelty for these people belies their sheltered upbringing and worldview. For those of us who have had to endure real poverty, eating rice and lentils for a week straight drives home the ugly truth that poverty exists everywhere, and turning it into a social commodity leaves the taste of shit in our mouths.