Shawn Humphrey

Can Anything Good Come Out of Playing Poverty?: The Two Dollar Challenge says Yes – if it’s done the right way

A lot of us feel compelled to do something about global poverty. It makes sense. Our philosophers tell us that we have a moral imperative. Our professors include working with the poor as part of the curriculum. And our popular culture routinely informs us that we can end another person’s poverty. In turn, numerous Americans have taken steps to end global poverty through mission trips, orphanage tours, buying a pair of TOMS shoes, and/or starting their own non-profit.

Some have been effective; a lot have not.

How is this possible? Weren’t we the generation that was supposed to end global poverty?

We were. But we won’t. Here’s why:

When we take steps to end global poverty, we inject ourselves, our efforts and our programs into a community’s on-going process of economic development. This process is complex, long-term, community specific, and (should be) locally driven. We, on the other hand, are imperfectly informed, culturally and geographically distant, and engaged for a relatively short duration. Given the realities of economic development and our limitations, it’s no wonder our efforts have a less than stellar track record.

Do we still have a role to play?

Yes. But, it may not look like the one we were conditioned to expect. And it will require us to become more mindful of ourselves, our place, our privileges and our power.

We believe the Two Dollar Challenge is a good place to begin the process of developing this consciousness.

What is the Two Dollar Challenge?

The Two Dollar Challenge is a unique and impactful experiential learning exercise in which participants live on $2 a day while adhering to a number of additional constraints.

Can anything good come out of “playing poverty”?

Under the right conditions, we believe it can. And since 2006, we have strived to meet those conditions. Here are three:

1. The Two Dollar Challenge is first and foremost an educational exercise.

We were born in a classroom – not a marketing department. Don’t get me wrong, the Two Dollar Challenge is great at raising funds and awareness about global poverty. However, the momentum that fuels this movement is its unparalleled ability to engender empathy and humility among its participants – qualities that align nicely with the classroom experience. We are also rather good at creating opportunities and incentives for participants to critically reflect on their role (if any) in the process of economic development.

2. The Two Dollar Challenge addresses multiple aspects of poverty.

Participants are asked to go beyond the constraint of living on $2 per day for food and hygiene products. They can choose to have their daily income randomized and susceptible to income shocks (e.g., an unexpected health expense). Among other rules, participants are asked to build makeshift shelters on campus, to choose a spigot on campus as the one and only place they can gain access to water, and to boil water before consuming it. Through these constraints (and many others) we create interdependence among the participants. Building shelters, gaining reliable access to water, and being able to make bulk purchases at the grocery store requires cooperation. By creating the need for cooperation, we build a community.

3. The Two Dollar Challenge asks participants to question themselves and the effectiveness of their efforts.

With our community in place, we have a safe space where participants can honestly ask themselves “Why am I here?” and “What do I hope to accomplish?” They can also find the confidence to challenge each other’s assumptions and preconceived notions regarding the economic lives of the poor, and the reasons for global poverty. Every discussion (of which we have many) is an opportunity to probe deeper into the complexity of the process of economic development and our role (if any) in that process.

Since 2006, the Two Dollar Challenge has been graduating cohort after cohort of participants steeped in critical thinking skills, highly attuned to the possible inadequacies of their efforts to take on global poverty, and humbled by their participation.

We believe that this is a good starting place for anyone looking to end global poverty. If you do too, then we invite you to Sign Up for the 2015 National Two Dollar Challenge (April 6 – 10, 2015)!

We’ve joined forces with Oxfam America and RESULTS to open up a meaningful nation-wide conversation about global poverty and foreign aid. By asking you to live on $2 a day, we hope to push you outside your comfort zone to critically engage with, and empathetically reevaluate global poverty and your role in fighting it. And, in the end, it may be that the most effective role we play in ending global poverty is in exercising our voice as citizens of one of the world’s democracies.

Shawn Humphrey is the founder of the Two Dollar Challenge, the Month of Microfinance, and La Ceiba Microfinance.

academia, poverty alleviation