Photo: Living on One Dollar
An estimated 1.1 billion people in the world survive on just $1 a day.It’s a figure Claremont McKenna College economics students Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci couldn’t get out of their heads.
“What can I do? That’s the hardest part about it … there is no one answer,” says Temple. “[The U.S.] has poured $2.5 trillion dollars into international development trying to end poverty and a lot of times it just made things worse.”
Together, the pair decided to take their studies outside the classroom, to someplace more practical –– the edge of poverty itself.
Living on $1 a day for two months, they moved to a remote Guatemalan town to study the people’s relationship with money and see firsthand how access to small lines of credit could impact their livelihoods.
They documented their journey in a new film called “Living On One.”
Click here to see their journey in photos >
“For all our academic learning, there were some things a textbook just couldn’t answer,” Temple says.
The pair made their way by plane and multiple bumpy bus rides to the village of Peña Blanca (White Pain), along with two videographers. There was nothing luxurious about their living arrangement.
On a budget of $224 for 56 days ($1 per person), they squeezed into a tiny shack on the outskirts of town, with cardboard boxes and a few blankets separating them from the dirt floor.
To make their experiment realistic, they split the $224 into random denominations between 0 and 9. Each morning, they drew a slip of paper out of a hat with how much money they’d “earn” that day.
Their logic was simple: Most people in the town were day laborers and never knew how much they’d earn on a typical day. To see firsthand the benefits of micro-lending, they, like many others in the village, took out a small loan to start a side business to supplement their income. They settled on a radish farm.
In the ensuing weeks, they dealt with exhaustion, food deprivation, E. Coli, parasites, and a bed bug infestation. Temple dropped 20 pounds by day 56.
“That was the point where I was like, I want to go home,” says Ingrasci, who had fainting spells from fatigue. “I need to get out of here. Why am I doing this? And we were eating better than a lot of people in the community.”
It was Temple who fell ill with E. Coli, and the $25 medicine needed to treat his symptoms would have bankrupted the group. It occurred to them that like low-income consumers in the U.S., people in the village lacked quick access to emergency funds. Banks often required a host of financial documentation like bills and proof of employment they often couldn’t produce.
Instead, they relied on loans from neighbours, or banks specializing in small loans like Grameen.
“It was so huge to see the potential for what even the simple access to credit could do,” Temple says.
If the name Grameen sounds familiar, it’s likely because it was the brain child of economist Muhammad Yunus that earned him the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.
The Bangladeshi economist pioneered the micro-lending movement and has been widely known as the “banker of the poor.”
For all Yunus’ positive press, critics claim the micro-lending movement is simply a band-aid on the larger issue of widespread poverty. Once microfinance made waves, large banks began targeting low-income customers in developing nations as a new source of revenue, sparking Business Week to run a piece on the “Ugly Side of Micro-Lending.”
But by Ingrasci and Temple’s account, small loans were already changing the fates of Peña Blanca residents, often meaning the difference between getting an education or dropping out for a paycheck.
“That’s what we’re trying to prove,” Temple says. “So much here is the power of partial solutions.”