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Living on One Dollar a...

Living on One Dollar a Day

Extreme poverty is a harsh reality for more than one billion people worldwide. Sharon Wilkinson, country director for CARE in Cambodia, spent one month getting to know what life is like for the people we serve, by living on $1 a day. Below is an excerpt from her first few journal entries.

Day 1

It’s a strange way to start a “do-without” month … There I was, aboard a 747 flying out of Taipei, when October sixteenth arrived—the first day of my pledge to consume less than one U.S. dollar per day. I looked at the airline breakfast—and I knew the hardest thing to give up would be the coffee!

Looking at this feast, I remembered the mid 80s in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I traveled there with Clare Hanbury, who was taking forward the Child-to-Child movement across Africa. We shared a room and went to breakfast together at a rather grim hotel. She sat, a very dignified English type of lady, spreading each slice of rapidly aging bread with as much butter and jam as it would carry. Then she cut them into small pieces—and she left it! “Uh, Clare,” I ventured, “what are you doing?” Then she told me the story of the street children living out of the hotel rubbish bins. “If we cut the bread and add the butter and jam, it won’t be recycled to another customer, and the kids will get it,” she explained.

In Cambodia, the children call the waste food that comes from the airlines “God’s Rubbish Bins” and so I sat on the plane making tiny sandwiches, hoping the kids would get them. Imagine your child getting food from the bins; the crumbs from our table.

I have had the privilege of working to change the fact that many thousands of people go to sleep hungry each night. I do this through CARE, through my colleagues and partners in big ways such as interventions in food security— introducing improved agriculture, water catchments, water purification, and introducing a range of services that protect children such as nutrition and hygiene education, supported with kitchen gardens, immunization programs, and access to essential health care and schooling.

It’s these sorts of interventions that will make the difference. So for the next month, I will continue to work on the bigger picture issues while experiencing firsthand how it feels to survive on less than one U.S. dollar per day.

Day 2
Breakfast was an egg for about seven cents. A dozen eggs comes in at just over one dollar. Oh, and I had coffee!

I walked to work, which takes forty minutes and gives me the chance to get to the market before the heat of the day ruins the produce. The market is a busy and not too clean place, but it’s a whole lot cheaper than a supermarket! There in the market is a man probably in his mid 50s, crippled maybe from birth or maybe from an accident. He shuffles along on his bent legs and hands asking for “nyam”—bread. In this market there are few foreigners, but he asks all who come by him. There is little support for people with disabilities in Cambodia.

I am grateful to have change in my pocket to give him.

I bought a small cauliflower, some tomatoes, a stem of broccoli, a few green beans, two potatoes, two onions, a garlic bulb, and a piece of ginger—all for the princely sum of three dollars and fifty cents. I have some rice at home—approximately three dollars in total—and this food will be turned into curry and soup and stir-fry. And it will have to last a week!

My coffee “fix” is a small jar of the cheapest brand of instant that cost one dollar and eighty cents. I am hoping it will last longer than a week!

Running total:

12 eggs $1.00

Coffee $1.80

Vegetables $3.50

Rice $3.00

Total $9.30

And it’s only day two!

Lunch was a hurried affair—just a very quick stir-fry, and I walked home from work thinking, “I am going to be so fit at the end of this month.” Then the next thought hit me: “I’m more likely to be anemic!”

Certainly if you lived on one dollar per day for a substantial length of time you would be anemic. CARE works to address anemia by introducing home gardens. We also supplement the government health services for pregnant and lactating mothers by providing ferrous sulfate, vitamins, and training.

Supper was curried vegetables and rice. If you’ve been reading closely, you might have realized I am using (if not consuming) more than one dollar per day because I am cooking on a gas stove. Those who really live on a dollar a day can’t afford fuel. This fact has led to a major industry of street vendors, who make food at four in the morning to serve to city workers before six a.m. Street food can be tasty—but it can also be highly dangerous. The street vendors cannot access toilets or running water, resulting in highly contaminated produce. For the poor with few options, cheap street food is all they can access—but the price is often dysentery.

Day 3
I wake after another night of rain—great, that’s free water!

But to collect it I needed a container and that costs! In my case it’s a large red plastic bucket worth thirteen dollars, so it’s just as well I already have one.

Water, without which we would not survive, is a major issue in much of the developing world. A half liter of bottled water costs Riel 500, and in the heat of Southeast Asia we should be drinking three liters a day. That’s Riel 3,000 or seventy-five U.S. cents. Obviously the poor cannot purchase clean bottled water.

Even in the areas where water is “harvested” successfully, women drink the least. They drink little even when they are pregnant or breast-feeding. It’s as if they were deliberately rationing their intake. A key reason for this is the simple fact that they cannot find privacy to urinate! I call this “living under the tyranny of daylight.” Men have no compunction about urinating against a wall or a tree. Indeed there are corners of the city which have been turned into public urinals—smelly areas to avoid. But for women, it’s different.

CARE is working to make water safe—first by helping communities make huge clay water jars to increase the rain “catchment” from roof tops, and then by introducing sand filters. We also work with the University of Dublin to introduce SOLDIS—solar disinfection of water. In the meantime, I am grateful for the water I am given and my boiled egg for breakfast.

By Sharon Wilkinson

To read more of Sharon’s diary, visit