I took part in a poverty simulation event organised by Global Hand this evening. I think the offer reached my inbox through the Giving What We Can mailing list, and little detail was given in advance other than beaming endorsements from Ban Ki-Moon and Richard Branson. It seems these folks shook up Davos slightly by attempting to demonstrate to millionaires how the Bottom Billion get by. The living we experienced was making and selling paper bags, using fingers as brushes and a messy flour-water concoction as glue, before bartering with local shop-keepers and buying basic necessities accordingly.
There are, of course, inevitable limits to the realism any such project could achieve. I knew I’d leave after two hours capable of buying ample food, and resorting to selling a kidney to pay a slum-lord is obviously much easier to just say than actually do. And that’s why I left feeling some scepticism about the organisation’s ambition to foster empathy. It certainly seems a stretch to think people will immediately imagine anything resembling despair or degradation – nevermind hunger – when the tasks at hand are made into practical, competitive games. On its own, this surely couldn’t spur moral reform and action.
It seems to me that the project is instead still promising for different reasons. It is plausible that by learning the facts about the obscenely scarce economic conditions so many people must operate in by playing them out first-hand, people will process and appreciate them more. There just is a real sense in which when we’re supplied with photos of people building paper bags and we’re informed they must make 22 of them in order to earn a measly 1.5p, actually proceeding to boringly build the damn things and see how little they go to succeeding in the context of the game – that does bring things to life in a way simply reading such facts might not. So the groundwork for achieving empathy later might be laid, rather than that emotion actually arriving in the course of the experience.
Supplement it with sufficient information of the kind Giving What We Can tends to provide, not only about how comparatively rich we all are, but also just how much good as individuals we can do, and there could be potential for persuasion there.
But my suspicion remains that it will be powerful only for those who already have their eyes at least half open. No amount of creativity can conjure up motivating compassion out of thin air.