Elevate Difference

Running on Empty

When I was perhaps ten years old or younger, I used to sit in front of the television on weekend mornings, and flip around until I found a Save the Children show. I’d then proceed to watch the entire episode, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and cry. For years afterwards I was always furious when my mother would flip past the standard image of a young child of color, starving and attracting flies, with a sound of disgust.

Running on Empty is part of the sixth season of _Life, an educational series put out by Television Trust for the Environment, which delves into globalization’s myriad of affects on poverty. This particular episode shows the effects, mostly ineffective, of the Millennium Development Goals, a plan signed by 192 United Nations members to halve poverty and hunger by the year 2015.

The film contrasts the lives of Dawn, a mother of three living in one of the poorest areas in Europe, and Asemu, a mother of two living in northern Ethiopia. Dawn and Asemu, both only twenty-two years old, depend on cash payments to buy food, clothing, and other basic necessities. The film deals with the question of whether it is more effective to give cash or food aid to families in need. The fear is that adults will spend the money on more frivolous items instead of necessities. 

While Running on Empty logically decides that cash is the best form of aid, it also shows the women spending a large part of their meager resources on events described as “social obligations.” Dawn ends up borrowing six hundred and fifty pounds (over nine hundred dollars to us) for her children’s Christmas presents, and struggles to pay back the loans. Asemu doesn’t receive regular cash payments until five months after the harvest; and she must spend a large part of their harvest on a women’s gathering, at which the women take turns supplying the food.

The film ends agreeing that the Millennium Development Goals are not working. Dawn receives just enough money to survive on after she splits her cash between food, diapers, laundry, gas, and electric bills. While her children are not underfed, and she knows what kind of diet is best for them, she lacks the money to buy healthy food. Therefore, Dawn falls back on fries and other high-fat, high-calorie solutions. 

Asemu, who receives one pound for every one hundred and thirty of Dawn’s, explains that the cash aid she receives hasn’t increased to keep up with inflation rates. Her youngest child is developing well, but her older son, born before the family began receiving aid, only started to walk at age four due to malnutrition. The damage done by lack of nutrition in his first two years will never be undone, and the family’s diet is still extremely poor in protein, with no money for fish or meat.

The show is well filmed, with segments in Ethiopia and South Wales, and does a striking job at drawing parallels between the different types of poverty the two families live in. In the end, neither can afford to give their children the nutrition they desperately need for proper development, despite all of the rich promises of our “world leaders.”

Written by: Ilinca Popescu, June 1st 2009