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Cambridge student society forced to cancel ‘poverty simulation’ event after public backlash

African Society of Cambridge University says it 'cannot entertain or host this kind of ignorance' regarding the lives of those in the developing world

Aftab Ali
Student Editor
Wednesday 14 October 2015 10:15
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How the event page appeared on Facebook before it was removed by the society
How the event page appeared on Facebook before it was removed by the society

A student society at one of the world’s most reputable universities has been forced to cancel a ‘poverty simulation’ Facebook event after an online outcry branded it ‘disgusting’ and ‘tremendously awful’.

The University of Cambridge’s branch of the international charity Giving What We Can teamed up with Empathy Action with the intention to gather students in the cellars at one of the institution’s colleges, Clare, to act out what it would be like to ‘live hand-to-mouth in a poverty trap’.

After the two-hour long exercise – which would have included fighting against financial odds in order to ‘send one of their groups to school’, participants were to discuss the events over drinks in the bar. The group also added how it was ‘delighted to be able to put this even on for free of charge’.

However, the event – entitled ‘Slum in the Cellars: Poverty Simulation’ – backfired for the society as the public took to social media to blast it for being in bad taste:

One Twitter user further mocked the students’ ‘role-play’ while others took a stronger stance:

Originally intended to take place on 20 October, the event’s description said in full:

The simulation will show something of what it means to live hand-to-mouth in a poverty trap. Participants will be put into ‘family units’ and attempt to make enough money to pay for food, water, rent and sanitation, all the while trying to send one of their groups to school.

The event starts with an introduction in the Clare gatehouse. We will head over at 7.30pm to the cellars for the simulation (lasting approximately 2 hours). We hope everyone will stay afterwards for a drink in the bar, and further discussion about the event.

We are delighted to be able to put this even on for free of charge for participants. Free tickets will be made available at midday on Saturday 10th October!

Review from Giving What You Can London: “A strange mix of fun and insightful/eye-opening about how people live in the developing world… 5 stars. Really really good.

Nungari Mwangi, president of the African Society of Cambridge University (ASCU), took to the event’s bulletin page on the Clare College website, referring to the event as ‘deeply disturbing’, ‘racist’, adding how the society should ‘be ashamed of yourselves’.

Nungari Mwangi’s post in full:

Dear Clare College MCR and Giving What We Can,

This event is deeply disturbing, inappropriate and an affront to the dignity of the people who actually live in poverty every day. Your vain attempt to appropriate the struggles of the world’s poor as a game, over drinks in the most privileged of settings, is appalling, immoral and irresponsible. Worse still is the fact that you used the picture of a black child to advertise and market poverty. That is not only blatantly racist but a reinforcement of all the disempowering, negative stereotypes that the developing world has and still is fighting.

No doubt you have the best of intentions but the road to hell is paved with such and we cannot entertain or host this kind of ignorance about the lived experience of the poor and other people in the developing world. Please expect a fuller and more detailed response from the African community of students at Cambridge and be ashamed of yourselves.

Bowing down to pressure, the society cancelled and removed the Facebook event, issuing a public statement shortly after to apologise for causing offence:

As some of you may have seen, we have cancelled our event next week. We now see how the simulation might have come across problematically and are deeply sorry for any offence it has caused.

We are contacting the people who have raised concerns, asking them for their advice on how to approach raising empathy for and understanding of extreme poverty in the future.

We are a student society, and the intention of the Empathy Action simulation was to deepen students’ understanding of the issues involved in extreme poverty, with the hope that it would motivate students to take action.

Poverty is not a spectacle for us to enrich our own perspectives, nor to recognise our privilege or, even more deplorably, to enjoy as a unique experience. It is not a game. It is a reality for the 1.2 billion people who live it every single day of their lives. Its existence and persistence in a world of unimaginable prosperity implores action, not just empathy. Giving What We Can members recognise this and many donate at least 10% of their incomes to help eradicate extreme poverty.

Our mission is to promote the best approaches to overcoming poverty and the last thing we want is any distraction from this goal.

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