At school, the bit I liked best in geography, was when they showed us people living in different lands. Savannah, tundra, tropical rain forest, desert…. not just places from films, stories, myths. These were real places, where real people lived.
Ireland, was the centre of my world so to me these were extraordinary and somewhat ‘alien’ environments. Hot climates? Arid conditions? People living in flat-roofed houses, wooden houses, tents, houses made from mud? It was a kind of an awakening to know there were other ways of living: people who inhabit this earth, who live life in a different track from me.
Dollar Street is a free educational resource that I just wish had been around when I was at school.
Established by Anna Rosling Rönnlund at Gapminder, Dollar Street looks at families and homes, from around the world. To date they have visited 264 families in 50 countries. Each family is assigned a nominal US$ to reflect overall monthly income and the range in quality of each home is staggering. But what is also clear is that education, health, well-paid work and a sustainable political and economic infrastructure is what makes the difference.
This is not some sort of interior design coffee-table book purporting to reflect how people live. It is does not feature celebrities or designer homes instead, its focus is on ordinary families and their homes. The spaces that they have made their own reflect local economics, design and cultural practices, but also circumstance, choice and opportunity – or the lack of it.
Clicking on any of the studies is an eye-opener. In some homes the people are as poor as it is possible to be. Others live in quite substantial homes and are comfortable, with all mod-cons – or at least, a bed, separate rooms, TV, bathroom – things we might expect to see/have. Things we might assume people cannot do without – yet, clearly do. A few more clicks and you realise that when it comes to consumption, there is a huge gap between… wanting, having, making do, doing without, never having had and never expecting ever to have. That’s what resonates most.
The site focuses on the things we all do, things we use and how/where this occurs in the home. It explores the daily routine: bathing, eating, sleeping and also what people use for washing teeth, washing clothes, storing foodstuff, entertainment, work, treasured belongings. If present, light sources, power sockets, crockery, utensils and wall finishes are also featured. It compares like for like, but in truth, some families have so little, it is often about comparing something, to what is – virtually nothing.
We are used to seeing glamorous images of beautiful homes that inspire and amaze us. But they can also create a sense of discontent, dissatisfaction and envy. The perfect home built with the luxury of space, designed to suit our every need from the finest quality materials, may be an aspiration, but it is not the norm.
Dollar Street is the very opposite of all that. The images are not staged, manipulated, or noticeably re-touched. These are not designed show houses, and the families are comfortable that we see their home as it is. This is the reality of those who have, and those who have very little. That is what makes it authentic and fascinating. But also unsettling. And above all, deeply humbling.
You can’t really pick out one family, or one home above others. The poorest family? Most comfortable home? Colour? Best use of space? It’s not about that. This is not a site that judges, or comments. It simply shows the spaces and we are left to make up our own minds about each way of life. It is informative, it makes you think. And it makes you confront your own sense of what is important, and what is not.
The website works best when viewed as a whole. The images draw you in, they tell a story about a family, a home, country, culture and way of life. It is about commonality, rather than differences. Everyone has as much right to live on this earth as another, yet this shows us that some are forced to live in circumstances that would be unimaginable to most. There is nothing exotic about living in poverty; it is a frightening and degrading existence.
Right across the world technology is part of people’s lives; it shows up everywhere. A mobile phone, is perhaps more of a lifeline than a luxury. A refrigerator is a precious, essential thing, rather than just kitchen equipment. A TV provides entertainment and information but also widens perspectives and connects people. A washing machine… a shower…computer…cooker.. lavatory…at some point, through social mobility, all these may shift as elements from a dream lifestyle, to basic, everyday, taken-for-granted things.
When we travel to different countries but don’t speak the language, and don’t actually live there, our experience of that place is going to be superficial and sanitised. We will never see it as a local. Dollar Street enables us to get access to hidden spaces to give us a glimpse of other people and their lives. Data and research such as this, is what helps to make the world seem like a smaller place. It is almost like being there in person.
All images copyright of Dollar Street.