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On 'Slum Survivor,' No One's a Winner

June 03, 2002|CLIFFORD BOB | Clifford Bob is an assistant professor of political science at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

With another season of "Survivor" now over, the networks have an opportunity to revolutionize "reality television" next year. Instead of setting 20 Americans down on a lush tropical island, why not deposit them on the streets of a Third World city? Rather than having contestants live as no one really does, why not let them scrape by as hundreds of millions do in places like Karachi, Lagos, Sao Paulo or a dozen other mega-cities in the developing world?

Why not "Slum Survivor"?

First, strip the contestants of everything but their clothes. Then generously endow them with $1, more than what 1billion people survive on daily. For greater human interest, use child or teenage contestants: More than 40% of the populations in some poor countries are under 15, with many orphaned, homeless or alone.

Lights, camera, action! Let our contestants loose on the teeming, filthy streets where life expectancies are two-thirds of those in developed countries. Intrepid production crews could chronicle the kids' days as, with every breath of lead-laden air, their mental capacity declines. No matter. Given the lack of schools even in democracies like India, intellect doesn't count for much anyway.

Finding food or, better yet, a job would be our child contestants' first goal. For jaded television audiences, what could be more nerve-racking than watching their 12-hour workdays in sordid and dangerous factories? What could be more exciting than their scaling of colossal garbage heaps to find decayed food, metal scraps and other precious leavings from local elites? What could be more poignant than their selling themselves for a few cents, many times a night?

A place to sleep would also be a challenge: a squalid train station, a packed tenement room, a windowless shanty. The choices are tough, but millions find ways. Our contestants would no doubt go to bed hungry, as do two-thirds of the world's people, and they might not wake up with their dignity or possessions intact. But perhaps, through the din and danger, they would manage a little shut-eye.

In the glare of the Klieg lights, "Survivor" contestants have never had much privacy. But "Slum Survivor" would add a new dimension: the need to wait for dark to relieve themselves over a bridge or in a quiet alley, without benefit of tissue or sanitation. Of course, a contestant might be lucky enough to find a public toilet, most likely a reeking hole in a concrete floor. But wait. For the savvy contestant, that "dry latrine" could also be the ticket to gainful employment. Tens of thousands of South Asia's 240million "untouchables" still clean them by "manual scavenging" with broom, basket and bare hands, earning a pittance--and the abhorrence of their upper-caste clients.

To be truly realistic, "Slum Survivor" would have to take account of rich nations' poverty reduction programs. Cut! Even with President Bush's new $10-billion initiative to help the world's poor and with the larger amounts pledged by other nations, this "largess" is still too minuscule to be seen on camera.

Prizes? For losing contestants, whose birth in the developed world already made them winners in the world's greatest crapshoot, a bright future and a long life, something hapless slum dwellers can only dream of. And for the final contestant, some understanding about how the majority of the world's people actually live their lives.

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