Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Fight against POVERTY is an undending struggle for JUSTICE

The Fight against POVERTY is an unending struggle for JUSTICE

By Din Merican

I was very much taken up by Dato Richard Leete’s commentary titled “Recommitting to the Fight against Poverty” (The New Sunday Times, January 13, 2008). The subject of poverty is not only controversial because of politics, but it is also a painful prick on our national conscience.

We cannot have real development when, as the erudite UNDP Resident Representative, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei and author of Malaysia, From Kampung to Twin Towers: 50 Years of Economic and Social Development says, “…the poorest of the poor, overwhelmingly concentrated in the rural areas of Sabah, Sarawak, Terengganu, Kelantan and Kedah, are living in extreme deprivation”. Note that Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak are oil and gas and timber producing states while agriculture dominates the economies of Kelantan and Kedah.

Dato Leete makes two interesting points. The first point is that “[A] serious and renewed commitment to the fight against poverty is required to put equity at the core of development policies and programmes. This requires affirmative action to assist Malaysia’s poor wherever they may be, regardless of gender, race or political affiliation”.

I agree with him and would say more bluntly that we do not solve poverty problems by buying the loyalty of the poor during elections, or penalizing poor voters who are supporting Parti KeADILan, PAS or Democratic Action Party. That is not democracy since this concept entails freedom of choice and other freedoms as well. If I may be permitted to change a word in his comment I quoted above, it will be to replace “assist” with “empower”. Affirmative action should be based on empowerment because it is about respect for the poor as fellow human beings; what they need for their self esteem is opportunity, not charity, particularly politically motivated charity which is no charity at all! It is not to be labelled “Satu Lagi Projek Barisan Nasional”.

In this regard, I find C.K. Prahalad’s latest book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP): Eradicating Poverty through Profits (New Jersey: Wharton School Publishing, 2006) to be very useful in rethinking poverty. Lord Mark Malloch Brown, UNDP Chief, regards the book as “[A]n important and insightful work showing persuasively how the private sector can be put at the center of development, not just as a rhetorical flourish but as a real engine of jobs and services for the poor.”

What then is the Prahalad’s thesis? It is, and I quote him, as follows:

“If we stop thinking of the poor as victims, or as a burden and start recognising them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers, a whole new world of opportunity will open up…It can be a source of innovations. Serving the BOP consumers will demand innovations in technology, products and services and business models”.

The respected Professor and Business Guru at the University of Michigan Business School in Ann Arbor, adds that:

“[T]hat the opportunities at the BOP cannot be unlocked if large and small firms, governments, civil social organisations, development agencies,and the poor themselves do not work together with a shared agenda. Entrepreneurship on a massive scale is the key”.

The second point which Dato Leete makes with regard to aforementioned states of Malaysia is:

[E]nsuring that scarce development resources are utilised sustainably in these states and communities where they are most needed, hinges on improved governance and accountability. An efficient and accountable government that makes services work for poor people requiries sustained political will”.

I cannot disagree with him. We need good governance and dedicated and honest leaders and functionaries at all levels if we are ever going to make poverty a part of human history. Right now we know that we do not have them. Hence, poverty remains a serious problem and it is worsening.

This is why Anwar Ibrahim said in his speeches throughout our country and in his Malaysian Economic Agenda , and Dato Leete confirms, that “Malaysia’s Gini coefficient (G-c) of around 0.46 is the highest in the Asia region”. G-c of zero denotes perfect equality, while G-c of unity indicates complete inequality.

After reading books by my friend at New York University and Center for Global Development, William Russell Easterly entitled The Elusive Quest for Growth and The White Man’s Burden (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), I find my confidence in multilateral aid agencies and donors of the West to deliver development assistance considerably diminished. Bill says that “The plan to end world poverty shows all the pretensions of utopian social engineering”.

What can we do? Bill has this advice to offer:

”There is a role for everyone (both in the West and in the Rest) who cares about the poor. If you are an activist, you can change your issue from raising more aid to making sure that the aid money reaches the poor. If you are a researcher or a student of development, you can search for ways to improve the aid system, or for piecemeal innovations that make the poor people better off, or for ways for homegrown development to happen sooner rather than later. If you are an aid worker, you can forget about the utopian goals and draw upon what you do best to help the poor. Even if you don’t work in the field of helping the poor, you can still, as a citizen, let your voice be heard for the cause of aid delivering the goods to the poor. You citizens don’t have to settle for the grandiose but empty plans to make poverty history. All of you can make known your dissatisfaction with Planners and call for more Searchers”.

The difference between Planners and Searchers is that the latter think about problems, find solutions and take action. In our country, we had years of bureaucratic and top down planning. That has not affected the lives of the poorest of the poor in Sabah, Sarawak, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah and other places in our resource rich country. So the right plan is to have no plan (Easterly).

Do you think we can now make poverty history when we create corridors of development and spend millions of ringgits on ceremonies to launch them throughout the length and breath of our country? Those corridors create problems and cause land prices to increase. They can lead to more corruption and gains for political cronies. Do we want to use more of the same approaches of the past 50 years ago? Socialist type planning has failed, and fairly miserably. The promise of equitable distribution in the name of justice remains an elusive dream for those whose lives are bleak because they cannot see their way out of the poverty trap.

May be Prahalad is right on when he said that there must be genuine partnership between all agents of development—the private sector, government, civil society, multilateral aid agencies and citizens—and the poor. Think of poverty differently; treat the poor as our partners and potential customers; and treat our poor cousins with respect, and help them to recover their dignity.

Economic development should, therefore, be on the basis of people matter (E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful).

~ by dinobeano on January 14, 2008.

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