B40: Brain food, tuition and face-to-face relationships (not BR1M or donations)

(Jayanath Appudurai) recommends that energy-dense and nutrient-rich food — brain food — be provided for children in low-income families. Provide all the support necessary for the first thousand days of a child, and the child has a strong physical starting point to commence education.

I wasn’t old enough to be attentive to the pop scene when UB40 reigned in the charts (actually pop wasn’t even the first genre I delved into – it was classics and oldies first before alternative rock took over my world at 12). So I wouldn’t have thought the B40 group was somehow related to pop reggae group UB40.

The B40 group, or the bottom 40% income group, is by definition households who live on less than RM3,855 a month*. Interestingly, Jayanath Appudurai in a talk today (27th November)mentitled B40: Rhetoric and Reality, revealed that there were three classifications within the B40. “Poor”, with average income of RM950 which constitutes about 400,000 households, “Vulnerable”, with average income of RM950-RM2,375 which is the situation of 1.15 million households and “Aspirational”, with average incomes between RM2,375 to RM3,855. (Wait, “aspirational”? Well basically this means those who are vying to launch into middle income status.)

Statistics say 65% of B40 families depend on single source income earners. 30% of heads of families have no certificate and only less than 40% had SPM qualifications.

How does a family survive on RM950 a month? We are talking about a national household average size of 4.2 and low income families typically have more children. How does a family survive on even RM2,375? What are the education opportunities available to such families not to mention rental, transport, health. Where do they stay and what are the closest services in the vicinity?

What kind of living environments do B40 households live in? Are these places safe? Secure, especially for children? What are the working rights and protections available to wage earners? What happens when something happens to this single source?

I would beg to differ from the perspective that MPs should not be handling calls from the people they are entrusted with. Hats off to MPs who listen especially to the “poor” and “vulnerable”, and we need to encourage them to do so!

Breaking out of the Cycle

Jayanath Appudurai at my first Mimbar Gerakbudaya presented a meaningful glance at some statistics from the 11th Malaysia Plan. He shared two ways of breaking the poverty cycle.

Firstly, it is to bring change at the nucleus family level. CSOs focusing on services for children will find it reassuring that Jayanath is a strong proponent of strategies that build and empower children, to break the poverty cycle. While the image of poverty used to be that of skinny children, today’s image is one of obesity due to cheap, tasty, filling junkfood. He recommends that energy-dense and nutrient-rich food — brain food — be provided for children in low-income families. Provide all the support necessary for the first thousand days of a child, and the child has a strong physical starting point to commence education. He says to CSOs, teach mothers how to care for their babies. Keywords: children and parents empowerment through education and nutritious food.

So the real issue to my mind isn’t BR1M, but that government institutions have little mechanisms to walk these individuals and households through the continuum. The real issue is that the Welfare Department does not have social workers (gasp!) and are largely concerned with processing applications for handouts.

Secondly, change at the institutional level. He presented in a nutshell the proposal made by Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia in 2012 for a Social Inclusion Act. The Act includes an independent oversight body, specialised intervention units staffed by social workers, tailored programmes for the constituencies and others. However, despite support from (only) MP Michael Jeyakumar and MP Ong Kian Ming, the submission via private member’s bill was twice rejected by the Speaker in 2014.

Discussion Time

There were some lively discussion on the floor, and I will share a few that piqued my interest and give a fuller response here.

BR1M. Some lively comments were made, whether BR1M was essentially a mechanism that functions to manipulate recipients, politically. Although it is tempting to think in those terms of yes (that it is given for political mileage) and no (that it essentially is a benevolent freebie for a general group of people and is more appreciated by the lower-income), I prefer a broader view of BR1M along a continuum** I will now briefly explain.

Relief > Betterment > Development > Advocacy

Set in this framework, cash or material transfers are most suitable when a household is facing a dire situation that requires relief: the family has faced a crisis and they need a stopgap measure and food on the table before they figure out a solution. You can’t see an empty fridge, empty pockets, empty bellies and tell someone to go make some money now. Once there’s nutritious food on the table, the family is able to now focus on improving their livelihood situation in the betterment process. As things stabilise, the family is able to get to development stage where they expand their capacity to flourish for longer term outcomes.

But the crux of the matter is to walk B40 households through the continuum to the point that they are able to be independent or interdependent with the community around them, being economically and even politically empowered. By being politically empowered, I mean having a say in how things are run at where they live.

So the real concern to my mind isn’t BR1M, but that government institutions have little mechanisms to walk these individuals and households through the continuum. The real issue is that the Welfare Department does not have social workers (gasp!) and are largely concerned with processing applications for handouts. If government ministries can set up a MIDA (Malaysian Investment Development Authority) which handles investment matters, it shouldn’t be too hard for the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to come up with a similar intervention body staffed with trained social workers.

I think it gets dangerous when “making legislation” is dichotomised from “going to the ground” and understanding the situation of the poor or low income. Because then, who is the MP making the legislation for? Who then is he representing?

Bottom-up approach. Mr Jayanath said something very short yet dense with meaning: He said things will change if MP’s go on the ground to where the poor are. This was met with some resistance due to the understanding that MP’s aren’t meant to be handling people’s grouses, but should be looking into legislation. But as I sat their listening to the exchange, I stewed inside.

I think it gets dangerous when “making legislation” is dichotomised from “going to the ground” and understanding the situation of the poor or low income. I hope you can see it with me here even as I write this. Because then, who is the MP making the legislation for? Who then is he representing? Whose wellbeing is he protecting and enhancing? Is it any wonder that only 2 MP’s are sympathetic toward the Social Inclusion Bill, if that is the general attitude of the boundaries of lawmaking that MPs should be stuck in glorious offices mulling over piles and piles of data and paper?

Doesn’t that further limit representative democracy, which is supposed to represent your constituency? How else can one represent their constituency without hearing them, from the ground and seeing how they live? I would beg to differ from the perspective that MPs should not be handling calls from the people they are entrusted with. Hats off to MPs who listen especially to the “poor” and “vulnerable”, and we need to encourage them to do so!

Finally

Mr Jayanath Appudurai highlighted two levels of transformation needed, one for individual B40 households, and second for highly qualified institutions to be formed. But in both, there is one thing to me needed in the whole equation — and that is, a bottom-up turun padang approach. Without social workers who untiringly journey with a family with the utmost sincerity, wisdom and resources, the family might sink back into the poverty trap. Without the marketplace giving them a chance, the path is an arduous one. And without people-centred MPs who continuously give poor communities a listening ear, policies and legislations will not effectively help low-income groups and create just systems for them too.

May we be attentive to the needs of the B40 group. May we include them in our thoughts and plans. May their hopes and dreams be ours too.

*according to the 11th Malaysia Plan.
** taken from When Helping Hurts by Steve Colbert and Brian Fikkert

Related article:  Case for the Indian Poor.

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