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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on September 7, 2020 - September 13, 2020

THE government’s social safety net offers vital support for vulnerable groups, but its official data on poverty fails to capture the extent of deprivation among the poor, say charity organisations that bring aid to affected communities.

Foundations that provide a range of benefits to the poor report that their efforts need to be multiplied to reach more people who qualify for assistance but who don’t get help because resources are limited.

One issue is that poverty has many dimensions and needs to be tackled from many angles. For example, Yayasan Hasanah — a foundation under Khazanah Nasional Bhd that supports community development along with other philanthropic services — recognises that the face of poverty is different in urban and rural settings.

“Those in urban areas are more vulnerable to economic shocks or pandemics such as Covid-19 as they are dependent on earning daily wages to buy food. When they lose jobs or cannot go out to work, their purchasing power reduces a great deal and this has several consequences for their families,” says Yayasan Hasanah managing director Shahira Ahmed Bazari.

In the rural areas, the poor will still be able to have food regardless of a pandemic or economic downturn for as long as they have farmland, says Shahira. However, they would lack quality education or digital resources to help them market their products to ensure they have sufficient income for the family.

Given poverty’s many facets, foundations have to spread out the aid to different groups of vulnerable people to maximise their reach. For instance, Yayasan Hasanah’s special grant initiative with the Ministry of Finance, as part of the Prihatin Rakyat economic stimulus package to combat the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, has approved 42 projects with a total amount of RM7.6 million, with RM3 million disbursed so far.

“The most recent approved projects included providing vocational and social skills training to disabled youth to allow them to enter the job market, entrepreneurship training for disabled persons and single mothers, restoring padi-farming efforts as an alternative source of food and income for selected communities, providing access to rehabilitative services for stroke survivors, tele-mental health support services for cancer survivors, building resilience in children to adapt to changes due to Covid- 19 through certain interventions and the care of endangered animals,” says Shahira.

According to Yayasan Petronas, it has started to encounter more instances of poverty in urban areas, although those who lack basic needs tend to come from the more rural parts of the country. “This may be due to the rising cost of living, sudden shifts in job opportunities and, most recently, the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic,” its CEO Lita Osman tells The Edge in an email.

Yayasan Hasanah’s community engagement and data collection show that most of the disadvantaged are in the informal sector, hence they have no formal social safety nets such as pension funds, social security funds and health insurance as they are largely self-employed and rely on daily wages or income from micro-businesses and are thus living from hand to mouth. The situation becomes more dire when they have large families, says Shahira.

Yayasan Hasanah’s community development projects include working with low-income women as well as low-income youth and children. Its initiatives include providing interest-free micro-loans to poor women to help them grow their micro-businesses as well as entrepreneurship training. The foundation also teaches digital and entrepreneurship skills to secondary school students and unemployed youth to support them in increasing their incomes.

Shahira notes that access to different types of social safety nets depends on the recipients being aware of their rights to such protection, having the ability to apply for these benefits and ensuring that they are eligible. “Our engagement has shown that many members of these communities do not know how to access the available social safety nets that they are entitled to, and outreach programmes are sometimes too complex for them to understand due to the formal language used. Moreover, there are many who may not be included in government databases and may miss out on the government’s social protection,” she explains.

Yayasan Petronas says the job of transforming the fortunes of disadvantaged groups should be a shared responsibility as it is a huge undertaking. “We need solutions, not a single solution, and the best way forward is more public-private collaborations, partnerships with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), experts and think tanks to help us innovate our way to enrich lives for a sustainable future for all Malaysians,” says Lita.

Mah Sing Foundation believes that strategic partnerships are important for philanthropic efforts to have an optimum impact on society. “For example, we work with Yayasan Generasi Gemilang for the children’s education programme as they are experts in that area,” says Mah Sing Foundation chairman Datuk Indera Syed Norulzaman Syed Kamarulzaman.

“For our health and well-being programme, we have partners like SOLS Health, which has in-house psychologists to run family support activities and modules. For community development, our partner in Sabah — Hopes Malaysia — has direct access to villagers and understands their needs and the support needed.”

To get communities out of the cycle of poverty, charity foundations believe in focusing on providing better access to basic needs such as clean water, food and shelter, followed by increasing access to quality education. “Only with access to things like clean water, food and shelter can basic education such as literacy and numeracy follow,” says Syed Norulzaman.

In 2019, Mah Sing Foundation said it had impacted the lives of 23,000 individuals, assisted more than 40 schools and NGOs and contributed more than RM2.1 million. While efforts need to be multiplied, the foundations agree that they also need to be spread out over the longer term to bring about real change.

As for Yayasan Petronas, it recently launched a 24-month flagship programme called MEKAR, or Memampan Ekonomi Asas Rakyat. It utilises three approaches to address poverty — supporting underprivileged communities with access to basic provisions and infrastructure, providing skills training and motivation to improve their employability and increase their incomes, and enabling market access to provide communities with steady and sustainable streams of income.

“Program Mekar is an extension of Petronas’ 2017-2019 Planting Tomorrow Programme, which partnered government agencies and NGOs to help communities in Sabah and Terengganu to be self-sustaining. The initiative reached 1,080 families, of which 80% saw an increase of RM500 to RM1,000 in household income,” says Yayasan Petronas’ Lita.

“Over the next two years, MEKAR aims to assist 3,400 low-income families across eight states — Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Selangor, Johor, Sabah and Sarawak.”



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