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What are we missing in the poverty discussion?

  • The only clean water source for Kg. Sabur.
  • Houses in Kg. Sabur.
  • Road to Kg. Sabur.

By Wan Ya Shin

The report by UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Prof. Philip Alston, has put the spotlight on poverty issues in Malaysia. The most highlighted issue was that poverty level is higher than reported. Whereas Economics Affairs Minister, Datuk Seri Azmin Ali has disputed the claim by Prof. Alston, many experts and civil society have voiced out their concerns which are in line with the report made by the UN Special Rapporteur.

​In the midst of this heated discussion, I had the privilege to visit a few indigenous villages in Pulau Banggi. This island is located at the North of Kudat, Sabah. On the second day of my visit, I went to Kampung Sabur. This village is connected with the other villages and the main jetty in Karakit by dirt road. During rainy days it would be difficult for vehicles to navigate the muddy road. For those who received “bantuan kerajaan”, their living conditions are better with brick houses, electricity generated by generators and pipe water in their house. However, not all of them receive the same help from government. Those who do not receive help build their own houses and have no supply of electricity. The most heart-wrenching thing is that the kampung has only one clean water source, which comes from a well. During drought season, the flow of water from the well is very slow (refer to picture on the left). They collect rain water for other purposes but for consumption the water pipe would be their only source. If the situation worsens, the government will send water to the village once in 2 days.

​This visit made me realise that while we are busy discussing about measurements, these people are busy doing what they can to survive. Poverty is their day to day lives. How does the discussion we have on measurements impact their lives? Prof. Dr. Sulochana Nair posed this question at the CSO-SDG alliance roundtable on poverty, “Should we be obsessed with the poverty line?”

​My quick answer is, yes and no. Yes, we should be obsessed with poverty line because that determines how we look at poverty. The absolute poverty line is an income measurement on poverty which is based on standard of living. While relative poverty is a measurement based on median income. It is important to recognise that both measurements are not the same. Whilst the absolute poverty line could be totally eradicated, there will always be poor people if we measure in terms of relative poverty. Measurements determine what defines poverty and how poverty will be addressed. So, if the absolute poverty line does not reflect the reality the answer is not to just ignore it and focus only on relative poverty. We need to have an absolute poverty line that is reflective of the real state of poverty.

No, because income is not the only way to look at poverty. The focus on absolute and relative poverty is a distorted way of looking at poverty as there are many dimensions of poverty. In the case of Kampung Sabur, not having clean water is a form of deprivation and poverty. They might have the income to pay for water, but they do not have access to clean water. Therefore, multidimensional poverty is important to look at the other dimensions of poverty; access to health, education, sanitation and water as well as having good living conditions. Although this measurement is not perfect, it helps us to recognise that poverty is beyond just income level.

What is missing in the discourse? What is often overlooked is the types of poverty, chronic and transient poverty. The chronic poor are people that are poor for the long term. While the transient poor are people that fall temporary into poverty due to income shock or life crisis. This is being measured at two different point of time. Why is this important? It helps us to identify the dynamics of poverty. Studies have shown that the causes of chronic and transient poverty are different. A study done by Jalan and Ravallion, in 2000, found that longer-term investments in the land, human and physical capital such as education are more likely to reduce chronic poverty. Whereas, schemes to protect people from income shock would be more effective in targeting transient poverty. For example, cash transfer or Bantuan Sara Hidup would be an effective tool to tackle transient poverty especially those who face economic shocks or loss of employment. It is a short term measure to address poverty. Whereas, human capital investment in education is a longer term measure to address chronic poverty and break the cycle of poverty from passing down from one generation to another. Therefore, it is crucial that the distinction is made for more effective poverty reduction strategies.

The poverty focus in Malaysia has shifted from targeting the poor and hardcore poor to B40. In the Mid-term Review of 11th Malaysia Plan, pillar 2 on enhancing inclusive development and wellbeing, one of the main focus is how do we uplift the B40 towards the middle-class. B40 is a relative measure of looking at poverty. However, we should be careful with this categorization as the B40 is a diverse group. According to the Household Income Survey 2016, B40 are those households who earn RM4,360 or less per month. The state and needs of households with an income of RM4,000 a month would be very different from a household with an income of RM980 (poverty line). Therefore, one-size-fits all policies would not be able to address the condition faced by households of different poverty levels. We need a combination of different strategies to target the poor with different levels of severity.

Coming back to the question “How does the discussion we have on measurements impact their lives?”, how we look at poverty will determine the policy direction and policies implemented to eradicate poverty. If the right diagnosis is not made, how could we treat poverty? But we could not just stop at the discussion, we need concrete actions in order to tackle and eradicate poverty.

We need to understand poverty and the profile of the poor then formulate policies that are targeted and effective. How do we achieve that? Firstly, openness and transparency of microdata and disaggregated data. Secondly, it is time for Malaysia, a country moving towards a high-income nation, to collect panel data that tracks the state of households over time. The collection of panel data would enable us to identify the types of poverty and socio-economic mobility of households. Thirdly, to have mixed approaches to tackle the issue of poverty, recognizing that poverty is multidimensional, with different dynamics and severity. Fourthly, we need to listen to the voices of the poor, are we including them in the discussion about them? How could we address their needs if their voices are not heard?

I believe Kampung Sabur is not the only village in the country that do not have proper basic amenities. Why some receive government subsidies and help while others do not? Are we reaching the poor and are there those that we have left behind? These are some questions that we as fellow Malaysians should ponder upon. As Malaysia move into a high-income nation how do we reconcile with the fact that there are still those who face difficult living conditions. While we continue the discussion on poverty rate in the country, let us not forget the faces of the poor that make up these numbers.

(Wan Ya Shin is a Research Manager for Social Policy in the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and the author for “Malaysia: Social Protection in Addressing Life Cycle Vulnerabilities”.)

 

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