02 September 2008

The articles are captured from the original writer, MsMarina (with her permission). SambalBelacan is just compiling articles to make easier to find. Any comments received will remain un-respond because it's not mine.Reach her at her very own blog at
http://rantingsbymm.blogspot.com/ Please.

Wednesday August 27, 2008
A matter of perspective

What we regard as poor in Malaysia would be very rich in Bangladesh. Yet in some ways, their poverty has made them much more innovative than us richer Malaysians.

IT was a moment when I became aware of perspective. I was in Bangladesh talking to the staff of BRAC, the world’s largest NGO that does tremendous work in alleviating poverty.

They asked me what our poverty line was and I replied, relying on memory that it was about US$200 per month.

“Per month?” they asked, “that’s our per capita income!”

In fact, both of us were a bit off the mark. Our poverty level is at about US$218 while Bangladesh’s per capita income is now US$599 (although I have also found a source that says US$1,400).

But the point is, our monthly poverty level is way above their per capita income (ours is at US$14,400). That is an indication of how relative poverty is when you compare different countries. What we regard as poor here would be very rich indeed over there.

This was evident in a field trip I made to a village outside Dhaka to visit women members of the Grameen Bank microcredit project. Over the past 20 years, these women were able to set up small businesses that in turn enabled them to raise their living standards, own property and become more self-confident.

But to understand how their lives have improved, we have to understand what they started with. They started with virtually nothing: no property, no clean water, no opportunity to generate any income nor send their children to school. Now, through the loans they obtained from Grameen Bank and other microcredit facilities, all these have come true for them.

But if Malaysians were to visit them, they would still think these women were poor.

They may have TVs, fridges and mobile phones but they still live in homes with only two rooms, one of which is a bedroom-cum-kitchen. They may own a fleet of rickshaws but no cars. They still buy provisions from the little village grocery shop, not from any hypermarkets. Their children still run around the village in bare feet.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. While I would certainly wish for better health and nutrition standards for all poor Bangladeshis, these initiatives and many others that I saw there have made genuine improvements in their lives.

I visited a school for slum kids that has done so well that these kids regularly best their richer schoolmates when they join the mainstream school system.

I visited a safe motherhood clinic that has done much to cut down on maternal and infant mortality in the slums. In many ways, they are doing what we did in the early years after independence.

Yet in some ways, the poverty has made Bangladeshis much more innovative than us richer Malaysians. They have a genuine Nobel laureate in Prof Mohamad Yunus and Grameen Bank for the sheer simple ingenuity of microcredit. We don’t.

Their people may be poor but not lacking in entrepreneurial spirit. Who hasn’t heard of the Telephone Ladies, village women who found a way of making money through the hiring of time on their mobile phones? Or the enterprising villager I saw who installed a satellite dish and is providing cable TV to her fellow villagers?

When people need to survive, they become resourceful and inventive. Sometimes I think that is what we are lacking here; perhaps because we are generally comfortable, price hikes notwithstanding.

The existence of so many NGOs doing excellent work among the poor in Bangladesh may point to a failure of government to provide the basics but it also illustrates a lively grassroots movement, dedicated to empowering the poor and marginalised.

Indeed, it was interesting to me that everyone, from government right down to poor villagers, is not reticent about using the word “empowerment” and means it as well. Here, it is treated as if it’s full of germs.

In Malaysia, we expect the Government to provide everything. It is rightly the Government’s responsibility to provide us with good education, healthcare, infrastructure, law and order. But, sometimes I think this has created a dependency on government that stifles creativity and innovation.

Beyond the basics, how do we help and support the marginalised, the disenfranchised, the disabled, the uneducated and the impoverished? We seem to think that throwing money at them is all it takes.

When was the last time we heard a Minister talk about empowering anyone? Instead, almost always somebody else is blamed for problems: parents, teachers, women, the Opposition, foreigners.

In the past, Malaysians used to go to Dhaka to study at university there. These days Bangladeshis come here to work, mostly as menial labourers.

It’s an abject lesson in not taking development for granted and how, through poor leadership, it can be lost overnight. We should heed that lesson.

Happy Merdeka!