Failing to Listen leads to the Wrong Decisions

The state of beggarism is prevalent in Kuala Lumpur; and to top it off, one can easily find it on the bustling streets of Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila and Phnom Penh. Cities carry the pride and joy of development. These places that I've frequented, reaching out to marginalized communities with counselling, harm reduction exercises and equipping them with life skills. Yet cities also carry the price of urbanization, influenced by society, corporate rat race, struggling community-based organizations and the authorities. The improvement of such development carries with it the value of wealth and the worse of a dysfunctional society: poverty.

Broadening authoritative approaches, or often called intervention, lead to a misinterpretation of social services, where "human rights" are ignored or diluted to satisfy the needs of the government, pressure groups and unearthly desires of religion and nationalism. Even civil society monstrously grow and evolve around personalities, elitist patrons or a popular figure with trendy characteristics, which usually ends with the neglect of the community they swore to serve. Corporations, with its over-hyped "corporate social responsibility" and social investments, are not without flaws, as they impose the product/service branding over the concerns of the ostracised.

These so-called stakeholders are too busy marketing themselves, chasing after funds, bowing to the whims of the government, from one self-serving crusade to another, that they fail to understand the issues of the homeless and marginalized population. Too often a figure appears, to speak for the most-at-risk communities but yet have poor understanding of their issues, or often selected by a tiny minority to wrongly represent the masses. Time and time again, we hear and see politicians lecturing us on what is best for the image of their city, the country and national patriotism. Lets face the facts, the institution does not always act in the best interest of a community that has been stigmatized.

Marginalized adults and children are capable of expressing views, and this is commonly disregarded. They are living the nightmare and hardship, the repression and in poverty; the very issues that affect them. Many may not be categorised as having acceptable skills in communicating their concerns, but then isn't that the fault of the establishment to set standards, or more often, limitations to freedom of expressions. 

Civilized society fails to create opportunities for the urban poor to express their views freely. This was quite evident last year in Bangkok when city hall initiated the "Bangkok Clear" campaign to cleanse their streets of the undesirables. Not only did the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration neglect to engage in consultation with the poor, the establishment didn't think the poor had any constructive views. But then again, in cities bloated with arrogance, the poor are expected to be obedient. Similar with Malaysia's Federal Territories minister and the head of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry who felt it was justified to ban the urban poor from the shopping district of Kuala Lumpur, and detain them for 'rehabilitation' for up to six years, as stipulated in the law. This law is a violation of the human rights of the poor, does more harm and does not enlighten the enforcement to effectively solve the root cause of poverty. Authorities defend the heavy-handed use of such law on grounds of needing to impose discipline in society, whether preventing people from charitable acts or the the act of begging, which causes a loss of face to the elites as the sight of beggars seem to pollute their fair city and sensibility.

There is increasing intolerance of the urban poor, particularly when the authorities make them targets of every form of social ill. The streets, back lanes, parks and pavements are seen as owned either by the institution or by the corporates; and that the presence of marginalized folks in those spaces represents an unwanted intrusion.

The marginalized population have a body of knowledge and experience that's unique to their situation. Their views, ideas, aspirations and hope; the lifeblood needed for solutions to poverty-reduction programs. Despite knowing this, many countries, whether Thailand or Malaysia, fail or refuse to recognise the legitimacy of their contribution to decision-making. Whether government policy or drafting out a social investment plan, the marginalized are kept in isolation while officials and intellectuals prescribe solutions which often snowballs into corruption or some self-glorification exercise. 

Based on my outreach work, its critical to mobilize community participation in conceptualization, coordination (where individuals from the community are directly involved) and monitoring & evaluation. Best practices materialized when I worked with a Malaysian organization called Pink Triangle in the mid-90s, which focused on sex workers, drug users, people living with HIV/AIDS, transgenders, and gay women & men. During those days, advocacy was focus on instilling positive behaviours among the authorities, and to awaken them to understand that the marginalized groups have experiences that should be acknowledged and utilised to develop strategies for addressing the problems. 

Then and now, the establishment has not changed, much, as the authorities fail to consult the true stakeholders of this equation. As such, the impact of their campaigns has often been to worsen the situation and as a result, society sinks deeper into beggary in the state of repression.


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