Pay attention to ex-UN expert’s poverty report, govt told

Sociologist Denison Jayasooria says the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has exposed the reality of poverty in the country.

PETALING JAYA: A sociologist has urged Putrajaya to give weight to the report by former United Nations (UN) expert Philip Alston on poverty in Malaysia, saying the UN special rapporteur had captured the reality on the ground.

Denison Jayasooria, a research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said Alston had uncovered how government policies were not reaching target groups.

“Alston is a law professor and a well-respected academic. He had a research team and he met many government officials, academics and civil society members while making visits to various locations.

“There is a new face of poverty and inequality. We need to go back to specific target groups and ensure inclusion in policy processes in a more targeted way,” he told FMT.

Jayasooria, a policy analyst, said Alston’s report challenged the government to champion the poor and address poverty in a holistic way through public policy interventions.

He said the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown period in particular had exposed the reality of poverty, especially for daily wage earners who lost their source of income under the movement control order.

“The government must not be in denial. We need to open our eyes to see the poor among us. They may be hidden but the reality is there, even if some might say, data-wise, there are no poor.”

He also welcomed Mustapa Mohamed’s acknowledgement that the poverty rate would inevitably increase in tandem with individual income per capita, saying the minister in charge of economic affairs had experience in combating poverty.

He noted that Mustapa had established Universiti Malaya’s Ungku Aziz Poverty Studies Centre, now known as the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies, during his time as higher education minister.

“The problem is that the previous minister in charge of the economic planning unit rejected the report,” he added.

He spoke of a need for a strong multidimensional poverty index, saying Malaysia should benchmark itself against advanced and developed nations instead of poor countries.

He also said Putrajaya had many institutions in place that should be scrutinised to ensure that its policies are implemented effectively and efficiently.

He called for researchers to be given more access to data on poverty in the country and suggested that the government set up a consultative panel of experts to monitor policy implementation.

“The poor are always with us, but we must change our strategies and approaches to ensure that they, too, can experience empowerment and build their resilience, to ensure that no one is left behind.”

On Monday, Alston accused Putrajaya of backtracking on the previous administration’s commitment to take poverty seriously, saying the prime minister then had committed to revising the national poverty line of 0.4%.

“However, the new government’s response to (the report) throws that commitment into doubt, stating that ‘it stands by [the] absolute poverty rate’,” he said in a statement, referring to comments made during the UN general assembly this year.

Alston visited Malaysia from Aug 13 to 23 last year, travelling to Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Sarawak, Sabah and Kelantan, and meeting state and federal government officials, international agencies, civil society, academics and those affected by poverty in urban and rural areas.

He said then that the official poverty line – the lowest in the world – did not portray the cost of living in the country and excluded vulnerable populations in its official figures.

Mohamed Azmin Ali, who was economic affairs minister at the time, said the rate was based on a handbook published by the UN itself.

“We stand by our absolute poverty rate, which was recorded at 0.4% of total households in 2016, or 24,700 households,” he said.

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