By Victoria Wisniewski Otero
One in every four Hongkongers finds themselves at the edge of poverty in a city with one of the greatest income inequalities in the developed world. How our co-residents are struggling to get by should be something we all give attention to, especially today – the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Indeed, in Carrie Lam’s 2017 Policy Address last week, her Administration affirmed that it was “committed to devoting resources to poverty alleviation and support for the disadvantaged in order to build a caring and inclusive society” over the next year.
To commemorate this day, the United Nations has focused on the theme of building peaceful and inclusive societies, underscoring the importance of the values of dignity, solidarity and voice in the fight against poverty. The relationship between poverty, empowerment and civic participation and social inclusion is also made clear in the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals – such as Goal 1 to end poverty in all its forms everywhere Goal 10 to reduce inequalities, Goal 11 to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable and Goal 16 to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies.
How do people living in poverty view their situation? A 2000 “Voices of the Poor” project by the World Bank interviewed people from around the world about how they articulated their situation of experiencing poverty. The researchers found common narratives associated with voicelessness, stigmatisation, and discrimination – a range of “material, social, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions” that are much more than a simple lack of wealth. Well-being meant the freedom of choice and action and the power to control one’s life. The World Bank concluded that the central challenge of the 21st century would be to create governance systems from the local to the global level that include and respond to the priorities and concerns of the poor.
Some of the same feelings and frustrations expressed by interviewees in the above study I directly came across in my own experiences working with, and for, some of Hong Kong’s most misunderstood communities – refugees and forced migrants – who would often describe their situation in Hong Kong as “a beautiful prison”. For example, many refugees I met were completely unaware of how to access the various briefings, court judgements or policy papers buried in the recesses of different internet pages that laid out the terms and rationale for the protection system they were navigating. Even when given copies of these documents, it would take me considerable time to walk them through the jargon, particularly as many of them were non-native English speakers. A lack of information and language barriers already put them on an unequal playing field for discussing said policies and laws.
Because they have no right to work and, as a result, no income, economic limitations were also a barrier to engaging in public, civic and social life. Many people living in poverty simply cannot afford to pay for transportation to attend community meetings, public hearings or consultations. For the working poor, the opportunity cost of losing an hour or two of work can be too steep. For parents, lack of childcare support presents another challenge. Studies have also shown that people living in poverty, due to their status, are more likely to be vulnerable to reprisals, corruption or co-option, further preventing meaningful participation. Powerlessness also takes a cumulative psychological toll on people, fuelling anxiety, self-doubt, shame, isolation, futility and mistrust in others, particularly authority.
In summary, the right of people living in poverty to participate is often blocked by many obstacles that other people might not have to think about much, if at all. The less that people living in poverty participate in public life, the less likely their needs and views are to be reflected in decision-making, only furthering their exclusion and scepticism that the system just does not work for them. Such is the vicious cycle of disempowerment. This is exactly why proactive efforts to facilitate and enable participation among vulnerable groups are critical for their advancement in society, autonomy and agency over their own destiny.
In my work, I have been humbled by the resilience, persistence and commitment to their own dignity of some of the people I met. From someone who took a two-hour commute and borrowed a suit from a friend to observe a Legislative Council meeting of importance to them to another person who pushed back their intense fear of public speaking to address a university lecture hall of 100 students in English (a language they did not know when they first arrived to Hong Kong), they would go to great efforts to actively and positively contribute to society in the ways they could. In those small moments when they would defy their own expectations as well as the stigmas placed on them by society, it would give them a boost of confidence and renewed purpose.
But people living in poverty need more support. First, service providers, government bodies and civil society organisations should be cognisant of power imbalances and some of the social, economic, linguistic and other barriers to participation their constituents face, and actively work to reduce them. In the NGO ecosystem, we need not only services to address immediate and acute livelihood needs, but also funding and programs that target long-term empowerment and participation of historically marginalised and underrepresented communities if we are to break the cycle of poverty.
Secondly, the experiences of people living in poverty are more than just a “sad story” or an anecdote. Their views are invaluable insights that provides a rich knowledge base and thus strengthen policymaking, so they merit a seat at the table. Their participation in decision-making ultimately makes affected communities perceive interventions as more legitimate and therefore these efforts become sustainable. Almost more important than the outcome, the process of being heard is validating to people who have long-felt felt disregarded and shut out. As NGO staff or representatives, we must be humble about our role in speaking on behalf of others, as our work should also aim to provide people with the skills, networks and a space to find their own voice and ultimately speak up for themselves.
Victoria Wisniewski Otero is the Founder and CEO of Resolve Foundation, a new initiative in Hong Kong providing social justice fellowships to empower future community leaders for an inclusive Hong Kong. The Call for Nominations for the inaugural cohort on the theme of racial equality and inclusion is now open until November 6, 2017.