Hidden indicators of poverty — Part 2

Proactive solutions are needed to uplift vulnerable communities in Malaysia.


Published by AstroAwani & BusinessToday, image by AstroAwani.

Poverty is an inherently complex phenomenon, encompassing a multitude of visible and concealed indicators. Unravelling its complexities demands meticulous examination and proactive measures to tackle the myriad dimensions that frequently exert a disproportionate toll on the most vulnerable populations.  

Hence, what proactive measures should the relevant stakeholders take to tackle the systemic challenge of poverty, a lifelong battle endured by individuals and communities?

Seeking comprehensive solutions while acknowledging the multifaceted nature of poverty is essential in formulating strategies that can meaningfully impact the lives of those affected. Most importantly, any proposed solutions or policies must avoid exacerbating the hardships already faced by the poor and vulnerable, ensuring they do not further compound their struggles.

Exploring the set of hidden poverty indicators, such as climate vulnerability, the digital divide, and stunted growth, as was discussed in Part 1 of this article (refer to “Hidden Indicators of Poverty — Part 1” by EMIR Research), allows us to transcend conventional poverty narratives. By understanding and addressing these hidden indicators, we open avenues for more comprehensive solutions that acknowledge the intricate interplay between environmental challenges, technological disparities, malnutrition, and the persistence of poverty.

Climate change and natural disaster preparedness

Previous administrations, year-on-year, have demonstrated more concern about post-disaster relief than pre-disaster preparedness and delivery. Therefore, there is a high hope that the current administration would disproportionately give more weight to the latter approach to significantly minimise the disastrous impact on lives and livelihoods. After all, monsoon seasons are inevitable and quite predictable. Therefore, strategic proactive measures must be instituted to fortify susceptible communities’ resilience, as was already emphasized by EMIR Research in “Flood Management Masterplan Template for Malaysia” from 5 Jan 2022.  

In lieu of the protracted gestation period of the Malaysia National Adaptation Plan (MyNAP), which requires a duration of 36 months and is expected to be completed only by 2026, it is incumbent upon us to recognise the importance of interim mitigation measures as a balanced short- to medium-term approach.

Introducing the climate resilience infrastructure is a significant way. Implementing land use planning to promote climate-resilient building design is necessary for minimising the exposure of high-risk areas to extreme weather events and climate impacts. Investing in upgrading the infrastructure and community resilience initiatives is compulsory to enhance the preparedness and response in vulnerable communities before the adaptation.

Furthermore, as the world is experiencing climate change, the implementation of social safety nets for climate-vulnerable groups is also crucial. It can be either in the form of monetary or in-kind benefits, or contributory or non-contributory programs.

Hence, there is a need for the introduction of a national flood insurance scheme, especially for properties deemed to be at high-risk locations of natural disasters like floods.

In addition to that, exploring novel approaches such as climate insurance risk coupled with social protection mechanisms could offer a synergistic approach.

For instance, the introduction of crop insurance tailored to mitigate losses incurred by rice paddy, livestock, and non-rice crops due to climatic adversities can be considered. Meanwhile, social protection programs will offer additional support for livelihood recovery and also strengthen national food security, providing necessary assurance to farmers.

Bridging digital divide

When considering the impact of the digital divide on poverty, the disparity between rural and urban populations serves as a significant indicator of the issue’s magnitude.

Thus, providing affordable ICT devices such as refurbished laptops, tablets, or smartphones plays a crucial role in narrowing the increasingly prominent gap that exists.

UPLIFT’s 1MillionDevices.my campaign successfully equips school children with digital devices. While commendable as a starting point, this initiative, which exclusively targets Klang Valley areas, must be expanded to encompass other regions for broader impact. This campaign should be scaled up to reach underserved communities in other regions of Malaysia, particularly those characterised by high rates of poverty and lack of access to digital infrastructure compared to more developed urban areas.

The state government should procure refurbished devices which are essential tools for education, accessing digital content and information, and utilising online public services. These devices should be strategically distributed, prioritising specific demographic groups such as families living below the poverty line, individuals with disabilities, and marginalised communities in rural areas, particularly those residing in remote areas with minimal internet access.

Moreover, recognising that internet access is equally crucial, collaborative initiatives should be undertaken between state governments and telecommunication companies. These initiatives could include the establishment of community Wi-Fi hotspots, the expansion of broadband infrastructure, and the provision of subsidised internet plans for economically disadvantaged households.

It is also hoped that, along with the commendable restructuring of the 5G rollout in line with global best practices, the current administration could also pay attention to the root cause of Malaysia’s digital divide between rural and urban populations, as emphasised countless times in EMIR Research series on Digital Nasional Berhad (refer to “Malaysian 5G Rollout: Digital Divide Whitewash” for a succinct summary of the issue).

Anyone working long enough in Malaysia’s telecom industry should be well aware that Malaysia’s rural internet wounds are directly attributed to the inadequate presence or even complete lack of backhaul (mainly fibre one, which is superior). Backhaul — the transport link within the network that connects a tower or a local Point of Presence (PoP) with the core network — is that crucial piece of infrastructure which (if present) can be commonly used for various last-mile modes of service delivery to the end customer such as 4G, 5G, FTTx and WiFi.

Nevertheless, previous significant nationwide initiatives have continuously ignored the lack of fibre backhaul (and backhaul sharing) problem and stubbornly focused their efforts on the last-mile infrastructure enhancement. It is imperative to credibly reassess this approach to effectively bridge the digital divide.

Addressing the issue of stunted growth

A rarely discussed issue of stunted growth must be brought to the forefront and addressed with urgency by recognising it as part of human development concerns.

Taking Peru as an example, they successfully transformed ‘invisible’ stunting into a visible problem by prioritising food and nutrition policy reform. Furthermore, by focusing on the poorest communities and targeting areas with high rates of stunting, Peru developed a strategic roadmap for addressing this issue effectively. Incorporating a similar strategy in Malaysia could lead to a significant reduction in the stunting prevalence among children.

Furthermore, EMIR Research would like to reiterate that the real problem with stunting is its cognitive and emotional impact. Malnutrition and insufficient access to essential nutrients impede proper brain development. Moreover, children suffering from stunted growth often face social and emotional hurdles that can persist into adulthood with far-reaching economic consequences — stunted growth is empirically linked with worse economic outcomes in adulthood.

Therefore, echoing the EMIR Research’s recommendation to address stunted growth via improving the early childhood development program, it is essential to allocate resources and support accordingly. This involves investing in high-quality preschool education and prioritising cognitive development through play-based learning and age-appropriate activities.

It is also essential to ensure that educators possess the highest qualifications, ideally at the PhD level in education and relevant fields, which is crucial for optimal outcomes.

Given the strong intertwined connections among climate vulnerability, digital poverty, stunted growth, and economic poverty, the above-proposed strategic avenues will greatly complement other national efforts toward combating poverty.

Farah Natasya is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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