So You Think You Know What Is Poverty?
We all know that poverty equates to suffering. But how exactly? Poverty in our age has become an abstraction. The media we consume has jaded us to poverty. Like it or not, it has become stereotyped with hunger, starvation, malnutrition and yes, Africa.
But looking at poverty in this way is like going through life with one eye closed. Such a view is ill-informed and incomplete, and as an organization dedicated to eradicating poverty wheresoever it may be, it not only behooves us to actively fight against it, but also to educate those who misunderstand it, in all
the facets of poverty and what it can do to a person.
In our experience, the definition of poverty is broad, and consequently, there are more Malaysians in poverty than we might think. Generally though, poverty exerts it’s significant effects in two distinct domains.
The first is in the physical domain. Poverty is most commonly understood in this perspective: as the absence or lack of basic goods and resources, be it food, water, electricity or other infrastructure. From this perspective, those who suffer from poverty are those who are unable to access the benefits of all these basic goods, resulting in a lower quality of life and shorter life expectancy.
Poverty As a Lack of Resources
This state of affairs is common amongst Malaysia’s urban poor and indigenous communities. The disparity is pretty shocking. A mere 16km from the gleaming Petronas Twin Towers, once the tallest buildings in the world, lives an indigenous community in Gombak that cannot afford to pay the RM1.50 daily fare for their children to take the bus to school. Let us not even contemplate what it must be like for communities who live hundreds of kilometres from the capital, deep in the jungles of our rural heartlands.
The solution to this first aspect of poverty is obviously, to provide resources. Community development, economic empowerment and charity play big roles here. They grant access to the tools for these communities to live a better life. A life closer to our own.
But let me tell you a story. In 2016, I was sent to interview one of our teachers teaching in an indigenous community in Paya Mengkuang. The village was deep within the jungle. There was no running water, and Alex, our teacher, (and the entire village) drank water pumped from a well. There was one shower stall. It had no walls but it had a roof. The water was pumped from a nearby river. There was no electricity, people used kerosene flames or battery powered torches strapped to their foreheads.
Alex lived and taught in a community hall built by the government as a community development initiative, right smack in the centre of the village. It was the only place with electricity and running water. The small building contained the only toilet in the entire village of hundreds. The only person who used this toilet was Alex. The villagers didn’t use it. They were, in fact, afraid of it, and they did not see the point.
What significance can we draw from this experience? No, we cannot say that they are wrong. How can they be? They have lived this way for more generations than anyone can count. What’s significant is the fact that the additional infrastructure, built with good intentions, for the specific purpose of benefiting this community, hardly made an impact at all. Donating to a charity; Providing the infrastructure; Building solar panels; Building a new school; all these things are only half the solution. Material provision only goes so far. There is more to be done.
Poverty as a Culture
The second domain is the domain of the mind. Poverty is not only the lack of physical resources. It is not only a state of being, but a way of thinking. We will also go so far as to make the radical proposition that poverty can be considered a culture. Yes, a culture!
But how can poverty be “culture” you say? Please do not misunderstand. We commonly understand the word “culture” to be tied to social and ethnic behaviours. Celebrations like Chinese New Year and Deepavali, we consider to be “cultural” festivals. But this is not the sense in which I am using the word.
Culture is defined as a system of belief. These beliefs can be about anything, but what defines these beliefs as culture is that the children growing up in a particular community adopt those beliefs that belong to their parents, their family and their society. They grow up into adults, and they then transfer these same beliefs to their children. This is a defining feature of culture, that they are transmitted from generation to generation.
But what if these beliefs come in the form of a feeling of inferiority or marginality? What if it is the belief that one is naturally less intelligent than others? What if it is a severe lack of confidence? A lack of knowledge of the wider world? What if it was a belief that education isn’t important? What if it was a sense of hopelessness or powerlessness to change one’s situation? And what if these beliefs were passed down from generation to generation? From parent to child? What then?
This actually happens. It is happening today to millions of people. It is called the Cycle of Poverty. It is the reason why, despite so many poverty-alleviation initiatives, poverty somehow persists in every generation. The great majority of poverty-alleviation initiatives today aim to provide material goods in an attempt to lift these people out of suffering, but they then discover that they have only done half the job. It is imperative for anyone working with these communities to understand that poverty is not only a lack of resources, it is also a mindset! Realize that without understanding this, all good intentions are, in effect, meaningless.
It comes down to this: Poverty is a Culture. It is a way of thinking that is learnt and adopted. But anything that is learnt, can be unlearnt. This is why the true solution to break the cycle of poverty is education. It is the oldest, hardest, but surest way to change how someone perceives himself or herself. We hold that no solution to combat poverty can be considered complete without education.
The SOLS Methodology
Having said all this, what are we doing about it? SOLS 24/7 is first and foremost, a humanitarian organisation whose aim is the alleviation of poverty wherever and however we can. Naturally, in line with our beliefs, we engage in education. In fact, we started out with education, 17 years ago in Cambodia. We then moved to Timor Leste, before finally, in 2000, when Teacher Raj, our Founder-CEO started SOLS 24/7 Malaysia in Melaka.
Our commitment to alleviating poverty through education is more than a belief though, it’s reflected in our educational material and syllabi, in that it is a combination of hard skills and soft skills. We mainly teach English and IT through our Community Centres and Youth Development Centre programmes, but we branch out into Mathematics, Project Management, Environmental Science, Solar Energy and Programming in the SOLS Academy of Innovation too. These subjects we consider to be “hard skills”, that is, technical skills that are tools to open doors of opportunity that help our beneficiaries achieve better lives.
On the other hand, we also complement these hard skills with “soft skills”. This is the crux and key of our programmes. If hard skills are the tools to achieve a better life, soft skills consist of the knowledge to use these tools. We deliver a motivation course that is part leadership, part character building and part personal development. We call it the Science of Life. It is a series of motivational stories that model the conditions of the life in poverty. It delivers lessons on life, values like gender equality, the importance of education, the idea that every human being is born equal, that everyone has inherent potential. The Science of Life is easily, the most important course that our students undergo. They are one person when they begin, they are quite another person at it’s end.
If you ask our successful graduates, they will tell you that the hard skills element of SOLS 24/7 was what attracted them to join our programmes in the first place. Of course, it has to be said that this is only possible with a price tag of zero. They don’t pay a cent. This is not a benefit, of course, but a necessity. Our students initially joined the programme because they wanted to get a second chance at education, or they wanted to learn English.
But ask them more questions, and you realize it is the Science of Life that made them stay. Science of Life is the subject that helped them, in their own words, “open their eyes”. Through the stories, they discover that they are just like everyone else. The responsibility of life is in their hands, and with education and effort, they can change their fate, reject the inevitability of their circumstance, and gain control of their future. It is empowering beyond their powers to describe, and it results in a radical transformation in their view of life. The Cycle of Poverty is broken. For the time being, they may still face material difficulties. But they no longer think with the mindset of poverty. It becomes just a matter of time.
written by Lucas Chen, Communications Manager, SOLS 24/7 Malaysia, November 2017