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Beyond welfare

Whether we have believed in it or not, poverty relief in our society has operated out of a model based on a combination of effort between governments and philanthropists funding service providers to make a better world.

However, the experience of Hong Kong is one graphic example of why, if we ever had a belief in such a system, we should officially give it up, as over the decades we have witnessed a deteriorating situation under a government that has at least kept social service on its agenda and certainly made the way clear for philanthropists to operate.

In addition, Hong Kong has produced an extremely high degree of philanthropy and, it cannot be denied, these people and organisations have done an enormous amount of good, as well as creating opportunities for large numbers of people who otherwise would have been denied a decent life, either because of the social situation of their birth, or some special physical or mental support needs.

In addition, they have also managed to attract a reasonably wide public support, not only in terms of finance, but in hands-on giving of both time and expertise, as well as in the area of conscientising the wider community.

Nevertheless, the fallout from the latest budget handed down by the financial secretary of the special administrative region, John Tsang Chun-wah, has revealed the wide income gaps that still exist, which reflect that what philanthropy has not been able to achieve is structural change.

Tsang’s budget has provoked an outcry about what is being called an increase in the numbers of people who are falling beyond the reaches of the social safety nets.

Tsang sought refuge in his own safety net, the government’s own attempt at philanthropy, the Community Care Fund, which was set up to provide big business with an opportunity to return something of their excess to the support of those who are struggling.

However, few have taken an interest and the fund has largely lain idle, due to lack of interest and lack of any constructive plan for its use.

Named in 2007 by London’s Evening Standard News as one of the city’s most influential people, Reverend Andrew Mawson has turned a depressed East London parish into a thriving enterprise by, in his own words, lifting neglected people out of their isolation and into a community of hope, energy, power for goodness and sustained change.

This has involved a structural change, both in attitude and in organisational methods that have allowed space for people previously deprived of resources to act for themselves.

Reverend Mawson says, “It is not a soft option. It is costly and does not come easy. It demands real personal sacrifice. It requires a lifetime commitment, not a government cycle.”

Social service is not just a matter of balancing minimum amounts of support for people in difficult situations for the lifetime of one government budget. It must involve a recognition that people are in need because of social dysfunction, and programmes that do not address this dysfunction are destined to repeat the poverty cycle and, as experience shows, to broaden the circle.

Speaking to the priests of Hong Kong diocese in January, former chief adviser to the Central Policy Unit, Leo Goodstadt, called for greater acknowledgement of the obligation to be proactive and creative in addressing poverty, as without fundamental change, short term government policies and service providers can be facing a mission impossible. JiM