EMPOWERING THE POOR (Towards an Improved Socio-Economic Wellbeing)

By Yaacob Harun




Poverty is not to be viewed only from the economic perspective, although economic indicators, particularly income and material objects, are used to measure poverty and the level of peoples’ socio-economic wellbeing. Poverty is also not to be taken as the subject of economists, although they are the most likely people to be involved in economic development and planning. To me, poverty is beyond economics. It is an encompassing subject that draws peoples from all areas of specialization (including economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, scientists, technological experts, etc) to be involved in finding practical solutions to alleviate it. As an encompassing subject, poverty is not just viewed as people being poor in the economic sense, but it should also be viewed as people being in a state of deprivation, suppression, powerlessness, having low self-esteem, lack of motivation, fatalist and a feeling of defeat. It is in fact it is a culture, i.e. the culture of poverty.

The people in the culture of poverty have a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging. They are like aliens in their own country, convinced that the existing institutions do not serve their interests and needs. Along with this feeling of powerlessness is a widespread feeling of inferiority, of personal unworthiness. … People with a culture of poverty have very little sense of history. They are a marginal people who know only their own troubles, their own local conditions, their own neighborhood, their own way of life. Usually, they have neither the knowledge, the vision nor the ideology to see the similarities between their problems and those of others like themselves elsewhere in the world. In other words, they are not class conscious, although they are very sensitive indeed to status distinctions. When the poor become class conscious or members of trade union organizations, or when they adopt an internationalist outlook on the world they are no longer part of the culture of poverty although they may still be desperately poor. (Oscar Lewis, 1998)

To eradicate poverty is to find ways and means to free people from being trapped in that culture. One of the practical ways is empowerment of the poor.


Empowerment means giving power to people, and in this case giving power to poor people to plan action programs, to participate, and to decide on the mechanisms and strategies to be adopted in those programs – all geared towards poverty alleviation. The process of empowerment among others involves, transforming people’s understanding of human rights and government’s responsibilities to protect and fulfill those rights; assisting poor and vulnerable individuals and groups to develop the vision, confidence, knowledge and skills needed to work for positive changes to their situations; and ensuring that basic needs are met such that individuals are able to participate in change processes

 Empowerment can take place at different levels – individual, family, group, and community. It is facilitated by providing encouraging factors, and at the same time removing those that inhibit it. The government has to play a key role in this empowerment process, and definitely has to rely on supports as well as contributions [of ideas and suggestions] from all quarters, not just from economists and economic planners alone.


There are a number of strategies that could be adopted in empowerment process. Its success depends on the availability of resources, concerted efforts and commitments from all parties involved, especially from the poor people themselves. These strategies include: development of informal sector; provision of micro-credit; development of Information Communication Technology (ICT); increase awareness of human rights; community participation & decision-making; collective effort and responsibility; and decentralization & local authority

Development Of Informal Sector

According to ILO and UNDP (1972), informal sector refers to the non-structured sector that has emerged in the urban centres as a result of the incapacity of the modern sector to absorb new entrants.  

To me, this definition does not preclude the kind of small-scale non-agricultural activities in handicrafts, weaving, food preparation, wood-work, textiles, etc. which fall under the category of cottage industry practiced on non-structured basis in the rural sector. I would agree with the general description by McLaughlin (1990) who says that the informal sector is characterised by: the use of family and unpaid labour (apprentices) and reliance on manual labour rather than on sophisticated machinery and equipment; flexibility, allowing people to enter and exit economic activities in response to market demand; simple and sometimes precarious facilities; the ability to improvise products from scrap materials; a willingness to operate businesses at times and locations convenient to customers; and a tendency to locate smaller markets, out of the reach of the larger firms.

Some scholars regard the informal sector as the people’s economy, the development of which would bring direct benefits to the people rather than such benefits being channelled to various intermediaries in the production and marketing processes. By recognizing and developing people’s skills and finding the right market for their products, is in fact an indirect way of empowering them. For example, the program of one village one product/industry (satu kampung satu produk/industri) launched by the government and implemented by various state governments in Malaysia is a positive step to enhance the development informal sector and at the same time empowering the rural poor which to a certain extent, help pull them out from poverty.

However, we could not deny that informal sector faces stiff competition from big firms producing alternative products for a much bigger market. Pandanus mats, bamboo baskets, hand-woven textiles (e.g. Malaysian songket), and others, for example, have been replaced by finished industrial products such as plastic wares, rugs, and other synthetics. Positive steps should therefore be taken to safeguard the informal sector or “people’s economy” from being further marginalized, such as promoting the sector’s products in the lucrative tourism industry. In Malaysia, the government’s initiative to encourage or to compel office workers to wear batik on one of the working days (Saturday) is a step taken in the right direction to promote and to sustain the batik industry which operates mostly on a small-scale basis by the poor yet skillful in the trade.

Provision Of Micro-Credit

A strategy to empower the poor is to provide them with very small loans or seed money to enable them to engage in micro-enterprises such as raising chickens to sell eggs, opening small retail businesses, buying sewing machines, etc. The provision of micro-credit allows the poor to find a way out of poverty, or at least make life a little better by investing in their own skills. An NGO micro-credit summit held in Washington in 1997 hailed that, this new-style banking system is a miracle tool for poverty reduction worldwide. Moreover, loans were being repaid on time at rates that would astonish mainline bankers Micro-credit provides the support system for the development of informal sector mentioned above.

In Malaysia, loan schemes and micro-credit facilities extended by Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia (AIM), Bakun, Bank Simpanan Nasional, Bank Rakyat, or even by Bank Pertanian Malaysia to SMIs, of course have been a good help to individual entrepreneurs and family-based small-scale industries. However, such loan facilities are a bit structured and formal in nature, and only few would benefit from it. I would consider Syariah-based pawn-broking or Ar-Rahnu scheme to be more appropriate micro-credit and financial instruments, especially to the lower income groups. Through this scheme the lower-income groups obtain quick and easy access to cash. Unlike conventional pawn-broking, the repayment period under Ar-Rahnu is less stringent and in the event of a default resulting in the pawned item being sold off, proceeds above the pawned amount will be returned to the customer. Participating banks in this Ar-Rahnu scheme include: Bank Rakyat, Bank Pertanian, Yayasan Pembangunan Ekonomi Islam Malaysia, and [seven] state Islamic councils.(http://m-cape.com/ microlink/news7.htm).

In Bangladesh, the operation of Garmeen Bank (or the Village Bank) propounded by Professor Muhammad Yunus in 1983 in providing micro-credit facilities to people involved in micro-enterprises at the village level is really in line with the strategy of empowering the poor, which is our main concern here. (I suppose, participants from Bangladesh have more knowledge on the establishment and operations of this Bank).

Information Communication Technology (Ict)

Information and communication technology (ICT) is the driving force of the present century. In a panel discussion on E-Government held in Toronto in 2003, Yarlagadda Pardhasaradhi says, ICT is creating economic, social and political empowerment opportunities for poor people in developing world. Connectivity through telephones, radio, television, and Internet can represent the voices of the people and put pressure on government for more responsiveness. ICT can help to overcome people’s powerlessness and voiceless-ness even the structural inequalities exist in the distribution of traditional assets.[1]

Extending ICT facilities to the poor would enable them to have access to local, national, and global knowledge, as well as expose them to developments outside their region, or outside the “world” they are in. Subsequently their awareness towards achievement and success achieved by other people at the national or international levels would be increased, thus giving them incentives [power] to demand for similar rights. A person who knows least about the world outside other than his own world is like what the Malay proverb says, seperti katak bawah tempurung (literally: like the frog under the coconut shell). Exposure to ICT and to other educative procedures is a positive way to increase such awareness. This is empowerment.

With regards to this, Rural Information Program or Program Infodesa (PID) with its titian digital portal launched by Ministry of Rural & Regional Development Malaysia is a good example of providing ICT facilities with the intention to disseminate information to the rural poor, to increase their awareness towards outside development, and also to bridge the digital gap between the urban haves and the rural have-nots. (I am sure, other countries where the participants of this workshop come from have some kind of ICT programs to empower the poor, which is a practical strategy in poverty alleviation as well as in efforts taken to increase the wellbeing of the people)

Increase People’s Awareness Of Human Rights

Another strategy that could be adopted in empowerment process is the strategy to increase people’s awareness towards their basic rights in society. This includes: their awareness towards economic rights, social and cultural rights, and civil and political rights. All these rights are universal. Economic rights among others include people’s right to get access to and control over resources. Social and cultural rights include their right to education, affordable services and ample legislation to protect them from violence, in the home or in the community. Civil and political rights are the right for people to do things in an atmosphere of civil and political freedom.  They need to be able to operate without political or civil repression.

 A three-day discussion held in conjunction with the SEA Peoples’ Festival in 2002 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia came out with a declaration called Mekong Declaration which demands for the fulfillment of the above rights.  This declaration is specifically meant to empower the least privileged groups in society such as farmers, fishermen, and poor artisans. The 330 delegates from 8 countries (namely Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Timor Leste and Vietnam) who signed the declaration call on all ASEAN governments to show their sincerity in eliminating poverty and upholding human rights and dignity by ratifying and actively implementing international agreements and recommendations at all levels. (www.seaca.net)

Community Participation & Decision-Making

According to Midgley et al (1986: 23) there are two types of participation, (1)  popular participation and (2) community participation. However both types of participation are interlinked. The former (i.e. popular participation) is concerned with broad issues of social development and the creation of opportunities for the involvement of people in the political, economic and social life of a nation, while the latter (i.e. community participation) connotes the direct involvement of ordinary people in local affairs. It is the second type of participation, (i.e. community participation) defined by United Nations (United Nations, 1981:5) as “the creation of opportunities to enable all members of a community to actively contribute to and influence the development process and to share equitably in the fruits of development” that we are concerned here, particularly with regards to the process of empowering the poor. There are four aspects (areas) of importance that can be deduced from the UN definition of community participation, namely (1) creation of opportunities for the people; (2) their active participation in development program; (3) their role in influencing the development process; and (4) equitable share they get from the fruits of development.

To me, active participation of the people in any development projects (in this case poverty alleviation projects) should be based on opportunities created which are in line with what people really need. It is really a waste of money and resources to implement projects which are not based on felt needs of the people. If land was what the people need, then land is what they should get. In this regard, we are very proud of the success and the success stories of FELDA and of other related agencies in land development in this country. The various other ministries notably Ministry of Rural and Regional Development, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Primary Industries, etc. have also been focusing on people’s needs, the result is, people’s participation in projects implemented by these ministries is very encouraging.

People or community members should also be given the freedom to choose and to decide on the strategies to be adopted in the development process, and thus recognizing their positive role and contribution in the program. This is what empowerment really about. Empowerment lies in people’s freedom and ability to make decision on important matters pertaining to their economic, social, and political life. Instead of helping deprived communities to improve their social and environmental circumstances, the people themselves should given the opportunity to take direct political action to demand changes and improvements (Midgley et al 1986: 20).

In Malaysia, Program Pembangunan Manusia Berasaskan Kampung /community-based human development project (PMAK) launched in 1992 by Lembaga Pertubuhan Peladang Malaysia /Farmers Association Board Malaysia, is closely linked to the empowerment process we are talking about. PMAK is geared towards encouraging community participation and giving community members the power to organize, to implement, and to make decisions on development projects launched in their village. The program has three-pronged objectives, i.e. human development, project development, and village (community) development, and these objectives are based on the principles of “seeing is believing”, “teach by showing” and “learn by doing”. In “seeing is believing” principle, the community members were taken on field trips to visit several successful projects in other rural communities, which would later provide some motivational incentives to them to pursue similar strategies. In “teach by showing” principle, rural communities were advised and counseled by local and international experts on several aspects of successful farming, management, and leadership. Lastly, by “learn by doing” principle, people were given opportunities to implement a given project by themselves, that would enhanced the economic, social, and physical development of their communities (Mohammad Shatar Sabran, http://www.apo-tokyo.org/icd/papers/E-Publications/02.IntegLocCommDev/039.pdf#search=’ Projek%20PMAK‘)

I am sure other participating countries in this workshop have their own community-based development program, which we can share ideas and knowledge from. Personally, I come to know in quite a good detail of community development projects being implemented in the Filipino barangays (villages), because I have examined a Ph.D thesis on the subject, specifically on people’s (women) participation in micro-enterprises (such as garment-making, orchid growing, food business, and co-operatives) launched by the people, managed by the people, and for the sole benefit of the people in the barangays.

Collective Effort And Responsibility

The Malay proverb, bersatu teguh bercerai runtuh (unity is strength) provides a very strong social and psychological base in empowerment process. It has been proven time and again that people get things done effectively and with higher degree success if they work collectively in groups, pulling their resources together towards achieving common objectives. Besides, peer group pressure and group dynamics also provide the necessary driving force for work completion, which would otherwise be absent, or lacking if any projects were to be carried out based entirely on individual capacity and initiatives.

I strongly believe, poverty alleviation process would be more successful if the agencies involved could harness the [inherent] potentials in the people and translate them into collective action programs. One possible way is to revive traditional institutions and giving them with new life and vigor. The institutions of gotong royong, tolong menolong, berderau, menyeraya, etc. which were so popular and widely practiced in [traditional] Malay rural society need to be restudied and reformulated (making them workable) to meet new challenges in contemporary changing society. When these institutions [which are now becoming less functional] are revived and given them with new life, they would turn out to be effective instruments in development. I think, people would be more willing to participate and to contribute resourcefully in projects which are carried out in line with mechanisms or frameworks they are familiar with.

The formula adopted by Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in extending micro-credit to the rural poor is based on the principle of collective effort and responsibility. Small loans were disbursed not so much to individuals but to groups of individuals operating or engaging in similar micro-enterprises. I think, Bakun is also operating along the same line as Grameen Bank in extending its micro-credit facilities to the poor but enterprising people in Malaysia. So is community-based development program like PMAK mentioned above which rely on collective effort and responsibility of the people in organizing and implementing development projects at the village level.

Decentralization & Local Authority

In this context, decentralization means the dispersion or distribution of functions and powers, specifically the delegation of power from a central authority to regional and local authorities (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary : http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=decentralization).

To me, in empowering the poor, community-based organizations and institutions should be given the opportunity to take over roles and authority previously carried out and held by the government and other formal agencies. By assuming such power and authority, these local organizations and associations would be able to garner wider support from community members, due to the fact that, everybody in the community understand the position they are in, the common problems they faced, and the practical solution they could think of on the basis of their capacity and the availability of resources around and within their reach.

Decentralization increases participation of local communities in decision-making, in implementation and in evaluation of the success of and failure of a certain program. In this regards, I think local cooperatives, youth associations, Jawatankuasa Kemajuan Kampung (JKKK) or Village Development  Committee have done quite a good job in organizing as well as in implementing programs including poverty alleviation programs at the village level in Malaysia. However, besides extending financial assistance and other services, the government has to continue monitoring the operation of these community-based organizations until such time when the people really feel they can be on their own, and manage their affairs.


People are poor, not only because they lack economic wealth (measured in terms of money, capital goods, and other material possessions), but they also lack education, knowledge, motivation, positive social and psychological attributes, and regard the situation there are in and the problems they face as something mysterious and fated that they to live by them all their life. The empowerment process with the adoption of practical strategies mentioned above, would help alleviate poverty and at the same time free poor people from being trapped in the culture of poverty, … the feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging…. of powerlessness, of widespread feeling of inferiority, and of personal unworthiness” (Oscar Lewis, 1998)


  1. McLaughlin, J. F. 1990. Spatial scale and heterogeneity in ecological communities: Theoretical analysis motivated by field studies from islands in the northeastern Caribbean. Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
  2. Midgley, J. with Hall, A., Hardiman, M. and Narine, D. (1986) Community Participation, Social Development and the State, London: Methuen
  3. Oscar Lewis, 1998, Society, 35, 7
  4. United Nations (1981) Popular Participation as a Strategy for Planning Community Level Action and National Development, New York: United Nations.

2 thoughts on “EMPOWERING THE POOR

  1. If people and the government should both do their part then poverty could be solved. We should live beyond our comfort zones, try new ventures. What else could we lose? Thanks for sharing this. This site might be helpful.

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