Big Issue founder John Bird says Hong Kong poor need welfare springboard

UK magazine entrepreneur says welfare system that is springboard not safety net, with better education, can help city’s people escape poverty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 5:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 5:01am

The British founder of The Big Issue, the magazine sold around the world by homeless people, says the Hong Kong government must understand the "social nuances" of being poor before it can help those most in need.

John Bird, 67, met Hong Kong government officials on Friday to discuss how they could tackle poverty and homelessness ahead of Wednesday's policy address, which is set to focus on the city's poor.

He was in town as a guest speaker at the Make a Difference conference, which wraps up today in Kwai Fong.

"Governments are one of the crudest forms of social engineering you can imagine because they are not very good at social nuances. They could never invent an aeroplane because of all of the nuances, calibrations."

He voiced support for the establishment of a social welfare system as long as it did not create a dependent community.

"Social security needs to be a springboard, not a concrete safety net. If you hit the safety net, you never get over it. If you get training, education and social improvement then it works."

Last September, the government set the city's first official poverty line and identified 1.31 million citizens as living below it, which Bird said was a good sign.

"It's a stark realisation that there are many citizens without and maybe it's an attempt to address that," Bird said.

Education that helps the majority, but also meets the needs of the minorities, was key to tackling poverty, he stressed.

"You've got to change the education system [so] that [it] doesn't leave people with little education at the end of their schooling, like me," he said.

"I had 10 years of education from five to 15 years and at the end of it, I couldn't read or write. There are hundreds of millions of children like these around the world, who are in prosperous societies like Britain, Hong Kong, France and Germany, but they don't get the nurturing."

Bird speaks with some authority, having become homeless at the age of five in the early 1950s when his parents failed to pay the rent on their home in Notting Hill, London.

"I came home from school at 5pm and all our worldly goods were on the road."

At 15, he was arrested and put in a young boys' jail, which was a blessing in disguise. "The prison system was my school," he said, as he learned to read and write while he was in jail.

"Once I learnt to read and write, I was like a bat out of hell. By the time I was 19, I was better read than anyone I knew except for a public school boy on his way to Oxford," he said.

He went to art school but fell back into crime before lifting himself out again. By his early 30s, he was working as a printer and entered publishing, leading to the launch of The Big Issue in 1991. Poor people sell the magazine and share half the profits.

"I moved from poverty to purpose," he said. "I became useful, probably one of the few useful people in Britain because the world is full of people who are friends of the poor, but get lost in the treacle of sentimentality. I am not. I see a poor person, I want to know what I can do."

He said an edition of The Big Issue could work in the city, "but only if it is a reflection of social innovation, social dynamism mixed in with social concern".

"If you've got a marketplace for a publication that lifts the reader and lifts the person selling the paper, you've got a lift/lift scenario. We're like an enormous social brassiere."