Government plans united approach to beat poverty

Bless Hong Kong campaign brings community and business together to help those in need

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 4:59am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 4:59am

In two days, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will deliver his second policy address. This time it is understood that the main theme will be poverty relief and helping the needy, although housing will still remain one of his priorities.

After more than a year in office, Leung has realised more than ever how difficult it is for him to tackle the city's long existing housing problems, due to the serious lack of available land. However, he may find trying to beat poverty equally difficult.

Unlike the housing problem, this is not because the government is financially unsound, but because the issue itself triggers new controversies on who should be helped and in what way?

Leung earlier decided, for the first time in Hong Kong's history, to draw an official poverty line to identify who are the "poor". He then appointed his No 2 Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to head the newly established Commission on Poverty.

While the community widely sees it as good and necessary for the government to do more to narrow the wealth gap, it is also a sensitive issue, as poverty relief involves taxpayers' money.

Meanwhile, helping the poor also involves protecting their dignity. It makes sense that providing them with the means to earn money is more constructive than just providing them with financial benefits.

As the well-known proverb says: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

Because of this widely accepted understanding, in recent years we have also seen growing complaints from many from the "sandwich class", the major contributors to the government's revenue, that they are in fact the "poorest" as they are not entitled to any subsidies or social welfare. Thus any poverty relief measure that is not cost effective and not targeted at the right people could backfire and be criticised as being merely a political show.

It is therefore encouraging to see the announcement that Lam's commission will adopt a new form for its massive poverty alleviation campaign, to be launched after the Lunar New Year. The government will no longer work alone, but will join forces with the community and the business sector.

According to Leonie Ki Man-fung, vice-chairwoman of the commission's societal engagement task force, who also oversees the Bless Hong Kong campaign, this government-NGO-business model aims to promote the spirit of helping others and arouse greater public awareness of the city's disparities, through its official slogan "helping those in need is a blessing indeed".

Another special feature about the campaign is that the private sector, rather than the government, will be mainly responsible for financing the activities, with the major donor being The Hong Kong Jockey Club. However, campaign participants will not be limited to big companies and major NGOs, smaller enterprises, and even individuals, are welcome to be partners provided the campaign organiser accepts their "helping others" proposal as viable.

Proposals must be sustainable rather than one-off financial measures. So far 500 projects have made the official list, including those targeting the younger unemployed and assistance for the elderly.

However, like any government-initiated campaign, Bless Hong Kong, though a relatively new model, still has the government playing a key role as the co-ordinator.

As one political joke goes: "In today's Hong Kong, one can never tell if it is a blessing or a curse when an event involves the government."

Bless Hong Kong has received an initially warm welcome from the community, but questions have been raised on whether it will end up as a publicity stunt for the government.

It is normal for critics to challenge the government for whatever it does and has to tackle. And the Bless Hong Kong organisers understand that this could be how some people see the project.

But they believe that what is more important is to identify the right groups in need, then help them with practical projects, and most of all ensure campaign participants can deliver what they promise.

Poverty relief means building a new spirit in our community - to help and be blessed. This will require concerted efforts from all of us. No one wants to see a meaningful campaign end up simply being a show.