Only by working together can we end Asia’s entrenched poverty

Caroline McLaughlin says social problems are so interlinked that different sectors of society, including investors, must unite to tackle them at the same time

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 1:02pm

This week, Hong Kong plays host to the Asia Venture Philanthropy Network annual conference, where governments, social investors, businesses and international organisations gather to consider the question: how has social investing impacted Asia? More than 600 funders from across the world will debate and discover best practices to make lasting improvements in the life of the world’s poorest people.

Hong Kong’s super-rich are jumping onto the philanthropy bandwagon, but are they backing worthy causes?

It is worth pausing to consider some of the latest statistics on poverty and inequality. At the top of the pyramid, the richest 62 people now own half the assets of the world. The top 1 per cent, including these 62 individuals, own 99 per cent of the world assets. Imagine playing a game of Monopoly and giving one player all the properties and 99 per cent of the bank, then giving the other player Cheung Chau and 1 per cent of the bank and then saying “let’s play”. Except, this is not a game, this is inequality.

At the bottom of the pyramid, the Asia Development Bank has defined the extreme poverty level in Asia as a person living on less than US$1.51 per day. A third of all Asians live under this subsistence level. The statistics are unrelenting in their enormity and are a window into the sheer size of the challenges facing governments, civic institutions and philanthropists.

Putting in place sustainable development goals at the UN

The causes of this poverty are well documented: excessive population growth, scarce resources, inadequate government infrastructure; limited access to quality health care, education, clean water and sanitation; land ownership issues and natural disasters. These are challenging barriers. Never have the UN Sustainable Development Goals seemed so apt when considering how to tackle these problems. The first six alone – end poverty; zero hunger; good health; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation – are all focused on tackling the above causes. However, at the same time, never have these goals seemed so far away from being achieved.

On the ground, solutions remain extraordinarily interlinked and increasingly complex to solve. In many areas, just getting a 10-year-old girl to attend school requires resolving every one of these Sustainable Development Goals at the same time: a school for her to attend; transport to get there; money to pay for school fees, books and supplies; food to alleviate hunger so she can concentrate; being well enough to attend school; a system which allows girls to be educated; sanitation to provide the environment where the child remains healthy, and shelter to ensure the child is living somewhere stable.

Number of social enterprises in Hong Kong reaches all-time high

Social entrepreneurs are playing an important role in becoming part of the solutions. The Korean founders of Enuma, for example, are adapting their best-selling maths programme to develop an open scalable software solution to enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Playtao Education is a Hong-Kong based social enterprise initiative that provides after-school childcare and education programmes for students from low-income families. Teach for All, meanwhile, is dedicated to creating a network of high-quality teachers and education specialists who are committed to expanding opportunities for underserved children. On the ground, Teach For All has fielded more than 3,800 teachers, formed a network of over 1,800 alumni, and reached over 162,000 students in the Asia-Pacific region.

The seemingly insurmountable challenges and obstacles must be tackled by organisations together, as networks create multiplier effects that are so much more powerful than what a single entity can achieve. Given the complexity of the underlying social issues, a comprehensive approach encompassing policymakers, corporations and civil society organisations is required to deliver the sustainable impact envisioned. Real systemic change that is required to lift great swathes of the population out of poverty requires all parties to come together to collaborate, catalyse and create change. Together we can do more.

Caroline McLaughlin is director of partnerships at the Asia Venture Philanthropy Network