Stemming the tide of inequality

Izah Azahari

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that in 2020, income inequality rose at the fastest level than seen in previous economic crises, with 600 million lives living in extreme poverty.

The agency said COVID-19 has completely upended a decade of progress in terms of poverty reduction, and by 2022, 150 million more lives will fall below the extreme poverty line according to its baseline forecasts.

This was highlighted An-Nur Harapan board member and proponent of Uniklearn Noorsurainah binti Tengah in her keynote address during the launch of the 17th International School Brunei Borneo Global Issues Conference (ISB BGIC) at the International Convention Centre (ICC) on March 6.

“The poor are getting poorer; inequalities between nations and between households are growing wider. COVID-19 is creating an inequality that has social and geographical ramifications as well,” said Noorsurainah. “We can see that the younger population is bearing much of the economic damage brought about by COVID-19. Joblessness among the 15-to-24 age group rose as high as another 7.5 per cent, while for those aged 25 and over rose 3.2 per cent.”

She believed that the trends at the current juncture can have long lasting impacts, as research from Northwestern University’s Economics Department showed that young people who start work during recessions tend to earn less well into a decade after graduation, experience low self-esteem, commit more crimes and distrusts their governments more.

An-Nur Harapan board member and proponent of Uniklearn Noorsurainah binti Tengah delivering a speech. PHOTO: BAHYIAH BAKIR

“The 2030 agenda calls for a just, equitable, tolerant, open and socially-inclusive world where the needs of the most vulnerable are met. The pandemic has been a great inequaliser exacerbating these vulnerabilities even more especially for the differently abled, who were already experiencing social and educational disadvantages,” said Noorsurainah. “While there isn’t a straightforward solution to what will help us achieve the 2030 goals, the great Nelson Mandela once said ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’”

Noorsurainah went on to say that it is agreeable that education is key to eliminating gender inequality, reducing poverty, creating a sustainable planet and fostering peace, as education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity, and what must be aligned is our understanding and commitment that we should be aiming to reduce the inequality in outcomes itself.

An-Nur Harapan is a social enterprise with the goal of driving meaningful changes in communities, families, individuals and nature. Meanwhile, she said Uniklearn is the heart of An-Nur Harapan to bridge the divide by finding employment for the differently abled.

The objectives, she said, are to provide independent living skills to close the economic gap in the future, and more importantly, become contributing members of the society.

Its pilot programme took place in 2018, where the collaborator was quite focussed on autistic youth.

“We wanted to get the awareness out; we had the pleasure of working with Progresif on the marketing of UnikKone, our ice cream pop-up store. We intended it as a community outreach, but specific to the trainees, scooping and serving ice cream helped to improve their motor skills and coordination, and the pop-up itself helped them to interact with customers and train them on money concept and maths,” said Noorsurainah.

The programme is now a year-long programme and is divided into two parts. The first part takes place at the centre where trainees are assessed individually and are trained in basic living skills, community participation skills, social skills and vocational skills for nine months, while the second part takes place in a simulated environment to ready them for the transition to an actual workplace. Trainees undergo work placement for a period of three months at suitable organisations, aligned with their capabilities and interests.

“We realise we cannot be isolated. To make this work, we need as much support as we can and work with our collaborators,” said Noorsurainah. “The persistence of operating the project has allowed An-Nur and Uniklearn to grow in reach and in partners for the special needs ecosystem.”

She added that it takes a village to run Uniklearn, and the organisation is lucky to have people with the energy, passion and commitment to the mission, where the longer-term consideration for An-Nur is in retention and the continued development of the staff.

“Three years ago, Uniklearn was incepted with a clear mission to empower differently abled youth towards employability and independence. Three years from now and beyond, I hope the programme will continue to grow in strength and be able forge more meaningful partnerships,” said Noorsurainah.

“Beyond ISB BGIC, I believe that everyone of us can do our parts in terms of reducing inequality through our actions.”