MARCH 29 — We view with concern Defence Minister Ismail Sabri’s ongoing insistence that food aid that has thus far been distributed by NGOs should now be distributed only by the government.
We fully appreciate the seriousness of the Covid-19 situation, and the importance of reducing movement as much as is practically possible. We agree that greater coordination and some degree of streamlining could go a long way to increase the efficiency of delivering aid to those who need it while minimising health risks as much as humanly possible.
We also appreciate the Defence Minister’s openness in expressing his appreciation for and willingness to work together with NGOs to find the best solutions possible. It is in this same spirit of cooperation that we recommend the following.
One of the three focus areas Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR) was built on is the decentralisation of power. Channeling all food aid through the government runs the risk of overcentralisation and creating a bottleneck.
There are a number of practical and perceptional issues with the Defence Minister’s suggestion, which we will explore in turn. Thereafter, we will offer a few alternative policies that may achieve the shared goals of both the government and NGOs.
Firstly, at this point, it is unlikely that the government has an exhaustive and comprehensive list of every single Malaysian that requires food aid at this point. The existence of such a list would of course be helpful in ensuring that all necessary food aid reaches all necessary recipients, but even in the most efficient bureaucracy, such a list could take months to prepare.
Until such a point where the government has an extremely reliable list that takes into account every single vulnerable group, perhaps it is best to decentralise the aid giving process, to minimise the chances that anyone is left behind.
Secondly, while the groups the Defence Minister has suggested can conduct food distribution on behalf of the government (such as RELA, the Civil Defence Force, and Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat) enjoy our full confidence, surely it will take some time before all these different bodies can be properly mobilised, properly organised, and given the proper training to conduct effective distribution of food and aid.
Until these bodies are in the right position to take over, perhaps NGOs should be allowed to continue their work in the interim. It may very likely be wiser to have a transition plan to phase out the food distribution work from NGOs to the government in stages, if truly necessary.
For both these first and second points, a sudden blanket ban on NGOs providing food aid with immediate effect would be disastrous for the most vulnerable stakeholders involved, and may cost lives.
On a side note, the Defence Minister mentioned the health risks involved in delivering food. We fully agree that every step possible should be taken to minimise these risks. At the same time, there is an inherent element of risk no matter who is delivering food supplies. This also applies to workers for GrabFood, Foodpanda, and other commercial delivery agencies, who do work very similar to what food distribution NGOs are doing. If the government’s comments are not carefully worded, they may set off a panic that food delivery is deemed to be unsafe.
Third, there is also a small danger that despite the government’s best intentions and the good faith of most Malaysians, some segments of society may view the effort to centralise food distribution as being part of an effort to transfer credit away from NGOs who have been doing good work to the government. This may be an especially sensitive topic given the recent change in government.
Kabinet Rakyat makes the following policy recommendations:
First, that NGOs who have been verified to be following all proper health and safety directives be allowed to continue food distribution aid until such a time that the government is ready in every regard to take over - including having a list of recipients that is agreed upon by all stakeholders, and a well trained and organised delivery infrastructure.
Second, if NGOs do arrange for food donations that must be distributed through central government channels, NGOs should be allowed to determine who receives the food aid that they have contributed, and the government must guarantee that the food reaches the intended recipients. This will help alleviate any problems of perception.
Third, as suggested by the Defence Minister, the government should have open and transparent consultations with all stakeholders - including NGOs and community representatives - about how best to organise and distribute food aid.
Kabinet Rakyat continues to hope that all parties will work together sincerely for the betterment of the nation, and to defeat Covid-19.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.