In the situation where the state resigned from assisting the people in need or where state projects are too cumbersome to provide practical help, social enterprises and NGOs have no option but to tackle the issue by themselves.
by Joseph Bartolo
Photograph by Friends of the Earth Malta
The news that the Church has donated a property in Ħamrun to the Malta Food Bank Foundation, an organisation that provides food to those in need, is a milestone in the efforts of some NGOs to counter poverty.
It seems, however, that alleviating poverty has become a sole responsibility of the non-governmental sector.
NGOs Taking Over the Functions of Welfare State
Establishing an effective food bank catering for the poor was of a great importance to the late Charles Miceli, the activist of the Alleanza kontra l-Faqar. He was a committee member of the Food Bank Lifeline Foundation, run by the St Andrew’s Scots Church community in Valletta.
Although the church on Old Bakery Street was already in charge of a fairly sized food bank, Charles Miceli sought to encourage the Maltese Curia to get involved; he discussed with the Bishop the possibility of Church contributing to the food bank. His idea was that food would be collected during Saturday/Sunday masses to be then donated to food banks—an extensive procedure which the slow-moving Curia accepted but could not fathom the complex logistics involved in its effective operations.
Even the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society had an intention to open food banks, however, it had to abandon the project due to the lack of resources.
The rampant inflation rates in food, medicines and rent erode the value of pensions and welfare benefits.
The endeavour of setting food banks in Malta has been on the NGO’s agenda for several years since poverty has raised its head again. The neoliberal policies crushed low income earners and benefit claimants to the level of poverty. The policies propelled by the government have made the divide between different categories of earners wider. The rampant inflation rates in food, medicines and rent erode the value of pensions and welfare benefits. Thus, the well-off are getting ever better off, while low earners are further pushed into precariousness.
Since more and more people are facing the risk of sliding into poverty and the threat of homelessness, feeding the poor, especially the children, is of the utmost urgency. Soup kitchens offer better nourishment and help economically to those who cannot afford regular, healthy nutrition. Alleanza kontra l-Faqar supported the opening of soup kitchens in Dar Papa Franġisku, Dar Maria Dolores and the OFM Soup Kitchen, the most recently established in Valletta and operated by the Franciscans.
In the situation where the state resigned from assisting the people in need, social enterprises and NGOs have no option but to tackle the issue by themselves.
In the situation where the state resigned from assisting the people in need or where state projects are too cumbersome to provide practical help, social enterprises and NGOs have no option but to tackle the issue by themselves. It’s now up to the civil society organisations, such as NGOs and social enterprises, to provide the basic resources to the poor. Soup kitchens, used clothes and shoes banks, and other initiatives that can alleviate the hardships of people from disadvantaged background can be efficiently provided by social enterprises.
Towards a Grassroots Social Infrastructure
Although the government is equipped with policy mechanisms which could eliminate poverty, it chose to withdraw from the issue instead. In the absence of socially conscious policies, grassroots initiatives could create a necessary infrastructure to take over the functions of a fading welfare state.
Here are the matters which social enterprises are capable of tackling:
Demanding an adequate housing policy to counter the libertarian housing market which has reduced housing to an economic activity, an object of speculation, far from its social purpose.
Countries like the UK, Austria and Italy have made legal provisions for an affordable space in the rented housing market. In these countries, governments have created frameworks for social enterprises in the housing market, calming the market down and making housing affordable.
Italy has a long record of cooperatives in the housing sector, its Constitution and specific laws enable citizens to join housing cooperatives. In the UK councils transfer land to housing associations (social enterprises) who then manage social housing. Austria’s case is similar to that of the UK: land is provided by councils for the development of social housing, run by social enterprises with the financing by private banks; rents are conditioned by limited profit.
Providing medical advice and services to those in need.
The exorbitant cost of medicines both to the government and families merit a detailed study in order to determine the possibility of price reduction.
Government should create a framework in healthcare legislation and regulations so that civil society comes to the rescue where the state is failing.
Malta has a precarious medicines market. Many foreign suppliers set prices arbitrarily, with inevitable consequences to the financial capacity of the citizens, especially low income earners. Pensioners, for instance, spend a substantial part of their pensions on healthcare since free hospital and POYC services, which are generous but still not entirely sufficient. Up to this day, no NGO or social structure aiming at providing medical advice and services exists. Government should create a framework in healthcare legislation and regulations so that civil society comes to the rescue where the state is failing.
Engaging into supervision of food procurement.
NGOs’ engagement could ensure better and less costly food procurement.
Food quality and price demands our urgent attention. In one way or another, the successive governments attempted to address the food supply situation, yet more needs to be done. Farmers’ co-operatives produce their share of food supply, yet with little to none social involvement into the food procurement, there is no guarantee that it is administered in a manner beneficial to society as a whole.
Thus, the food supply is another space for active NGO involvement, and not only for the purpose of alleviating poverty. NGOs’ engagement could ensure better and less costly food procurement. The collaboration between Friends of the Earth Malta and local farmers could be a model for such bottom-up food supply management.
These are but a few suggestions of what could be done by non-governmental organisations with a direct benefit to society.
No political party in the current political set-up would be willing to support such initiatives. Let’s put our enthusiasm for a better society into practice and build skillful, organised movements capable of administering social and economic aspects with no support from the state.
The Food Bank militants have succeeded in their initiative to cater for the poor. With the input from other social activists, with all their energies, political and social acumen, we can lay a foundation for a grassroots democratic infrastructure.
Can we? We certainly can!
Joseph Bartolo is an activist at Alleanza kontra l-Faqar.