Monday, October 22, 2007

Jakarta's poor need jobs, not law

The Business Times

Published October 17, 2007

Outlawing begging will not help as it is the job of the government to pursue policies which create jobs for its citizens


(JAKARTA) In other parts of the world, giving a few coins to help a less fortunate person would be considered a humane act. But if you do that in the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta, it can cost you a lot more money.

Last month, the Jakarta City Council approved a bylaw that bans busking, begging and street hawking as well as banning people from giving money to beggars, vendors and hawkers.

Initiated by the city's departing governor, Sutioyoso, the bylaw says that anyone who is caught giving money to beggars, and others of their ilk, will be fined of 50 million rupiah (S$8,072).

While this new policy is well-meant as it is intended to help make Jakarta, a city of more than 12 million people, a less squalid place and, thus, a more attractive destination for visitors, it is - like many Indonesian laws - vacuous and ridiculous.

For one thing, this policy violates a personal liberty. Giving, after all, is a personal choice and, as such, it should neither be forced nor prohibited.

Thus, by enforcing this bylaw, the City of Jakarta is denying its residents their freedom to give.

Furthermore, like prostitution, begging is one of the world's oldest professions. Even in the world's richest countries one can find beggars.

And in a country like Indonesia, where half of its 230 million people live on less than the equivalent of US$2 a day, and there is no social welfare system, it is no wonder that there are so many beggars in Jakarta and elsewhere in the country.

To be sure, many of the beggars one sees in Jakarta are members of syndicates run by gangs who rent out toddlers and are said to earn more than an average Indonesian government official. But not all of these beggars are con artists. Unemployment, old age and poor health are among the other factors which force people to beg for a living.

'I have nowhere to work in my hometown, so I came to Jakarta and start selling cigarettes on the street to get a little money to live,' Chakim, a 24-year-old streetside cigarette vendor in Jakarta, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa).

Countries like Switzerland and Luxembourg have not become some of the world's richest places by banning their citizens from giving to beggars. Instead, they try to ensure that their citizens can find jobs.

And for those who are unemployed, disabled, aged, or in poor health, there is a social welfare system - financed with tax revenues - that saves them from begging for a living.

In Indonesia, the establishment of such a social safety net is currently impossible. This is because there is no effective tax revenue and expenditure system in place and there is still so much corruption entrenched in the government.

Employment creation is possible, however. It is, after all, the job of the government of Indonesia and the City of Jakarta to pursue policies which create jobs for their citizens.

And if they can't do their job, at least they should let unemployed, poor, and less able citizens find a way to make a living, even if that happens to be by begging.

By the same token, those who are willing and able to help other less fortunate Indonesians should be allowed to do so.

While Mr Sutioyoso and his colleagues may insist that their policy is the way to clean up Jakarta, it is not.

Simply put, the bylaw won't work because there is no sound alternative, that is, employment.

Beggars may move away from begging on Jakarta's streets, but they will simply do it somewhere else.

'I have agreed with many buskers that we will stay on the streets, whatever it takes. The new bylaws don't scare me too much,' said Susi, a transvestite who sings daily at a dusty and congested intersection in Central Jakarta. 'I can earn up to 30,000 rupiah a day.'

While beggars like Susi are determined to stay on the streets, departing Governor Sutioyoso is said to be running for president in 2009.

If that is the case, the beggar bylaw may not be a good thing for him when the time comes for Jakarta residents like Susi, Chakim, and thousands of beggars to cast their votes for the president in two years' time.

And should Mr Sutioyoso make it, it may be good for him to keep in mind three things that make a country peaceful, prosperous, and clean. They are: jobs, jobs, and jobs.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist.