Thank you Urbanice Malaysia for finally opening up a space for grassroots in the Malaysian Urban Forum 2020. According to the organizers, the Grassroots Assembly is a platform to give voice to communities including the most vulnerable to share vision and plans for urban development that are sustainable and accelerate the implementation of the SDGs.
Earlier this month, I have participated in the pre-lab session with grassroots from a diverse background; health, OKU, youth, PPR, urban farming, migrants and undocumented, Orang Asli, women, food waste/plastics/ethical consumerism, and some few others. Although this list does not reflect on the full spectrum of urban communities, I can start with this. Coming from a youth group working on the intersectionalities of climate impacts in grassroots, and as an advocate for active participation of grassroots in decision-making level, I found this session a bit superficial. However, what struck me the most was the varying pre-conceived definition of SDGs among the participants. For some of the participants, the word inclusivity means upward social mobility, and for the migrants and undocumented-- it means uplifting legal restrictions for them to participate equally regardless of their citizenship status. The 19 SDGs lacked nuance when it comes to grassroots needs. I am not a fan of SDGs primarily because it's a re-hash idea from goals that the world have failed to implement in the last 3 decades, it's white-centric, hence it doesn't put emphasis on decolonizing. Most of all, it tries to capture the essence of systemic change but does not really address the root cause, which is capitalism.
For me personally, an inclusive livable space is a dynamic space, where ideas are fluid, no boundaries, hence no separation of urban and rural, preservation of self-identity on common goals, and the collective sense of shared cultural heritage and ownership. In practical, this is only a pipe dream. In reality, maybe the question shouldn't be centred so much about urban, but the co-existence between rural and urban, and blurring these separation lines. Rural is seen as the backward community in Malaysia. Everyone who has escaped from rural kampung and transitioned to urban has climbed the social ladder; success in life. How long should we do this?; discriminate infrastructures, education, history documentation, opportunities. The ideal aim is to reshape territories not bounded by map boundaries and concentration of people and bring balance to social sustainabilities by improving living in rural area so one does not have to emigrate on the sole purpose to find better opportunities for education, health services, and happiness. Well, this is another story.
So, on 28th September, I represented Klima Action Malaysia - KAMY to facilitate the Grassroots Assembly. These are the highlights we think important to take note.
1. Resource/finance/capacity building
The COV-19 has impacted fundraising activities for communities. I raise up the dangers of selective funding or cronyism that lean towards more well known, established groups or individuals, tying up to the importance of resource centralisation/hub to help communities polish skills to write proposals, coordinate, monitor projects and evaluate its outcomes; are communities thriving, are they content and happy?
2. Acess to basic services
The expansion of civic spaces that is safe for communities, where there is no intimidation and harassment. As a young person, I found that there is a lack of informal and organic spaces where youth from communities can congregate, a living space run by young people. Often enough, there is an archaic structure one must follow to establish such spaces in Malaysia. I have encountered amazing youth spaces, that builds on the principle of trust and creativity that becomes a building block for youth to think freely, co-create solutions, and celebrate diversity.
3. Policy and enforcement
Most of the communities agreed that their main aim is to improve their living conditions but rarely would they have the awareness to impact policies. All participants mentioned about mechanisms to bridge top-down and bottom-up and the removal of roadblocks such as disparity among agencies and ministries, and unnecessary bureaucracy especially in this new normal. The old structure has fallen and we must rebuild a better and stronger foundation.
There is a common understanding that communities must work collaboratively to understand their role in the ecosystem. One of them could be done through the mapping and documenting climate impacts in communities by harnessing the citizen scientist concept. This gives a sense of ownership, realisations of interconnectedness, and paving way for climate solutions catering to the varying needs of communities. This is the empowerment that we need.
One moderator focuses on the role of peer learning. I have experienced this form of learning during the CLLE workshop organized by Innovation of Change Asia, whereby grassroots communities are exposed to their regional peers. One of the trips involved indigenous grassroots from Mekong River and Salween River in Myanmar and Thailand visiting the Temiars of Gua Musang, as seen in the picture below. These sharing sessions are not only powerful for indigenous networking but also to learn best practices, exchanging challenges, offering suggestions, and most importantly, acknowledging common ground.
Covid19 has magnified the structural gaps that exist between government agencies and grassroots. Most of the participants shared how the pandemic has fortified communities and independence but increased sense of distrust towards government agencies. The lack of coordination of agencies and the lack of respect towards communities has forced grassroots to mobilise their own disaster response mechanisms. Some of these disaster and crisis response projects are still running and expanding. All participants echo the lifting up of the language barrier as one of the low-hanging fruits that the government agencies can do right now. Information about pandemic, crisis, policies etc must be multi-language to include orang Asli languages, migrant languages, and braille and Malaysian Sign Language.
Overall, despite its shortcoming, this forum has been a great learning opportunity for me to unlearn and relearn the concept of grassroots; that it is not singular but diverse. Understanding these different need and forming climate solution based on these varying needs is a multidisciplinary effort. The aspirations of SDGs must embody inclusivity, diversity and equal partnership between actors in state, council and communities. Respect and dignity goes hand in hand upon the principles of no harm. Failure to do so would mean more people will fall through the cracks in policymaking. Communities must actively participate in forming solutions, and decision making cannot happen behind closed doors.
Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar