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Debt, health and education woes bedevil Rangoon’s urban poor

A child begs on the streets of Rangoon.

Many among Rangoon’s urban poor are being forced to rely on high-interest loans to survive, a new report by Save the Children has found.

A survey of 300 impoverished households across three townships in Rangoon — North Okkalapa, Shwe Pyi Thar and Seikgyi Kanaungto — has revealed that despite more people being drawn to urban centres in search of well-paid employment, there continues to be a lack of jobs. Most of the urban poor find employment in the form of casual labour gigs, leading 85 percent of respondents to say they are forced to take out loans for food and other basic needs.

“Lives on Loan,” the report researched in collaboration with the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) and released last week, exposes the cycle of poverty that results from this trend: families removing children from school early in order to work, poor populations pushed to peripheral areas where the cost of living may be cheaper but there is a lack of access to basic services, and an alarming rise in the squatter population.

“Yangon [Rangoon] is now at a tipping point,” warns Katy Webley, Save the Children’s director of programme development, quality and advocacy. “Unless we do something to improve the situation and invest in programming that addresses urban poverty, the city will face long-term consequences faced by many other major cities across Asia.”

Most surveyed participants borrowed from moneylenders, with some seeking out additional sources of credit such as pawnshops and local grocery stores. Fifty-one percent of loans were for food and 26 percent for healthcare-related purposes. The interest charged on these loans is usually between 20 and 30 percent.

Some of the report’s suggestions were to promote access to low-cost credit, savings groups and other financial instruments providing reducing-balance loans. For trishaw drivers, street vendors and garment workers, their income of around 3,000-4,000 kyats a day is not nearly enough to cover their living costs. The numbers are even more crushing for families who have access to only sporadic, seasonal work — around 43 percent said they were surviving on less than 1,000 kyats (US$0.86) per person per day, below the global poverty line set by the World Bank, at $1.90.

The report also revealed that health standards among the urban poor are in a particularly dire state. Only 5 percent of the surveyed households said they had a “sanitary” toilet in which the contents are piped into a concrete tank that is protected from flooding. Improving public health is a national priority but clinicians in urban areas say chronic illness and shortened life expectancy are linked to poverty.

“Most of my patients don’t even earn money for food. Many of the problems they suffer originate with malnutrition,” said Dr. Yee Win Oo, at a health clinic on Payar Street in Shwe Pyi Thar township.

More than one-third of families cannot afford rice three times a day and there is not enough protein in many diets. Only 37 percent of households reported eating meat at least once or twice a week.

Housing standards were also flagged as below-standard when it came to sanitation or emergency-management. Many households have access only to unclean pond water for drinking, facilitating the risk of the spreading of communicable illnesses such as diarrhoea, respiratory infection, tuberculosis and hepatitis A.

Webley says immediate investment is key to reducing the extent of urban poverty’s reach and consequences in Rangoon: “You only need to visit the slums of cities like Manila to see what happens if you don’t invest in urban programming before it’s too late.”

Children’s vulnerability was also highlighted in the report. Many poor families cannot afford to send their children to school, with the result that they work from a young age or stay at home taking care of younger siblings. The number of children dropping out of school after age 13 was dramatically high, at 50 percent, and only 14 percent of children are still in school by age 16. School is nominally free but the costs of food, school supplies and uniforms are often too much for families. The survey found, for instance, that 48 percent of households were spending 50 to 500 kyats a day on school-related expenses.

Dr. Toe Aung, director of the Urban Planning Division under YCDC’s City Planning and Land Administration Department, said, “Now that we are learning more about the problem, we must take action. We hope that this report can propel the government and civil society actors to work together to alleviate urban poverty.”