Sustainable Communities: Not Adding Up

By Dr Leong Choon Heng
Professor, Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, Sunway University

The original article was published in The Edge Malaysia on 15th October 2018


Despite uncountable efforts by civil society to create sustainable communities, the elements still do not add up to produce a representative model of sustainability. Why do they not add up? Why do the fervour and commitment of community leaders, civil society organisations, charities, social enterprises, resident associations, corporate and individual volunteers, as well as many others working tirelessly with targeted communities, at times separately and at other times collaboratively, not result in a flourishing of sustainable communities throughout the country? What are the missing parts in this puzzle?

How can the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development play the pivotal role as the catalyst for sustainable community development above and beyond its responsibility for the social welfare of disadvantaged groups and people who have fallen behind economically?  As a grassroot-oriented Ministry, it is well-positioned to be the driver of sustainable communities as the next frontier of economic growth.

But first, why are the myriad activities of community organisers and civil society organisation leaders and workers not able to bring about a great transformation to sustainable living? These are highly capable social entrepreneurs, great mobilisers who are skilled in managing diversity, people who are passionate and deeply committed to their mission, and they do not give up. They work with indigenous communities, remote highland communities, the urban poor, the battered and downtrodden, riverine communities, people living in dilapidated housing and polluted surroundings, and many more communities that need help. They have one thing in common. They invariably lack funding. They also lack technical experts and staff and volunteers who have specialised skills.

The lack of funding for community-based work has a lot to do with the wide inequality in the disbursement of our national budgets. States and local governments are not able to help fund community development work because our national revenues and expenditures are monopolised by the federal government, which is a level of government furthest away from the needs and influence of ordinary people and communities.

The 2018 budgets of all 11 states plus Sabah and Sarawak amount to RM23.7 billion which is 8.5% of the federal budget of RM280.3 billion. In other words, the federal budget is 11.8 times the combined budgets of all the states in Malaysia. With such excessive concentration of national money at the federal level, what is the ability of state and local governments to fund activities to build sustainable communities at the local level? The answer is little ability.

Selangor has a population of 6.5 million or 20% of the country’s population, but its annual budget of RM3.1 billion is a miniscule 1.1% of the federal budget. With such disproportionate financial power between the state and the federal government, how can the state finance activities at the community level adequately and meaningfully? No wonder all the local governments – city, municipal and district – under the state are underfinanced and find it hard to work with community-based organisations to implement sustainable development.

The Malaysian government supports Local Agenda 21 (LA21) or Agenda 21 at the level of local authorities. Agenda 21 which came out of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was an action plan of the United Nations to promote sustainable development. In Chapter 28, it was clearly stated:


“Because so many of the problems and solutions being addressed by Agenda 21 have their roots in local activities, the participation and cooperation of local authorities will be a determining factor in fulfilling its objectives. Local authorities construct, operate and maintain economic, social and environmental infrastructure, oversee planning processes, establish local environmental policies and regulations, and assist in implementing national and subnational environmental policies. As the level of governance closest to the people, they play a vital role in educating, mobilizing and responding to the public to promote sustainable development.”


Our current governmental financial system will not be able to support the principles enshrined in Agenda 21. It needs to be reformed.

In June 2018, the Prime Minister announced that government Members of Parliament (MPs) would be allocated RM500,000 and opposition MPs RM100,000 each. This is the amount of money MPs get to undertake constituency development work. With 222 MPs, the total allocated would be roughly RM71 million. With this miniscule sum, non-government organisations, civil society organisations, charities, resident associations and community organisations can go to their MPs to beg for help and financial support, but there simply will not be enough money to go around for community development work. Compare this with the federal budget of RM280 billion in which 27 MPs and 1 Senator that form the Cabinet have decision-making power over. If there are lopsided development among communities and constituencies in the country we should not be surprised given the acute disparity in political and financial decision-making influence among MPs themselves.

So, despite the numerous whole-hearted efforts of civil society to create sustainable communities, their work could not add up to a large-scale transformation in the country. Without a large-scale transformation of living conditions, habits and practices at the community level, our people, society and country will never achieve the sustainable development goals and may succumb to climate-related disaster of planetary scale.

We hope the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development will step in and take the lead in making the necessary reforms in our governmental financial system to ensure adequate funding to local governments and, hence, sustainable community development activities. A significant portion of our national budget should be devolved to the state and local government levels. With sufficient funds to local governments, the Ministry can help foster greater cooperation between civil society organisations and local governments so that the efforts to build sustainable communities will add up. Skills development will also be needed, and, here, appropriate TVET programmes can be created. For follow-up discussion on this issue, readers are welcomed to contact us at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, Sunway University.