Value-added community programme
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Residents of Wan Chai are trading goods and services for coupons in a novel scheme designed to help the community during the current bleak economic climate. The Hours Coupons project is jointly organized by Dr Wong Hung, a Lecturer in the Division of Social Sciences, and social workers from the St James Settlement. A group of scholars, social workers, students and local residents are participating in the scheme, which aims to help those in the community who are currently underemployed or unemployed.
Dr Wong, whose research focus includes community development, is no stranger to cooperative community programmes. In April 2001, he and one of his students initiated a household maintenance programme, in which renovation workers in Wan Chai were mobilized to provide a low-cost home maintenance service for low-income families in the district.
Hours Coupons schemes were introduced in Europe and the US around 10 years ago but the Wan Chai experiment is the first of its kind in Hong Kong . Oxfam has committed to sponsor the programme for two years. Around 270 people (mostly local residents) are participating in the scheme, and so far they have clocked up 30,000 work minutes. One hour of service is equal to 60 points and the coupons come in four denominations: 5, 10, 30 and 60 points. Coupons earned can buy commodities or services, which included housedhold cleaning, maintenance, private tuition, cooking, baby-sitting and legal advice. Thanks to the Oxfam funding, four open markets have been held, where participants exchanged goods or services to the value of the coupons they earned. The Oxfam fuding also provides the resources for the management committee to publish the monthly Hours Coupon Newsletter to promote the programme.
Value of services and skillsIn overseas countries, participants in the programme are not primarily interested in the buying and selling aspect, but rather want to enhance the quality of their lives. In Hong Kong, participants wish to re-establish their dignity by contributing their skills. Their focus is not on the face value of the coupons. This programme is different from volunteer services, as you can choose to provide the service using your special skills. The coupon awarded also represents a recognition of the services and skills provided by participants."
When it comes to pricing the services provided in the programme, the notion of value is redefined, Dr Wong said. He pointed out that local participants place a great emphasis on equal terms of trading, regardless of whether the service provider is a worker, housewife or professional. "The value of housework and the contribution of housewives are generally held in low esteem these days. Is this a fair judgment or have we neglected or undervalued the contribution of housewives? Although today we actively promote the knowledge-based economy, is it possible that we perhaps have been trapped into overestimating the value of knowledge?"
Dr Wong believes that the participation of small and medium sized shops and companies is important to the development of a community economy in the long run. To this end, the management committee is currently lobbying shops and companies in Wan Chai to offer special discounts, or hire workers by using coupons. "In a global economy, domestic markets are easily monopolized by large multi-national corporations. The purpose of the community economy is to build up local capital and retain it in the local community, to prevent exploitation by multi-national corporations."
In addition to community development, Dr Wong is also interested in other social issues, including poverty, social security, employment relationships, and street sleepers, and he works on many research projects related to these topics. He said he enjoys participating in community services, as he can contribute to society while enhancing his teaching. "I like to incorporate placement in my courses, so that I can work with students solving real life problems." The Wan Chai community programme is one such placement project, involving five of his students.
Students benefit from fieldwork
Mr Howard Tsang, a Year 2 student in the Associate Degree of Social Work, has participated in the scheme as his fieldwork project since January. His contribution involves mobilizing housewives and jobless people in the district to join the project. "During an economic downturn, the scheme gives people back their dignity, while giving them the opportunity to contribute to the community," he said. "Through the project, IOve learned to look at issues from a wider perspective, and have learned about the importance of interpersonal relationships and community organizing skills." And because the scheme involves the participation of people from different strata of society, including social workers, residents in the district, and shop owners, Mr Tsang said such cooperation showed him that people working together could really make things happen.
Another Year 2 student, Ms Zoe Chan Suk-wan, also chose the scheme as her fieldwork project. "I'm proud to be participating in this pilot scheme because it emphasizes the concept of equality and cooperation. It's made me appreciate that many people, such as the aged, who are often ignored in our society, are still willing and able to work." Ms Chan helps organize community work and edits the Hours Coupons Newsletter. She also teaches painting in exchange for hours coupons. "I find the project very meaningful. The theories we learn in the classroom only point us in the right direction. This scheme, however, is a real training ground for community work."