In my last post, I described my three days travelling around Merapi with a ‘posko’ that focuses on recovery efforts and I promised to share my recommendations on this blog. Before I go into my recommendations, I want to thank each and every one of them for thier kindness and patience, especially in thier reception of an outsider such as myself. Apart from the very serious situation that we were aiding, this group of people never failed to make jokes and answer my most mundane of questions. Lilik and the crew paid for my food, the Merapi families that hosted the assessment meetings gave me food, we saw the dance competition of several villages at the top of the mountain and for the first time in my sheltered, mostly urban-centered life, I rode to the top of an active volcano on a loaded pick-up truck.
As for the experience of hanging out with Merapi volunters, the most valuable things I took away were some of the conversations with the volunteers and my many questions to which they always gave honest answers. How can Javanese could believe in kejawan mysticism and a monotheistic religion simultaneously? One is religion and the other is cultural beliegs. How do people in Yogyakarta feel about the Sultan? They would most likely would vote in favor of maintaining the sultan’s governor title in the upcoming referendum. Why did Lilik decide to grow out his hair? Since high school it’s been a symbol of protest against the competitive, cut-throat world that he was once a part of. Who else is responsible for the recovery in Merapi? Remittances and well-off family members who live in the cities. What is this transmigration business about? It was a legacy of Dutch policy to place Javanese (as well as people from Makassar and Madura) into the outer islands as a form of control, which later led to a variety of ethnic conflicts between the indigenous inhabitants and the transmigrant Javanese. What do you think of the cash for work program to recover the salak fields? The government is distorting the existing social structures of gotong royong, thus disincentivizing some people to recover the crops. How can a foreigner who doesn’t know Javanese do development work here? Hire a local to be a program coordinator and provide funds.
The more time I spent with them, the more I realized how a small group of people had the power to make huge change with very few resources. It made me rail against the multi0-billion dollar development industry that I would soon be a part of — if only momentarily. The volunteers attended to the volunteer work as if it were a religion, but always approaching thier off-duty moments with lightness or “gaul dong” as Mas Hera referred to it. These men had families and jobs that they left behind. Some of them even missed Christmas to go up to the mountain. Perhaps it was partially the community that kept them going each day, but I think they were in it also because they were convinced it they were taking part in a grand social movement.
The main themes that I observed from this ‘social movement’ were 1) justification: a strong sense of dissapointment with the government’s efforts to help victims of natural disasters (or in any thing for that matter), 2) resources: a strong belief that the community and the work they do can exist on volunteer work and donations of community members alone, 3) representation: a strong belief that Lingkar Muda is a direct voice of the victims of Merapi, 4) engagement with the community: through social networks they are already linked to the the communities they serve and know it better than others; cultural competency is very rooted in Javanese culture and the Catholic faith.
The fact that this was a sort of grassroots movement that emerged indenpendently of any top-down sort of structures is a huge strength that is hard to argue against. No matter how much money is poured into the government programs from official development aid, the fact that Lingkar Muda has the community — along with the community’s trust and cooperation — on its side means that they are probably better positioned than most outside development projects to take on the task of long-term recovery in the area.
On my last day with them, I was at a crossroads. I wasn’t sure whether or not to come back to volunteer with them when I would return to Yogyakarta for a whole month’s stay, in January. I mentioned how I was a master’s student of International Development. There were many things that I could help out with. My unease came from the feeling that I never knew what the purpose of my travelling with them in Merapi was. They insisted that it was part of the process of listening to people on the mountain to see what they needed next, the enthusiastic volunteer in me felt like there could be more that I could do than observe. In the end, I offered to write a letter. I should add here, that the group is quite impulsive, and at the mention of writing a letter (after much back and forth as to my ‘purpose’ with them), they quickly jumped to explaining to me the day’s agenda that was created the night before. Lilik promised to send me meeting notes of thier other meetings but never did. So while I have little to offer in the way of ‘content’ I hope that what I do have to offer contributes in some way:
-Gender mainstreaming. The assessment meetings are usually brokered by the desa kepala and a few of the farmers who would benefit from fixing the drinking water source. I think the assumption here is that the men work in the fields and know more about the water source than women. However, I think it would be useful to put women’s perspectives into the conversation. Javanese culture, the team argued, dictates that men join the conversation but I think notions of culture can be questioned because culture is not static, but fluid and always changing.
-Consider the micropolitics of the affected villages and build in poverty assessments into all of Lingkar Muda’s work. Along the same lines of gender mainstreaming, there is usually an unquestioned discourse that occurs in villages, usually at the advantage of the rural elite. It would be useful to make assessments of who the new water pipes actually benefit, and if they are benefiting all members equally (and not because the empowered rural elites initiated a meeting that would lead to new pipes that benefited only a few people). Poverty assessments, such as the Grameen Bank’s Progress out of Poverty Index, might be useful in this case. The methodology is based on looking at the physical assets of poor people to assess if they are living below the poverty line. In my few meetings that I observed, it seemed that the people we were helping all had running water, thatched roofs, electricity and tiled floors so I called into question whether or not they were poor. The team members argued that I did not see how they lived daily (for example, eating very simple food without meat). In response, I think that more investigation into this matter is necessary and poverty assessment should be built into thier work in order to ensure that thier pipes are actually going to people who indeed would not be able to afford them otherwise.
-Hire a lawyer. As I learned on my last day, Lingkar Muda was looking to move into new realms of work and function more like a long-term program rather than merely an a short-term posko that was focused on emergency aid. There was a lot of discussion among the lead staff to register the posko as an official NGO. They did release a press release to announce who they were and what they were doing. You can also go to thier website and find out more specifics, but it is not a legal entity per se. Many felt that formalizing Lingkar Muda would detract from the image of it as a community-based social movement. Nevertheless, formal or not, there are many liabilities that they could incur as they move into larger and more long-term activities. I was slightly if not very concerned when they even mentioned someone in thier community who was an army officer would be able to get them free access to RI tanks and helicopters. Also, if the pipes were to be contaminated, or the new peanut seeds or tractors that they donate to farmers were to be broken, what type of recourse would the beneficiaries have? Or what if one of the volunteers were to suddenly fall of the loaded pick-up truck she was sitting on? Lingkar Muda mentioned that they had already had some trouble with a competing posko, who had spread rumors about them doing bad work. I wonder if this has to do with the very disheveled image of this ‘group of friends’ working for ‘humanity and nothing else’ would have something to do with it. Apart from presenting a more professional image, a starting point would be to hire a lawyer who could consult them on how to approach worst case legal scenarios before they happen.
-More organizational management. Lingkar Muda has a lot of informal meetings that take place at night and last until midnight (they usually head off to work at 9am). While this speaks to the dedication and passion of the members, to me, this seems a slightly haphazard and disorganized way to do things. They could also inform volunteers about the meetings via sms or phone calls, but it seems you just have to be there 24/7 to know that the meetings occur. One strength of this method is that work items are organized in the sense that each item have a leader who is responsible for ensuring it gets completed. In the future, it would be more effective to have these meetings at a regular time. As the organization grows, it would be helpful to have separate boards that can be responsible for checks and balances. For example, most organizations have a board of directors who is responsible solely for financial oversight and budgeting while the program staff is responsible for designing and implementing the program side.
-Building full-time staff into the program. Many truly exceptional people volunteered every day for three months at the time I visited Lingkar Muda, but there were also people like Ivan, who introduced me to them who had to go back to his job to put food on the table. It would useful for Lingkar Muda to provide salaries to some of the lead staff because this would ensure some level of sustainability in terms of human resources. I would imagine that it takes some staff time to train and retrain people who are always joining and then leaving. While I am unsure about the hard cash donations that Lingkar Muda receives, I imagine that building in full-time staff would involve more fundraising for cash over in-kind goods.
-Consider the market distortions that are created by donations. In some economies, donations can put out of business local businesses that produce these goods, thus distorting the local economy. For all we know, the pipes, toys, clothes and farming equoipment donations could be putting out of business local businesses who produce these goods. Also, what happens when these things break? Are there people who will be able to replace or fix them or provide new products to replace the old ones? This is worth some investigation and it would be a hard question indeed, as it calls into question the unquestioned “goodness” of donations (most people think they are inherently beneficial and good deeds to give away things for free to the less fortunate).