More on the Muslim-majority Democracy ‘Case Study’

Here is a post by Asia Foundation Country Rep in Indonesia, Robin Bush, on the In Asia blog. It is about Indonesia’s democratic consolidation. The key question: How does a muslim-majority country that was under authoritarian rule transition to a democratic country that integrates religious parties? I think that this is a very difficiult question, and not as simple as simply integrating religious parties. What happens once they are integrated? Take the FPI, who in a turn of irony use thier freedom of expression towards ‘less free’ forms, such as threatening to overthrow a fairly elected government because they believe a sect (the Ahmaiyahs) is not in fact Islam. Also, see my last blog about the anti-pornography nutcase, Minister Tifatul.

Indonesia: An Example for Egypt, or a Democracy in Retreat?

February 16, 2011

By Robin Bush

As the world watched in wonder the phenomenal events in Egypt over the past weeks, a few solitary voices were already urging analysts and policymakers to look not toward Iran, but rather toward Indonesia for historical precedent that might help us make sense of what’s happening, and importantly, what might be to come.

The Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas Carothers, in The New Republic, reminded readers that in Indonesia, in 1998, a dictator of 32 years, firmly backed by the U.S., toppled in the face of a student-led popular movement – amid similar fears that extremist forces would fill the power void.

jakarta Above, peaceful protests in downtown Jakarta. As reformists in Egypt start to chart their course through a democratic reform process, experts are increasingly viewing Indonesia as a “Model for Egypt’s Transition.” Photo: Jonathan McIntosh.

In another piece, the Council on Foreign Relation’s Joshua Kurlantzick reminded us that despite those fears in Indonesia 13 years go – which have resurfaced now in Egypt surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood – Indonesia turned out to be “one of the democratic success stories of the past decade,” with multiple free and fair elections, constitutional and institutional reform, a vibrant civil society, and a free media. The Economist‘s Asia View also urged readers to look to Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim-majority country – for a positive model of authoritarian overthrow, noting that in the first free elections held in Indonesia, the majority voted for “secular” parties. Carothers pointed out that since Suharto’s fall, votes for Islamic parties have steadily decreased – in the latest elections taking less than 30 percent in total. These facts, and the generally moderate and civically-oriented role of Indonesia’s Muslim organizations, have led some western policy-makers to cite Indonesia as an example of “moderate Islam” to be followed in the Middle East.

These calls have been received warmly by Indonesian leaders, who are actively seeking to establish a greater role for Indonesia on the international stage. Indonesian leaders take pride in their membership in the G20, and often remind others – without flinching – of the fact that Indonesia heads the G20 working group on corruption. Indonesian diplomats also used their two-year membership on the UN Security Council (2007-09) to actively raise Indonesia’s profile internationally. Often, it is precisely Indonesia’s experience in democratic transition that is seen as the basis on which it can provide leadership globally. In 2008, Indonesia established the Bali Democracy Forum, with the mission of strengthening democratic institutions and discourse in Asia. Despite the initial skepticism from some quarters, the BDF, now in its third year, is seen as an important forum attracting senior leadership of Asian countries, as well as western powers. Indonesia takes the helm of ASEAN this year, and given its strong push for a higher bar on human rights, it is expected, and indeed promised by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, that Indonesia will use this position to strengthen human rights in the region.

So as reformists in Egypt start to chart their course through a democratic reform process, and experts begin increasingly to view Indonesia as a “Model for Egypt’s Transition,” it behooves us to take a closer look at where Indonesia’s reform has taken the country 13 years later. It is true that in the years immediately after Suharto’s fall, Indonesia’s reform process was remarkable – constitutional change reconfigured the power of the presidency and the parliament, and confirmed that Indonesia would not be an Islamic state. A Blueprint for Reform for the Supreme Court was released and initiated. The military was separated from the police and gradually and peacefully relieved of its political role. The country devolved significant budgetary and political authority to directly elected district-level officials, allowing, at least in theory, citizens to hold their leaders more accountable.

All that being said, many observers and analysts in Indonesia today feel that reform has stagnated for years now, and in some areas, is actually regressing. Indonesians and international residents alike were stunned last week by the brutal killing of three Ahmadi (a sect that claims to be Muslim) residents in West Java. Gruesome videos circulated widely of a mob shouting “Allahu Akbar” while attacking a house where a small group of Ahmadis tried in vain to protect themselves with sticks and hoes. The three victims were forced to strip naked and bludgeoned lifeless, as a cheering crowd and a few limply ineffectual policemen videoed it on their cell phones. The next day in Temanggung, Central Java, a mob torched three churches, in an unrelated case of outrage against what they perceived to be a light court sentence against a man accused of proselytization and blasphemy. These two violent outbreaks clearly point to a deeper problem of increasing intolerance and declining religious freedom. Setara Institute and Human Rights Watch have data indicating a significant annual decline (30%) in tolerance over the past three years in Indonesia, and corresponding increases in violations of religious freedom. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), associated with many of the incidents of religious violence here, last week threatened to topple President Yudhoyono if he followed up on his suggestion that “groups who conduct violence may be disbanded.” What in many other countries would be seen as seditious speech provoked little reaction from law-enforcement officials here, perhaps because of close ties built by the chief of police with FPI, “in the context of security.”

The failure of the state to provide basic citizen security and uphold constitutionally-accorded freedom of religion is one glaring hole in the success story that is Indonesia – another is the flagrant and pervasive corruption that continues to impede growth and shackle economic development. This week, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) arrested 24 former legislators implicated in vote-buying in the election of a Bank of Indonesia director. And in the scandal that rocked and embarrassed the nation for weeks, Gayus Tambunan, a mid-level tax official in prison for providing millions of dollars in tax breaks, was caught wearing a wig while watching a tennis tournament in Bali and on holiday in Singapore – thanks to “accommodating” prison and immigration officials. Indeed, the second term of Yudhoyono’s administration has been plagued by corruption scandal after scandal, putting a deep dent in his own image as the “anti-corruption president” and impeding the parliament’s ability to review and pass legislation.

Indonesia has come a long way in a relatively short time and deserves much of the praise that is rather belatedly starting to come its way. It does provide an important example for Egypt, as a Muslim country that overthrew a dictator and integrated Islamic parties effectively into its democratic system. And, it has much to offer the region in the way of leadership on democratic transitions and reform. However, if it is to truly become a credible leader on regional and international platforms, it will have to confront head-on its own glaring problems in the areas of human rights and corruption. Many of the gains that Indonesia made in its reform process were made 10 years ago and have not advanced since. Now, a second wave of reform is needed to ensure that the country is able to live up to its tremendous potential – for the good of its own citizens and for the global community.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at

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Research on Youth Financial Services

Recently, I have been doing desk research for my thesis research on youth financial inclusion in Indonesia. This has amounted to several documents that, as a researcher living in Bali for the past five months, I am very proud to have finished today. They include a terms of reference which includes the research plan, a literature review, an interview protocol, a 70-item panel data form, and even a pitch for the documentary that I have yet to start shooting! I’ve also hired two master’s-degree holding research assistants to help me out with translations, field testing and the actual data collection.

Originally, I applied for the Boren fellowship requesting research funds to study client protection in Indonesia, which with the impending or recent collapse of entire countries’ microfinance markets (Nicaragua, Morocco, Serbia and Andra Pradesh, India to name a few) is quite a pressing issue now. I had worked at the Center for Financial Inclusion and it seemed that I could attend some of the trainings on client assessments and actually learn what to do to find out a MFI is getting into big trouble with protecting their clients.

Then, in May of last year, I attended the launch of YouthSave at the New America Foundation, a new research initiative about the asset effects and business case for youth financial services in developing countries. Apart from the joy of drinking cocktails with my all-time research hero, Michael Sherraden, I think that day planted a seed in me. Later that summer, my mentor at RTI, Andrew Baird, pointed me to the Making Cents YFS Links website, and introduced me to his former colleague who now manages YFS, as well as the head of the microfinance association in Indonesia. And after reading everything about youth financial services, I realized there is almost nothing written about youth financial services in Indonesia (except for one World Bank study carried out in 2006). In fact, when I met with Micra Indonesia, the research body that is the author of that study, a representative there said there isn’t really a culture of publishing research in Indonesia.

One of the most rewarding things about the past few months is that many people have been very generous with thier time in helping me with their feedback on the tools, including Johnny Kim of Kansas University’s Social Work School, Payal Pathak of the New America Foundation and RTI colleague Andrew Thornley.

One of the most challenging things that I have encountered thus far is that there isn’t really any methodology about conducting market research on youth financial services. Unlike CAMELS or the SEEP financial assessment tool, the market research tools for youth financial services are income-generating patents that are packaged and sold by Making Cents, MicroSave, Chemonics and AYLDAC.

So this is where I step in. Research questions include: How and why do youth use financial services? What do they want from financial services? and How do youth balance access to financial services with thier opportunity costs?

I will be sharing more updates about my research hopefully around mid-March. I will be in the field, mostly likely in rural Bali, testing the interview protocol.

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Religious Conservatism

I am including a great op-ed in the Jakarta Post by Citra Diani, about the latest twitter-fatwahs by Minister of Communications Tifatul.

When I went to Jakarta last December the religious nutcases in government seemed to be a hot topic among the educated Jakartans that I met. As people who have seen the new freedoms resulting from Indonesia’s democratic transformation, they are not amused that a religious movement is highjacking the government. I first heard about Tifatul when he shook hands with First Lady Michelle Obama during Obama’s 2010 visit. (It was scandalous because it’s against his religous principles to shake hands with women.)

Religious conservatism is a salient topic again now because a 23.5-percent distribution tax for Hollywood movies took effect last month, effectively banning them. As a journalist friend explained to me, ever since 1997, after Suharto’s ban on certain religious groups was lifted, Indonesian society has become increasingly religiously conservative. For example, more young women than ever are wearing the jilbab, and eating establishments and food products are increasingly ‘halalizing’ or branding themselves as halal. The new flows of capital from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia to religious groups in Indonesia, according to the journalist, are one source of this sea change.

More than just pornography

Diani Panjaitan, New York | Thu, 01/13/2011 11:02 AM Opinion
It seems that Indonesia’s Minister of Communication and Information, Tifatul Sembiring, is not yet willing to let go of the “crotch business” as his main agenda in 2011.

Tifatul opened January by issuing a statement that Research in Motion (RIM), the BlackBerry inventor and distributor, must join Indonesia’s war on pornography. Through his twitter account, Tifatul gave RIM an ultimatum to either filter pornographic content from its products by Jan. 21, 2011 or be banned from Indonesia.

Tifatul’s routine tweets about pornography may give the wrong impression that the ministry’s one and only concern is inside our pants. In fact, monitoring pornography is just one of the ministry’s jobs, which was lucky enough to be prioritized after the Earth-shattering celebrity sex tape scandal last year.

This crotch-focused agenda has meant other important information and communication issues must cope with sitting in the back seat of the information policy car. One of those issues involves the Network Broadcast System, which has been ignored for eight years.

In 2002, the House of Representatives endorsed the broadcasting law, which mandated that Indonesia’s broadcast system be changed into a network system. Under the new system there would no longer be a national station aside from state-owned TVRI.

Indonesia’s television industry would consist of network stations and local stations. Any stations that wish to broadcast outside of their licensed area would have to affiliate with an existing local station or establish their own local station.  

The House gave a five-year grace period for national stations to adjust their infrastructures and business plans to the new system. But instead of preparing for the adjustments, the stations waged a war against the law, filing a judicial review to amend the law.

Even after the judicial review motion was turned down, the national stations still showed no signs of fulfilling their legal obligation.  

Now, in 2011, almost three years after the second extension was given to the national stations to begin the switch to the network system, nothing has changed. Ten national stations are still broadcasting directly from Jakarta to every area in Indonesia.

Ishadi SK, director of Trans TV, once questioned the differing treatment given to television and radio from their sibling, the print media. The answer to his question is frequency. Frequency scarcity is the reason, not just in Indonesia but all over the world, the broadcast media is always treated very differently from the print.

To be able to operate, unlike the print media that uses paper for its distribution, broadcast media uses frequencies that belong to the public.

The establishment of a magazine does not reduce the possibility for 100 other magazines to operate. But, when a television station is allocated a frequency it means that there are fewer frequencies in the spectrum available for other stations to use.

This is why an independent regulatory body like the Indonesian Broadcast Commission (KPI) is needed to ensure that these scarce frequencies are only given to stations that are committed to serving public interests above business interests.

One of the public interests that need to be protected is the right to diverse, educating and entertaining programs that reflect their social, cultural and political needs.

And it is the fulfillment of these exact rights that the current national-centralistic broadcast system fails to meet.

Today, all 10 national stations can reach almost every area in Indonesia just by using relay towers outside Jakarta. For more than 20 years, the people of Jayapura, Banjarmasin or Majene have been bombarded with programs flaunting the metropolis’ lifestyle and politics.

This system is not only insensitive to the lives of the suburban people but also stifles the media’s function as the fourth pillar of democracy. Because the media are so fixated in covering national and local Jakarta politics, political cases and crimes outside of the big cities are practically invisible.
The check and balance process of local governments are left to the print media to defend.

The current broadcast system also robs the local people from the economic benefit of their frequency.

Although national stations uses the local frequencies to broadcast their programs, taxes are only paid to Jakarta due to the fact that they are mainly broadcasting from Jakarta and only have relay towers in most areas.  

This is also why the network system becomes important to boosting local revenue. If frequencies are allocated and renewed locally, the local people benefit from the income taxes.

A lively local television industry can also be expected if the network system is implemented. As of today, local television industry is almost non-existent because of the harsh competition with the big national players and diminishing frequency availability.

Local businesses that could never afford to advertise on national television could start advertising their products on the local stations. A vibrant local advertising climate can help boost the local businesses and television industry as well.

These public interests are the rights that are guaranteed by the broadcasting law. The implementation of these interests has been stalled by KPI and the government. If the national television industry is not willing to make the change as mandated by the law, it is the state’s obligation to make sure that the supremacy of Indonesian law is upheld.

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Suggestions for Lingkar Muda

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).

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Mt. Merapi Recovery – Lingkar Muda

“One Community, One Pipe, One Indonesia” : This is the slogan of Lingkar Muda, a disaster recovery organization that was started by a group of friends on the night of Mt. Merapi’s first explosion on October 21, 2010. I followed the group for three days in December while I was on break from my university in Denpasar. I had been following the Merapi disaster on the news and – the development geek that I am – I itched to see it with my very own eyes.

Lilik Krismantaro, who also serves as one of two leaders of the Young Catholic Leaders movement and who lives in Yogyakarta, reached out to his network on Facebook the night of the first explosion.  Together with just a handful of other friends, most of them from the Krisna Proconorok Catholic youth network, they formed Lingkar Muda. Most of them learned how to run disaster management projects from their last volunteer stint in the 2006 Bantul earthquake recovery effort. “The Merapi recovery is small compared to Bantul,” said Krsimantaro. The 2006 earthquake, just a few kilometers south of the place where we were standing, killed over 600,000 people and caused billions of dollars of infrastructure damage.

During the first days of the movement, then just a group of friends, Lingkar Muda mobilized an outpour of donations from the Catholic churches in Central Java, including truckloads of used children’s clothes and toys, 2950 units (or about 11km) of plastic water pipes and a headquarters office located in downtown Yogyakarta. During the first and second month, when the mountain was on high alert and evacuations tallied up to the hundreds of thousands, Lingkar Muda concentrated on distributing supplies to evacuees.

Now, three weeks after evacuees returned from the refugee shelters, the organization consisting of about 100 volunteers and the organization is concentrating on recovery efforts. In particular, it is committed to providing pipes to villages whose clean drinking water sources were damagedd by the volcano debris.

On the first day of my visit, six of us (Lilik Krismantaro, Eko Berasitioz, Aris Arjuna, Yulius Kris, Johannas Pandu and I) went to do assessments of three villages who requested pipes from the organization. Each village organizes a small meeting for the representatives of Lingkar Muda who present to the interested beneficiaries (usually the heads of the household from the families whose houses experienced water shortage from the broken pipes). Then the farmers bring the Lingkar Muda representatives to the proposed water source (usually a mountain spring) and show them the damaged pipes. Then, the assessment team makes a final decision as to whether or not the village needed new pipes. Finally, if the assessment results in favor of new pipes for the candidate village, then Lingkar Muda would deliver them or the villagers would come to pick them up.

We visited  Dusun (12 km from the volcano in Dukun Kecamatan), Kewayuhan (10 km from the volcano in Tukun Kecamatan) and Getangan (7km form the volcano in Srumbung Kecamatan). Krismantaro facilitates the meetings and serves as the de facto leader of the assessment teams while Budi Eskitmat serves as the program coordinator in the Yogyakarta headquarter office.  Many of the volunteers who were there when I visited had been there for almost two months, since only a few days after the second explosion and worst explosion on November 5. Of the three sites, two received pipes. The third site did not demonstrate true need, as they were not experiencing a water shortage but were only in need of new pipes to be attached to the injection pipes that facilitate the speed of the water flow.

On the second day, I followed the team to deliver some pipes and then a truckload of clothes to an orphanage in the foothills of the volcano. On the third day, we visited a potential donor who would provide peanut seeds to plant in farms whose salak fruit plants were destroyed by the volcanic ash. Salak plants, albeit a crash crop that sells at higher prices than rice and vegetables, only bear fruit after one to three years maturity. In the meantime, the salak farmers are impoverished and must temporarily resort to growing other crops.

Moving forward, Lingkar Muda seeks to continue providing pipes in order to repair the drinking water shortage that still exists as well as expand its services based on their conversations with the affected villagers. These include starting a krupuk cottage industry, training salak farms how to grow different crops such as peanuts, reconnecting villages to the electric grid and providing farmers with tractors, seeds and fertilizers.

To learn more about Lingkar Muda or to make a donation, visit

Lingkar Muda asked me to let them see through my eyes, which in more formal terms, means to write recommendations for them. Stay tune for the next blog — I will be publishing them here.

Damaged Salak Fields



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Post-Disaster Land Grabs

SBY’s administration is happy to announce 12 families from the volcano-affected areas in Java have transmigrated to Kalimantan. But I am suspicious. Having lived in Bali for two months now, and being an immigrant myself, I get a sense that it might be quite a lofty goal for a farmer – who has lived his whole life in Java and has all his family in Java – to move to another island overnight. For people who live still traditional lives, place is more than one’s home, but one’s identity and livelihood.

Yet when whole villages are uprooted by natural disasters policymakers are forced to ask, “Where should the evacuees live?” Surely, the camp in a Padang or Yogyakarta stadium is no long-term solution. As it turns out, many evacuees do not return to their land.

I hope that critical minds realize that the recent pushes to relocate evacuees may be less than well-intentioned pleas to persuade irrational villagers. In the Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein argues that the shock of a natural disaster creates the rare opportunity for policymakers to implement radical free-market policies. Take a look at Klein’s description of the land grabs that occurred in the 2004 tsunami-hit coastal villages:

“All the tsunami-struck countries imposed “buffer zones” preventing villagers from rebuilding on the coasts, freeing up the land for increased development. (In Aceh, Indonesia, the zones were two kilometers wide, though the government was eventually forces to repeal the edict.)

A year after the tsunami, the respected NGO ActionAid, which monitors foreign aid spending, published the results of an extensive survey of fifty thousand tsunami survivors in five countries. The same patterns repeated everywhere: residents were barred from rebuilding, but hotels were showered with incentives; temporary camps were miserable militarized holding pens, and almost no permanent reconstruction had been done; entire ways of life were being extinguished. It concluded that the setbacks could not be chalked up to the usual villains of poor communication, underfunding or corruption. The problems were structural and deliberate: “Governments have largely failed in their responsibility to provide land for permanent housing,” the report concluded. “They have stood by or been complicit as land has been grabbed and coastal communities pushed aside in favor of commercial interests.”

For Klein, the worst case was the Maldives, where the Gayoom administration announced just one year after the evacuation of “un-safe islands”, that thirty-five of them, would be available to be leased to resorts for up to fifty years. Meanwhile, on the so-called “safe” islands, unemployment was rampant, and violence was breaking out between the newcomers and the original residents.
In the Maldives “the storm did such an effective job of clearing the beach, a process of displacement and gentrification that would normally unfold over years took place in a matter of days or weeks. What it looked like was hundreds of thousands of poor, brown-skinned people (the fishing people deemed “unproductive” by the World Bank) being moved against their wishes to make room for the ultra-rich, mostly light-skinned people (the “high-yield” tourists).”

I am not suggesting that Merapi evacuees should return and risk the unpredictability of Merapi’s eruptions. I am suggesting that there should be more recognition that the transmigration of the evacuees is not always the best option. Beware the hidden motives of policymakers who automatically suggest the relocation of evacuees in the name of safety.

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Disaster Management Reality Check

Indonesia is a disaster-prone place. Given the present lack of adequate preparation in many areas of natural disaster management, there has to be a comprehensive evaluation on disaster management in the country.

In Indonesia, twenty volcanoes are now on alert status across the country. In my Indonesian classes, one professor shared his experience of the eruption of Mt. Agung in 1963. I am reminded about how recent natural disasters are forcing Indonesians to take a hard look at what it means to live in the Pacific “Ring of Fire”.

Since its first eruption on October 17, the Mt. Merapi eruptions have killed 242, according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency and forced almost 400,000 people to take refuge at 639 sheltering points neighboring regencies.[1] People are fearful about their safety. It is normal to discuss the disasters have fallen, one after the other, beginning with the earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, the worst hit among several areas in different countries in December 2004.

However, Indonesians do not always blame the central government for lack of proper disaster preparation. During an English class at Udayana University in Denpasar, when asked if disaster-related deaths were preventable responses ranged from “The earth is no longer good” and “It is a sign of the apocalypse.” When asked if the students remembered ever practicing an evacuation drill, they responded no. It seems that few people question the government’s responsibility to provide disaster evacuation procedures and infrastructure.

The media has reinforced the idea that Indonesia’s situation on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” is to blame for the magnitude of the disasters.  The “natural factor” behind natural disasters is often used by Indonesian politicians to excuse any lack of disaster management and deny the incompetency of the government. But the magnitudes of the earthquakes that occur in Indonesia are similar to those that occur in Japan and New Zealand. Neighboring countries such as Singapore have found ways to deal with climate-related disasters through natural resource management and urban planning.

There are two factors which make natural disasters worse.  First, Indonesia is highly populated, so people are more likely to be affected.  Java is the most densely populated place in the world. While it is the size of England, it holds a population close to that of mainland United States.

Second, and more importantly, Indonesia suffers from failures in disaster management. Poor emergency preparation increases the number of victims than would otherwise have suffered in the presence of better prevention. Despite the installation of tsunami earl detection warning systems following the tsunami of 2004, the tsunami warning was canceled because the responsible officials did not have the capacity to maintain the early warning system that was built following the 2004 tsunami.[2] It is unfathomable that there would be no established early warning system in one of the islands that is most vulnerable to tsunamis. Consequently, over 400 people were killed by the high waves that submerged villages.

Some disasters are also human-induced and, as such, can be mitigated. Activists blame the flash floods in West Papua’s Wasior area in October, which claimed 111 lives, on the massive deforestation the converted land into mines and plantations. Despite being illegal, logging in West Papua’s natural forests has occurred at an alarming rate.[3] The government has denied allegations that deforestation caused the floods, blaming it instead on rain-level intensity.

Post-disaster, the government’s lack of disaster management capacity has exacerbated the situation for disaster survivors. NGO groups blamed the government for its sluggish relief efforts for Mentawai tsunami victims. “We don’t see the weather as an excuse for slow aid distribution. The main reasons are weak coordination and the lack of alternatives for operations in the field during extreme weather,” Koalisi Lumbung Derma charity coalition coordinator Khalid Saifullah told reporters on November 1.[4]

President Susilo Bambang Yudhono wants to avoid another high death count repeat in West Sumatra; a new government plans proposes the permanent removal residents from tsunami-prone areas. However, the government plan would be difficult given the customary systems that exist in Mentawai and elsewhere in the country.[5]

In the Mt. Merapi volcano camps, capacity is at ten times larger than expected. With the number of evacuees reaching 283,000 on November 8, many places, along with drinking water, public bathing, washing and toilet facilities, food, and health care are needed. Some of the several thousand who are packed into Yogyakarta’s Maguwharjo Stadium to facilitate distribution efforts are suffering from depression and complain about the lack of privacy.[6]

Indonesians should hold their leaders to more accountability. They should not settle for excuses that scapegoat the weather or fate. There must be an evaluation of the present disaster management systems and improvements must be made so that hundreds of people do not die every time there is a natural disaster.

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