Indonesians are now better fed and housed than at any time since independence sixty years ago. International aid has contributed to that. Both Indonesia and ideas on how best to help it have changed greatly over that time. Early aid was based on charitable notions about feeding the poor. In the 1960s many saw the ‘green revolution’ in agriculture as a new saviour. Later came gradual recognition that aid programs must also deal with the political and social environment in which they operate. Critics often say aid fails to combat social and environmental problems, or even exacerbates them. This edition explores some of these ideas.
The least controversial form of aid is the humanitarian response to emergencies, so prominent recently in Aceh. The tsunami relief operations demonstrated the potential for aid to relieve suffering. They also showed how dependent aid agencies are upon government goodwill — their presence was conditional on not intervening in the military conflict in the province. Should not aid agencies use opportunities arising from a natural disaster to support and advocate resolution of social conflicts?
Many aid programs are controversial because of the way they are implemented and the inequitable distribution of benefits. Large scale infrastructure such as roads, dams and industrial developments as well as social service programs, often create social conflict because they fail to consult affected communities. Economic development through private investment and government programs may deal with poverty, but it is unlikely to promote much social justice or equality. The comparatively small programs of NGOs will have greatest impact when they focus on social change and promote democratic social movements. This may well threaten established power structures; such aid was almost impossible to implement during the years of Suharto’s undemocratic regime.
For many years western governments grew more inward looking and defensive and aid programs languished. But that is now changing. The massive global response to the tsunami, and recent calls from major European leaders for increased aid and debt relief, suggest world opinion is changing. To be effective any increase in aid should promote social justice and democracy as well as reduce poverty. That means programs must embrace new and more ambitious goals. Aid cannot be divorced from the political process.
Bob Muntz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Guest editor of Inside Indonesia and a member of the IRIP Board.