Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Back to the drawing board


NGOs are having to come to terms with the demands of the governance agenda

Ben Davis

   Don’t elect rotten politicians
   Image from Transparency International’s Indonesia website

In New Order Indonesia, advocacy NGOs were known for their role in fighting for democracy and waging campaigns about labour, women, indigenous communities and poverty reduction. In many ways, they were the pillars of Indonesian civil society, strong enough to withstand government repression and to direct critical advocacy campaigns at Suharto’s authoritarian regime.

Since the fall of Suharto, a new watchdog agenda focused on ‘transparency’ and ‘good governance’ has given many advocacy NGOs a new lease of life. Instead of criticising the government for limiting democratic freedoms as they did under the New Order, in the post-Suharto era they seek to combat corruption and promote open and accountable practices.

This has not simply been a case of ‘business as usual’. Post-Reformasi Indonesia offers advocacy NGOs and activists a wide new range of options, including much better opportunities for direct political engagement. Advocacy NGOs engage in dialogue with political parties and are often invited to assist with policy formation at various levels of government. At the same time, however, calls for greater transparency and accountability on the part of politicians and bureaucrats have shifted the spotlight onto NGOs’ own practices. In other words, advocacy NGOs now face the challenge of making sure they measure up to the good governance agenda they promote.

The governance agenda

The governance agenda came to dominate the political scene in Indonesia after Suharto’s resignation in 1998. The year before, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 had exposed the shaky economic foundations of the New Order. Good governance became a bridge between local NGO activists frustrated with the lack of economic and political reform and foreign donors keen to make Indonesia more accountable. For example, in the political arena, election monitoring and other forms of civil society participation have been supported by – and sometimes initiated in response to – readily available foreign aid dollars. As a result, many advocacy NGOs now promote ‘good governance’, monitoring government institutions and lobbying officials, instead of concentrating on oppositional politics.

This has not simply been a case of ‘business as usual.

The highly respected Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) is one of the standard-bearers of this new governance agenda. Its main role is to investigate specific cases of corruption, collusion and nepotism (KKN) by naming and shaming politicians, and to promote legal reform. As Danang Widoyoko, ICW’s Deputy Coordinator, commented in an interview in 2007, ‘our organisation institutionalised the anti-corruption movement, which is long term’.

Set up by Teten Masduki in 1998 as an institutional whistle-blower, ICW has adopted a highly successful watchdog approach to advocacy. It played a significant role in organising the national anti-corruption campaign, promoted witness-protection legislation and monitored the presidential elections. Significantly, ICW has also worked with the ministry for human affairs in the preparation of a bill on political violence in 2007 – a level of engagement with government that would have been almost inconceivable under Suharto. ICW was a key force behind the institutionalisation of the anti-corruption movement through the formation of the Corruption Eradication Commission in December 2003.

As Danang observed, ‘Nowadays ICW is … invited by the department of internal affairs to help with revising the amendment to the law on political parties, the election law, the election commission law. We are also regularly invited by the parliament (DPR) to give them … inside information and knowledge about corruption. I suppose ICW acts as an expert for the government.’ This new role represents a significant departure from NGO strategies during the New Order, when they avoided persecution by keeping their distance from the state.

Transparency International (TI) is another NGO that advocates good governance practices. However, it sees systemic change – through education and change in the political culture – as the solution to corruption in Indonesia. The secretary-general of TI’s Indonesian branch, Rizal Malik, argues that advocacy NGOs must develop a deeper understanding of the international context in which they operate if they are to succeed. So while, like ICW, TI has taken advantage of the anti-corruption movement on a domestic level, it has done so by engaging directly with the transnational movement against corruption.

TI is best known in Indonesia for the research it conducts on corruption. In line with its broader objectives, the Indonesian branch emphasises its independent approach to monitoring transparency and accountability in both major business and local and central government institutions. For example, it produces a corruption perception index that examines the nature and severity of corruption in different parts of Indonesia, and compares its findings with surveys conducted in other countries. The reports are published in local and international media. TI also monitors the national parliament and the financial reporting of political parties at both the local and national levels, and has created a national integrity system designed to reduce corruption at the local level. Importantly, together with other civil society organisations Transparency International is designing a code of ethics for monitoring organisations for the 2009 national elections. The work of TI, although not as directly antagonistic towards politicians as that of ICW, has brought the issue of corruption to the forefront of political debate.


Like ICW and TI, many other advocacy NGOs founded after the fall of Suharto have taken advantage of funding available for the promotion of the good governance agenda, recognising the importance of monitoring corruption and promoting transparency to ensure that democratic reforms can proceed.

These NGOs play an important role in calling the government and business to account, especially in the area of corruption and election monitoring. But at the same time, their focus on good governance raises questions about their own arrangements. NGOs demand that political parties be accountable, yet many observers continue to question NGO priorities and the implications those priorities have for how they operate and how they spend their money. As Laode Ida from the Indonesian Forum for NGO Financial Accountability observed, ‘These days there are many dodgy NGOs that are just project hunters. They are only concerned with chasing projects … how can they criticise the government for good governance if they themselves are involved in projects that have bad governance’.

NGOs play an important role in calling the government and business to account, especially in the area of corruption and election monitoring.

Criticisms such as these are not made only by those outside NGO circles. Many NGO activists recognise the challenges that accountability presents for their organisations. Asked how good governance has impacted upon advocacy NGOs, Bivitri Susanti, the Executive Director of The Centre of Law and Policy in Indonesia, commented: ‘For me it is rather interesting that after the fall of Suharto we have such an open space; a new playing field, but now there are other factors that limit our engagement … we still depend on our foreign donors’ money.’

One way NGO activists have tried to deal with these pressures has been to actively seek other sources of funding. Some NGOs – like the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) – have sought funding from a variety of sources, including the government, corporate social responsibility programs and tax-deductible donations, after losing foreign funding. This strategy certainly means that they cannot be accused of being foreign agents. But it raises new questions about the transparency of funding relationships with local donors and about distance from government.

Other organisations are trying to counter criticisms about NGO accountability by making NGOs themselves the focus of their monitoring, or by publishing their funding sources. For example, YAPPIKA (formerly the Indonesian Foundation to Strengthen Civil Society Participation, Initiatives and Partnerships) created a Civil Society Index that lists NGOs and gives details of their funding structures and aims. Other organisations, like ICW, list their funding sources on their homepage. ICW also publishes information about its funding sources annually in a national newspaper.

A further group of NGOs have implemented non-monetary strategies to improve their accountability. For example, in 2002, The Institute for Social and Economic Research, Education and Information (LP3ES) began developing a code of ethics. This code, which has been since signed by 252 NGOs, is designed to increase local NGOs’ accountability to Indonesian civil society as well as to donors. One of the requirements of the code is that information pertaining to their mission, membership, activities and funding is available for public viewing. In another example, DEMOS is structured as an association rather than a foundation – the legal form traditionally adopted by NGOs – in an attempt to create more democratic internal forms of governance.

These measures reflect the good governance agenda the organisations promote. They allow NGOs to distance themselves from their foreign counterparts and from local NGOs that have yet to recognise the importance of good governance in their internal procedures. The increased focus on and reporting of NGOs’ internal processes has also given donors and aid organisations the information they need in order to be more selective when developing local partnerships.

Looking to the future

The emergence of the good governance agenda has created many new winners and losers among the NGO community. The winners are renovating their organisational structures in response to new demands, while those who ignore these demands are fighting to maintain their position. Some of the prominent advocacy NGOs of the New Order – such as LBH – have barely survived the new demands of a more democratic Indonesia.

The continuing focus on governance, and the fact that elections are around the corner, mean that advocacy NGOs will continue to play a vital monitoring role, but adaptability is a necessary characteristic in the brave new world in which they find themselves. In the words of Teten Masduki, ‘NGOs must continue to change and adapt themselves. Advocacy will continue as long as there is a cause. NGOs will preserve the gap between civil society and the parties, but NGOs will have to change.’   ii

Ben Davis (beno_di_indo@yahoo.co.id) completed honours in Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney in 2007, where he wrote a thesis on advocacy NGOs.

Inside Indonesia 93: Aug-Oct 2008

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