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

Hubs and wires

Hubs and wires

Internet use in Indonesian NGOs is strengthening civil society

Yanuar Nugroho

   The nucleus of AirPutih’s operations in Aceh
   Yanuar Nugroho

Two days after the tsunami hit the northern tip of Sumatra on Boxing Day 2004, Yayasan AirPutih (airputih.or.id ) began working quietly, far from publicity, to reconstruct the communication backbone destroyed by the disaster. Using VHF/UHF radio, V-Sat and wireless technology, AirPutih restored communication in Aceh, making its first Internet broadcast on 30 December 2004. This was in spite of the radio silence policy imposed by the local military and government. Yayasan AirPutih also provided the first free satellite telephone and wireless Internet connection in Banda Aceh for humanitarian relief organisations working in the area and continued to do so until it ran out of money. In addition, Yayasan AirPutih played a vital role in establishing the first media centre (acehmediacenter.or.id ) which relayed to the world what happened at ‘ground zero’, channelled support and coordinated humanitarian aid. Without Yayasan AirPutih, the reconstruction of an information infrastructure and initial relief in Aceh after the disaster would have been impossible.

The urgent need to reconstruct Aceh’s information infrastructure, and in particular to provide Internet access, reflects the importance of this technology to the work of both Indonesian and foreign NGOs and aid organisations. Yet Internet use among Indonesian NGOs is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is only in the last decade or so that the Internet has became more widely available and the technology adopted by Indonesian NGOs. However, in that time, Internet use has had a significant impact on the organisations and their work.

Vital technology

In the early 1990s, INFID (the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development, infid.org ) invested significant funds to build the infrastructure which would provide Internet connection to activists and organisations in Indonesia’s democracy movement. The service provided by INFID’s internet service provider (ISP), NusaNet, was very simple: dial-up access at 9.6Kbps and encrypted email exchange. Despite its simplicity, NusaNet was considered safer than commercial ISPs, which could be monitored more easily by Indonesia’s military intelligence.

The availability of this technology enabled many organisations, groups and activists to exchange ideas and develop networks with other organisations and activists. A series of training programs on using the technology provided by NusaNet, conducted by INFID, WALHI (Indonesian Environment Forum, walhi.or.id ) and YLBHI (Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, ylbhi.or.id ) and attended by NGOs from across the archipelago, enabled activists from these organisations to develop personal links with like-minded groups. These links were crucial when it came to coordinating campaigns and protests in cities throughout Indonesia which helped consolidate the movement to challenge and eventually bring down Suharto’s authoritarian regime.

NusaNet was considered safer than commercial ISPs, which could be monitored more easily by Indonesia’s military intelligence

With the new freedoms of the post-Soeharto era, and the rapidly growing number of users, the Internet has facilitated a widening of ‘civic cyberspace’ in Indonesia. More social and political activities now utilise the Internet: from information about voting, social networking, to online discussions of globalisation. NGOs are actively taking part in these activities.

For example, the portal of Unisosdem (Social Democrat Union, unisosdem.org ) – an NGO which works in the area of democracy and political economy - was initially intended only for members and to store training materials for participants in its political training programs. However, the site now provides a wide range of information resources on issues as diverse as globalisation, the environment, politics and social justice which facilitate the organisation’s aims to educate and empower the wider community.

Similarly, the Centre for Electoral Reform (CETRO, cetro.or.id ), which conducts research, training, workshops and advocacy in the area of electoral reform, utilises its website as an ‘information portal’ providing information on topics such as voting, political parties, electoral legislation, as well as a database of women in parliament, and results of polling conducted by CETRO on a wide range of electoral issues.

Indonesian NGOs are also using the internet strategically and politically to enhance the work of their organisations. NGOs use the Internet to facilitate collaboration and networking within and between organisations. It is also used to mobilise support for NGO campaigns, including rallies, protests, voluntary work, donations and petitions. This is particularly effective when it is targeted at middle-class audiences, who are among the largest group of Internet users.

For example, YPBB (Foundation for Bioscience and Biotechnology Development, ypbb.terranet.or.id ), which promotes long-term environmental sustainability and the conservation of biodiversity, uses the Internet to support its education and community action programs and to mobilise support for its activities. Visitors to the site can find information on YPBB’s environmental awareness campaigns in schools and local communities, as well as information on its ecotourism initiatives and research the organisation has conducted on organic lifestyles and models for sustainable development at the local level.

The Internet also provides NGOs working on empowerment and development with alternative perspectives, broadening their understanding of the sectors and issues central to their work. For instance, ELSPPAT (Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development, elsppat.or.id ), which works in rural areas to promote and develop sustainable agricultural development and support the rights of disempowered farmers and rural communities, uses of the Internet to keep up with the latest issues and global perspectives on rural development.

The ready availability of information enables NGOs to conduct research into the issues with which they are concerned and to disseminate the results of their research more widely. For research-based NGOs like Yayasan AKATIGA (Akatiga Foundation, akatiga.org ), the Internet has been a valuable research tool, both for gathering information and for disseminating the results of this research to the public.

NGO campaigns through the Internet are particularly effective when they are targeted at middle-class audiences

Lastly, NGOs who work on advocacy use the Internet to help shape public opinion by acting as a mediator between groups with different views and promoting public engagement. The Institute for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, for example, uses its blog (ecosocrights.blogspot.com ) to disseminate information and stimulate discussion on economic, social and cultural rights and mobilise support for their advocacy efforts. The organisation is currently considered one of the most reliable sources on issues related to poverty and economic, social and cultural rights and its blog was recently listed as one of the 100 most-visited blogs in Indonesia.

Local to global

NGO participation in, and strategic use of, civic cyberspace has not only opened up opportunities for the public to become involved in socio-political activism. From the perspective of the organisations themselves, Internet use is facilitating a qualitative shift in the way NGOs look at themselves, their work and their relationships both with other NGOs and with the communities they serve. More specifically, using the Internet has enabled Indonesian NGOs to recognise that they are part of a global social movement concerned with global problems which are nonetheless rooted in local issues.

Yayasan Trukajaya (trukajaya.or.id ), for example, a Salatiga-based NGO which was established in 1996, had always seen itself as a local NGO. At the end of the 1990s, activists within Yayasan Trukajaya knew very little about the Internet. They only began using email in 2005. But in less than a year the Internet became vital to the organisation’s activities and networking. As its Executive Director Suwarto Adhi pointed out, intensive contacts with its partners in European countries through emails or webcam conferencing not only sustains support for the organisation but more importantly enables them to recognise that they are part of the global rural development movement.

Indonesian NGOs working on rural development issues are also going global. The Indonesian Farmer’s Union (SPI, spi.or.id ) is a member of La Via Campesina (The Road of the Peasants, viacampesina.org ), an international network which advocates reform of the rural sector. Members of this network are able to communicate with one another using Internet technologies. In doing so they are able to connect to local organisations working on the same issues around the world.

Using the Internet has also blurred the division between ‘development’ and ‘advocacy’ NGOs which has long been characteristic of the Indonesian NGO movement. Better access to information has changed the focus of many organisations, drawing them towards sectors and issues they had not previously considered.

Indro Surono, the program manager for ELSPPAT’s capacity building programs, explained that many NGOs which used to do advocacy work only now also carry out development work, and vice versa. He suggests that the Internet’s role in helping to develop networks of NGOs and allowing them ready access to information is reshaping the way these organisations see the issues they work on and the role of their organisation in addressing these issues.

For NGOs working in the area of rural development, Indro observes, information available on the Internet, as well as the national and international links it facilitates, enables them to better understand a range of increasingly complex issues. This provides NGOs with a variety of new and different strategies to address the challenges they face in their work. For example, rural development NGOs such as ELSPPAT, which previously concentrated on advocacy work, now also carry out economic development programs, such as providing micro-credit or holding training sessions on sustainable farming. Other NGOs which were initially focussed on rural development programs, such as Bina Swadaya (Foundation for Self-Reliant Community Development, binaswadaya.org ) or Yayasan Dian Desa (Dian Desa Foundation), are now also engaged to some extent in advocacy.

Civic cyberspace and organisational change

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   Personal relationships remain crucial to the way Indonesian NGOs work
   Yanuar Nugroho

The Internet is not just about networks of computers, wires and hubs, but about networks of people. NGOs, too, are about networks of individuals and communities who have common interests and concerns. The impact of Internet use in NGOs clearly goes beyond the technical advantages of ease of communication and ready access to information. But the problems and difficulties encountered by Indonesian NGOs in using the Internet are often rooted in its non-technological aspects. Trust, both in the technology and in other organisations, is key in networking, regardless of the sophistication of the technologies being used.

For example, NGO staff routinely confirm via telephone that colleagues in other organisations have received their emails. This is not just about an apparent lack of confidence in the reliability of email technology. Rather, it reflects the importance of close personal links between activists to effective networking. In Indonesian NGOs, the adoption and use of the Internet is as much about the process of developing relationships as it is about communicating a message. Moreover, the effectiveness of an NGO is not solely a product of the sophistication of the technology it uses. Rather, it is the quality of its relationships with other organisations and the communities it serves, which no technology can replace.

Internet use in Indonesian NGOs has strengthened both Indonesian civil society and the organisations themselves. Indonesian NGOs’ awareness of the transformative nature of the Internet will enable them to both utilise and shape the technology in a way which continues to expand and enhance Indonesian civil society.     ii

Yanuar Nugroho (yanuar.nugroho@manchester.ac.uk) is a Research Associate with the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research at the University of Manchester. He is also the Senior Advisor of Business Watch Indonesia (BWI) and a member of Uni Sosial Demokrat.

Inside Indonesia 95: Jan-Mar 2009

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