Nov 14, 2018 Last Updated 6:23 AM, Nov 5, 2018

Australia's response

Published: Sep 22, 2007


Beyond humanitarian assistance, should our aid program stress 'governance' or 'human rights'? Actually, both.

Philip Eldridge

There are many different ways of perceiving Indonesia's 'crisis', with many corresponding Australian responses. But the extent of human suffering, social and economic disruption experienced by the Indonesian people is undeniable. And there is widespread agreement that the humanitarian crisis and political reform must be confronted interdependently.

Such a convergence between the need for humanitarian aid and political reform offers real opportunities for change in Indonesia. But given the great uncertainty of the whole situation, and the need for action and balance across many fronts, it is important that no-one pushes their diagnoses and prescriptions to extremes, insisting on false choices between government and non-government, macro and micro level action, short-term emergency relief and longer term development, incremental programs and deeper structural change.

While everyone must specialise, we can now see how, for example, seemingly obscure issues of financial management can impact at the base of society. On the other hand, while holistic solutions are essential, these can too easily paralyse specific action on any front.

Nevertheless, there are important differences in the way various groups perceive the connection between politics and economics. A useful guide to these differences is to compare 'governance' and human rights approaches.

Governance agendas focus on issues of legal due process, accountability and transparency, open and honest elections, efficient public administration and economic management, systems and structures supportive of the conduct of commerce according to clear market rules.

By comparison, human rights principles are more normative and universal, emphasising the dignity and the physical, social and cultural well-being of the human person.

The 1993 UN Vienna Declaration asserted the indivisibility of political and legal rights from economic, social and cultural rights, often artificially divided by both earlier Cold War and ongoing 'East versus West' and 'North versus South' rhetoric.

Here my aim is to clarify means and ends, rather than setting up yet another false dichotomy of the kind I warned against earlier. It would also be wrong to see the Australian government as exclusively pursuing governance, and NGOs as entirely committed to human rights. The Australian government combines the two in sometimes confusing ways. NGOs, while basically supportive of human rights values, often find legalistic and prescriptive aspects of human rights agendas in conflict with their core participatory and voluntarist concepts of partnership.

There are many obvious points of compatibility between governance and human rights concepts. Sound structures of law, government and commerce are essential to achieving human rights. But notions of justice and mutual obligation, closely linked to rights, appear to be lacking from governance models, whose language has in part been captured to serve goals of neo-liberal economics and to justify International Monetary Fund (IMF) packages of doubtful value to Indonesia.

Conversely, a thoroughgoing human rights approach would accord basic health, nutrition, education and employment opportunities a central place, alongside civil and political rights. Requirements on signatory states to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) to 'respect, protect and fulfil' such rights place clear obligations on both Australia and Indonesia.


Indonesia's experience shows the shallowness of earlier development efforts, in face of deep-rooted poverty structures. Despite acknowledged, though often exaggerated improvements in basic indicators for the majority under Suharto, concentration of wealth at the top end of Indonesian society produced a too narrow base to survive full exposure to international market regimes.

The crisis faced by Indonesia's poor - again the large majority - has deepened on all major fronts. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that about 100 million Indonesians are in danger of falling below the poverty line in 1999, and more than twenty million are unemployed as a result of falling demand and production.

Growing malnutrition among children carries real dangers of their suffering long-term brain damage. The FAO has further projected an increase of 47% in rice import requirements for 1999 compared with its forecast in April, though recent news may suggest a partial recovery.

The effectiveness of Australia's contribution will in large measure depend on both the efforts of the international community and sustained 'political will' by Indonesia. The spirit in which it is given will also affect future relations. While the wisdom of Australian efforts to soften IMF conditionalities has been questioned by many Indonesians seeking political change, assertions of solidarity in hard times ('in for the long haul... not a fair weather friend' etc) by Australian leaders seem to have been mostly well received, as they have been backed up by solid financial and other support.

However, the rather didactic tone accompanying recent suggestions of a new Australian leadership role in overcoming the regional crisis requires modifying towards a language of dialogue if effective cooperation is to be maintained.


Australian government responses have largely followed the 'governance' approach, though tempered by a considerable humanitarian spirit. Many new programs relate to statistical data gathering, financial and economic management in both public and private sectors, while new fields of technical assistance and professional exchange are opened up.

Given the overall tight budgetary climate, increases in financial allocations to Indonesia have been significant. Australia's annual pledge to the World Bank sponsored Consortium Group for Indonesia (CGI) rose from AU$74 million in July 1997 to AU$120 million in July 1998. Additionally, Indonesia may win up to half of a new AU$6m Asia Crisis Fund open to competitive bidding within the official aid agency AusAid. Flexibility has also been extended to local counterpart costs, which have risen by up to 100%.

AusAid has joined with the World Bank in supporting a scholarship scheme for secondary school students, aimed at keeping them at school during hard times. But the mass of poor children never proceed beyond primary level, while basic nutrition programs are essential to maintaining school attendance. Many local groups and small NGOs are either unaware of or are unable to access such schemes. Monitoring of World Bank programs has now become a major concern, not least to the Bank itself, particularly with regard to lower level distribution channels.

Drought relief and food aid have been stepped up, both directly and through NGOs, together with ongoing programs in the field of water supply and agriculture. Technical assistance is being supplied to programs coordinated by Indonesia's National Planning Institute (Bappenas) and the World Bank to design and monitor labour intensive works programs in four eastern Indonesian provinces, including drought relief programs.

At the same time, Australian exports of wheat and cotton will benefit from higher export insurance cover up to $900 million. Finally, in responding across a wider front, it appears that AusAid will maintain its long-term commitment to Eastern Indonesia, one of Indonesia's poorest regions, where experience, infrastructure and relationships have been steadily built up.

Beyond government

There has been an encouraging range of responses from semi- government and non-government groups, partly supported from AusAid funds. In the area of legal and human rights, AusAid has supported the Asian Forum of National Human Rights Institutions through the (Australian) Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), which provides the Secretariat. The Forum is an important vehicle for cooperation between HREOC and Indonesia's National Human Rights Commission.

The newly established Centre for Democratic Institutions will emphasise exchanges between practitioners in fields such as public administration, electoral practice and constitutional law.

The Australian Legal Resources Group, acting as funding arm for the International Commission of Jurists, cooperates with Indonesian NGOs and members of the judiciary in evaluations, exchanges and training. Administrative law and judicial ethics have been selected as key areas. Transparency International Australia is working with Indonesian NGOs towards a 'national integrity' workshop ahead of elections due in May 1999.

Space does not allow coverage of efforts across many fields, while some groups, on the advice of Indonesian partners, prefer to avoid publicity. Media is an emerging field of cooperation. Despite long standing links on the labour front, effective cooperation between Indonesian NGOs and the international union movement has yet to be established. Here, a large influx of US aid funds may distort goals of labour and democratic organisation more generally.

Smaller scale, but significant programs featured in the recent Australian Council For Overseas Aid (ACFOA) workshop included self-help groups working directly with the urban poor, assisted by Australian and New Zealand expatriates in Indonesia and individuals based in Australia. Some young Australians have been inspired by the generosity of Indonesians amidst their own poverty to conduct a round Australia cycle fund-raising tour.

My conclusion is both practical and theoretical. In action terms, Indonesia's crisis is multi-faceted, with opportunities for cooperation across the full spectrum of Australian and Indonesian life and society. Such efforts can and do make a difference provided they are contextualised and undertaken in a spirit of partnership.

Aims underlying my more political advocacy of a human rights approach - yet to be fully developed in Australia's regional relations - include: (1) balancing more technocratic aspects of the 'governance' agenda with an ethos of rights, justice and mutual obligation; (2) reinforcing integration and 'indivisibility' between politico-legal and socio-cultural- economic spheres of action; and (3) strengthening holistic perspectives of the Australia-Indonesia partnership in overcoming poverty.

Dr Eldridge is Honorary Research Associate, Department of Government, University of Tasmania. He is currently researching Australian human rights policies in Southeast Asia.

Inside Indonesia 57: Jan-Mar 1999

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