May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

A more efficient approach to social welfare?


Dinna Wisnu and Frans Supiarso

About one-and-a-half months before Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was inaugurated as the seventh president of the Republic of Indonesia, a relaxed meeting was held in an old house off Situbondo Street in Central Jakarta. About 40 women and men filled the room chatting about policy options for the Jokowi administration. All were senior academics and practitioners who had recently been recruited to the so-called ‘Transition Team’, the group responsible for tracking campaign promises and identifying quick wins immediately after the presidential inauguration.

President Jokowi and Vice President Jusuf Kalla entered the room. The president served himself some food and sat amongst the team, chatting with those around him. The central message from Jokowi that night was: ‘We want you to help identify programs with concrete outcomes and clear targets; simple and implementable. Explain what to do, how to do it and what is needed. Avoid multiple interpretations of policy proposals. Also, we can’t depend solely on the state budget; so please help figure out other resources available to support our programs.’

Jokowi started his presidency as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are coming to an end. Indonesia, along with rest of the world, is considering alternative frameworks for understanding and implementing development programs. The meeting with the Transition Team suggests that President Jokowi might approach social welfare issues in a post-MDG world in a very different style to his predecessors.

Traditional approaches to supporting social welfare in Indonesia

Under President Suharto’s New Order, the government pursued social welfare goals, such as improving maternal and child health, increasing enrolment in schools or combatting poverty, by creating national programs run by the central government. This approach worked well under a centralised system of governance, especially when combined with authoritarian leadership. This approach could no longer be used after the New Order ended in 1998. At that time, Indonesia was struggling with the consequences of the Asian Financial Crisis. It also experienced significant political change during the reformasi period, including the introduction of decentralisation, which saw power distributed to the regions.

By the time the MDGs were introduced in 2000, the central government no longer had sole authority to initiate social welfare programs, which had an impact on the effectiveness of national programs. For example, the central government’s goals to reduce maternal and infant mortality relied on the development of puskesmas (community health centres) and the development of a village midwife program. But after decentralisation, the funding for the infrastructure to facilitate these programs came from the local level. Following direct elections of the heads of districts and provinces, nearly all regions prioritised the creation of jamkesda (regional health assistance programs) over improving public facilities. As a result the central government’s initiatives were far less effective than hoped.

Under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), the MDGs became a priority for cabinet-members and the public. President SBY attended international events declaring Indonesia’s serious intention to reach the MDG targets. He declared the strategy ‘pro-growth’, ‘pro-poor’, ‘pro-jobs’ and, in 2007, ‘pro-environment’. To ensure that the regions achieved their targets, he incorporated the MDGs into large-scale national plans, and built systems and procedures around them. These included the Masterplan for Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia's Economic Development (MP3EI), the Master Plan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Poverty Reduction (MP3KI), the Multi Stakeholder Consultation Forum for Development Planning (Musrenban) and the Medium Term Development Plan (RPJMN).

SBY allocated funding from the central government’s budget to the regions. This money could be used to support national priorities or to run development programs as advised by the central government. He found, however, that implementation was challenging, so he invited many individuals to work as his special aides and on task forces to monitor program implementation. For example, SBY assigned a Special Envoy and taskforce to work on the MDGs. The team was made up of Professor Nila Moeloek, Special Envoy for the MDGs, and HS Dillon, the Special Envoy for Poverty Alleviation. In 2010 Yudhoyono also formed a National Team to Alleviate Poverty (called TNP2K). The problem with this approach was that there were bottlenecks at the national level and overlapping tasks and authorities. The funding for social welfare was small relative to subsidies (especially the fuel subsidy), and was spread across many ministries and offices. The hierarchy of program planning failed to bring grassroots ideas to the top. Instead, it created competition across villages, and between villages and cities. Initiatives from villages often were excluded or ignored because they did not fit with the top-down approach to development. This ‘bureaucratisation of poverty’ was driven by the assumption that the same solution would work for very diverse circumstance across Indonesia.

Post-MDG challenges for Jokowi

Social welfare has been at the top of Jokowi’s agenda since he began his campaign for president. His slogan, ‘building Indonesia from the periphery’, reflected his wish for people living far from the capital to enjoy the benefits of a growing Indonesia and for the poor to have their basic rights fulfilled. Jokowi’s agenda to empower villages and to make villages central actors in eradicating poverty is based on his belief that every element in the Republic of Indonesia must undergo a ‘revolusi mental’ (mental revolution).

Jokowi also clearly wants to adopt a different style to his predecessors. He wants efficient teams. He wants his ministers to multi-task and work energetically. He cares less about creating systems or procedures but wants quick outcomes. He wants villages to lead other villages and cities to improve public service performance. He wants to stop having the government design and lead program implementation and start engaging more with civil society. The Transition Team was formed, in part, to help him achieve these goals. His vision was for the team to identify achievable targets so that ministers could hit the ground running with confidence.

Jokowi’s priorities may overlap with a post-MDGs agenda but he did not formulate his vision with this international development framework in mind. He is a practical man who cares more about ending poverty and helplessness as he sees it than about considering how he may fit in the international collegium of leaders.

Given what we know about Jokowi, we can expect both positive outcomes and some challenges. On a positive note, we can expect Jokowi to take quick action, to hear what people want and to develop programs that respond to those needs. He is not a ceremonial person and he is very determined. In an ideal world, where everybody (especially in the bureaucracy) could keep up with his pace and share his passion, his programs might produce their desired outcomes.

Unfortunately, adjusting to the realpolitik of governing a country as complex as Indonesia may also be complicated. Firstly, a very determined person like Jokowi may become frustrated with the many things he has to consider prior to deciding on a policy, especially because he faces fierce opposition within parliament as well as from within his own party. So much so that he may take shortcuts to speed up the policy-making process. If doing so violates certain laws and procedures, he may find himself in trouble.

For example, when the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) ruled the country in 2001-2004 under President Megawati Sukarnoputri, it was split on policy preferences. As a result, a dozen famous politicians were fired in 2005 for driving a reform movement within the party. Jokowi is bound to take controversial policy directions, including on cutting the fuel subsidy, a policy which has been rejected by politicians from his own political party. This may challenge Jokowi’s social capital to govern. Of course, this depends on where the support of the chief of PDIP, Megawati Sukarnoputri, lies.

Secondly, Jokowi faces a serious challenge in providing access to social welfare given major challenges in the supply side of quality service delivery (hospitals, schools, roads, electricity etc) and in citizen identification. Jokowi will need to ensure these issues are remedied just as fast as the creation of social welfare programs. In the past, the central government initiated programs without considering solutions to the limited access to quality public facilities. For the most part, the central government was trapped by limited financial resources due to large subsidies, especially for fuel.

Finally, the state budget remains very tight and making changes will involve political bargains. Jokowi may want to engage private capitalists to support the government’s agenda but he may risk allegations of receiving graft from certain interest groups.

All in all, we should be confident that Jokowi wants to reverse Indonesia’s fortunes in terms of social welfare. He may not talk in post-MDG terms but he is committed to using the resources available to him, including civil servants and his campaign promises, to make a difference to quality public services. He may find his ability to manage pressures from the opposition tested, and with social welfare improvement at the heart of Jokowi’s image, we may see erratic implementation of his vision. Let’s hope his pragmatic approach and focus on getting things done fulfil the high expectations he has set for his first term.

Dinna Wisnu ( is Associate Professor at and co-founder of the Paramadina Graduate School of Diplomacy. She has been a consultant for the government and non-government organisations (NGOs) on various public policy programs including on healthcare, social protection and diplomacy.

Frans Supiarso ( is a doctoral student in the Social Welfare Department at the University of Indonesia. His research is about labour and smallholders in sustainable palm oil.

Inside Indonesia 119: Jan-Mar 2015{jcomments on}

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