Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

When village development fails

Published: May 09, 2017
Faulty administrative procedures led to the misuse of village development funds in Papua

On a bright Wednesday afternoon in a village in Papua Province, I was trailing after Toni, a sub-district facilitator of Indonesia’s massive National Community Empowerment Program, PNPM. He showed me the various new amenities and roads built with funds from the program. When I took pictures of a shiny new toilet block, Toni admitted that the toilets often remained unused. He called the unused toilet blocks ‘development monuments’: they look very nice but do not serve a practical purpose. 

As the new Village Law aims to make large funds available for village development, it is important to reflect on the experience of the PNPM. This program served as inspiration for the Village Law. As under the new Village Law, over the last eight years the PNPM has enabled villages to spend quite large budgets on local infrastructure budgets. Moreover, the PNPM had adopted various measures to promote citizen participation in the decision-making about the use of the budgets. Why then did I encounter so many PNPM ‘monuments’ that were hardly used?  

An impressive yet sometimes ineffective program

Under the PNPM, funds from the central and provincial government were disbursed directly to villages. To acquire these funds, villages were required to develop proposals in open, deliberative meetings. These meetings were organised and supported by PNPM facilitators, who also oversaw the execution of the projects. In contrast to the provisions of the new Village Law, the facilitators operated largely independently of village heads and the village apparatus. 

The PNPM allowed the funds to be used for a wide range of needs. In practice about 70 per cent of the budgets of the chosen projects related to local infrastructure such as roads, toilets, markets, posyandu (health posts), pustu (community health centres) and village halls. The program reached an impressive 87 per cent of all villages in Papua – arguably the only government program that reaches such a large group of rural Papuans. The PNPM also succeeded in executing thousands of infrastructure projects. 

Yet, many of these toilets blocks, markets and village halls now sit idle. According to one estimate from AKATIGA in 2011, up to 67 per cent of PNPM-funded facilities in Papua are hardly used. In my own study of 12 villages in rural Papua, I found that on average over half of all projects ended up as unused ‘monuments’. I also regularly came across projects that end up being used for other purposes: toilet blocks were turned into motorcycle garages; empty market places were used as hangouts for the local youth; and a community health centre became a village hall. 

The need for easy projects

One explanation for all these underutilised infrastructure projects is that PNPM facilitators face incentives to promote ‘easy’ projects. As I observed in my study, the PNPM facilitators tend to avoid more complex projects that might cause delays. For example, when I asked a facilitator why he built a new toilet block in a village when an existing one could simply be repaired, he answered that such a project enabled him to spend more money and use more manpower. In other words, building new toilet blocks would make it easier for him to meet his administrative targets. 

For the same reason PNPM facilitators developed a preference for a specific type of facilities. Toni explained to me he often tried to direct the community to build infrastructures that were ‘convenient’ for him. He preferred to build facilities that had been built before: ‘I do not want to start from scratch. I will use the previous template then re-adjust and make the revision. This is easier and saves a lot of time’. If he would build a new facility or try a new design ‘there will be uncertainty and I am worried that we will not be able to finish it on time’.  

Unused toilet block. Source: Yulia Indri Sari

Papua’s complex terrain – its inaccessibility, pervasive conflict and social hierarchies – partly explain this preference for such easy projects. For example, new toilet blocks often ended up being unused because there was no water supply. Arranging and maintaining water supply can be quite a challenge. In one village with unused toilets I asked Tony why he did not install pipes to channel water in from the nearby river. Toni told me that this was difficult because the pipes ran across other tribes’ territories. Unless the villagers provide these tribes with compensation (a pig being the preferred form), the pipes were under threat of being damaged. Toni explained that even if he could broker and agreement between the leaders of the tribes, other members would also start to ask for compensation. Toni admitted he did not have enough time spend time to facilitate dialogue between the competing tribes: ‘It is too much for me, I do not have time and energy to work on this. I need to conduct more meetings and fill in the paperwork or otherwise I do not get paid’. 

Another example concerns pustu. These also often remain unused because of the unavailability of nurses to run them. To make a pustu operational, PNPM facilitators would have to cooperate with the health agency of the district government to ensure the availability of a nurse. A facilitator told me that he helped the village head to send a letter requesting a nurse. He received no response. I asked the facilitator why they asked this only after the pustu was built. He answered, ‘I do not [communicate with the health agency] because it takes time. Most of the times they will not respond.’ Then why build the pustu? ‘Maybe someday there will be a nurse. Therefore, [the aim] for me now is only to build a pustu, just to achieve the target.’ 

An administrator or a facilitator?

Given the participatory set-up of the PNPM, why do villagers fail to pressure these facilitators to ensure the funded projects serve their needs? The short answer is that the participation of villagers in decision-making is in practice often quite limited. When facilitators visit villages, they often choose to limit their interaction to specific village members, such as tribe leaders, heads of villages, or community members with construction skills. As Toni explained, ‘That is enough, as long as they accept my presence and agree on my proposed facilities, the process would go smoothly’. Toni usually avoids spending time with other groups in the village because this would prolong the funding disbursement process. He pointed out that ‘it takes time to talk to people. The more people involved, the more disagreements come up. This will prolong the process.’ Thus, although the PNPM was designed to be participatory, in practice the decision-making process in Papua is reduced to a few ritualised meetings between facilitators and village elites. The focus on a smooth and timely execution of projects erodes the possibility of having meaningful deliberation and participation from villagers.

Yet it would be wrong to put all the blame for the many unused village facilities on the local PNPM administrators. Toni is considered to be a good facilitator, regularly praised for his capacity to submit and finish projects in time. The function of facilitators like Toni is a response to the way in which the PNPM program is administrated. PNPM facilitators face a set of incentives that leave them with limited options. Their work is evaluated through fixed administrative criteria. The responsible ministry, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHa), focuses its evaluation and oversight on budget spending and financial audits. The actual substantive impact is of less concern. For example, in the required reporting to MoHa the functionality and utility of the build infrastructure – such as whether the toilets actually have running water – is not considered. What matters is that the budgets are spent, and that there is a visible construction. 

To fulfill these evaluative requirements, the facilitators need to do a lot. They need to oversee the completion of various projects, ensure that all the required participatory meetings have taken place, and submit all the necessary financial documents and progress reports in a timely manner. Failure to execute projects or to submit these reports on time will impact the salary and promotion prospects of facilitators. This explains why PNPM facilitators prefer easy projects even if they remain unused. These incentives have turned facilitators into administrators.

Lessons for the implementation of the Village Law?

Obviously, not all PNPM-funded projects turned into monuments. I came across rainwater reservoirs that were fully operational, pustu staffed by responsible and attentive nurses, useful new roads and even toilets with running water. These successes were possible when facilitators went beyond administrative procedures and reached out to communities. In these cases, communities also knew how to use and maintain the facilities.  

Village development funds are misused when administrative procedures become overpowering. Local leaders – whether facilitators or, under the Village Law, the village heads – need to be motivated to focus on practical solutions rather than merely spending budgets. And meaningful community participation is important. The unused ‘development monuments’ now dotting Papua’s landscape are a strong reminder of what happens when a local development program fails to engage with village communities in a meaningful way. 

Yulia Indri Sari (yulia.sari@anu.edu.au) is a PhD candidate at Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 128: Apr-Jun 2017{jcomments on}

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