Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Myth of the effective little NGO

Nori Andriyani

In November 1995 a small women's organisation, Yayasan Perempuan Mardika (YPM), was dissolved. Perhaps it was the first Non- Government Organisation (NGO) to be legally dissolved. The event was all the more unusual because it happened at a time when NGOs were mushrooming as a reaction to the injustices of the Indonesian New Order government.

Instead of producing expressions of concern and solidarity, the dissolution of YPM became a source of malicious gossip in the NGO community. Rather than dodging the gossip and grieving over the dissolution of something that was precious to my own ideals, I decided to write about the events.

As I write this paper, I feel close to a breakdown. What was left of my rational mind and idealism was telling me to take positive action such as writing about my experience, so that others could learn from it. Maybe then can change be endeavoured. I hesitated many times for fear of being laughed at, most of all knowing that I am exposing more of my own and the movement's failure. But continuous support from my good friends gave me spirit to write about events of the past few months.


The mid 1980's to early 1990's was the heyday of the student movement. I was also immersed in that movement. During my first year at university, enrolled at the department of sociology, I immediately linked up with other concerned students who preferred discussing real social political issues with each other rather than being bogged down by sterile lectures.

My friends and I of course got bored by mere discussion. We started to set up small development projects in a village in West Java. The student activists did not want to replicate projects run by the established NGOs. Many of these NGOs were closely linked to the government.

The discussion groups and projects soon became too small a pond for our bubbling political consciousness. We "took to the streets". Disputes over intensifying land-grabbing in rural areas initiated large scale student support (by the standards of that period) for the masses in the late 1980's.

Women's resistance

The protest experience had a big impact on my life. It was a powerful feeling of being at one with the people. I was exhilarated at the strength we found to fight injustice. The whole radical experience (not just the "street protests") turned my mind upside down. I no longer wanted to be merely a wife and career woman. I wanted to dedicate my life to something more, like serving the people and fighting for justice, freedom, and democracy.

I was not alone, there were quite a few young women like me. Naturally we banded together. We moved from one resistance movement to another. We stayed in touch even though all of us were studying or working. In mid 1991 a group of five women residing in Jakarta, including myself, finally agreed to continue working for the masses. We developed a long term plan, agreeing to focus our work on industrial women workers because their number was increasing and they are, as a group, heavily exploited. We believed that aside from the economic perspective, a feminist perspective was needed within the labour movement.


We opted to establish an NGO because we needed funding. Forming a "licensed" NGO is the only channel by which peoples movements can legitimately gain funding in Indonesia. At that time we didn't even care about the legal structures that bound us. We just came together to the notary's office to sign the documents and there it was, it was so easy.

We were lucky because women's issues were high on the funding agencies' agenda, along with the environment and human rights. We had recommendations from big NGO figures too. As soon as we got confirmation of funding we started work in high spirits. Our programmes covered a wide range of activities. We designed and delivered adult education programmes for workers on topics including labour law, political economy and gender issues.

We aimed at supporting the workers to organise themselves. We wanted to see more women worker activists in the labour movement. We dreamed of setting up a small but comprehensive documentation, research and campaign centre on labour issues. We wanted to generate public support by various campaigns. We certainly aimed to do a lot. Probably too much. On top of that we had to recruit people, set up the institution, learn about management and the nitty gritty of professionalism.

Looking back I realize we were crazy. Although there were five foundation members, only two were willing to work full time, including myself as coordinator. Recruiting members was no easy thing. The ideal YPM staffer was a progressively political feminist, willing to work in a new NGO. She must be prepared to have an uncertain future and no career path, and be happy to receive a small wage. She would also have to move from her comfortable surroundings at home to live with the workers. In short, we looked for women prepared to commit class suicide - something even we the founders could not fully achieve.

Meanwhile the funding agencies were on our backs. They naturally wanted regular reports. One donor even wanted more sophisticated financial reports. It drove me crazy having to learn about financial accounting. We also had to come up with real figures - how many workers did we facilitate, how many groups did we help set up, what were the outcomes of the education programmes.


Besides the planned programmes we promised our donors to deliver, we also had to deal with the unplanned activities, such as assisting workers in dispute, getting legal aid, aiding sick workers, and meeting the military's pressures (including attending their summons for an "interview"). Our programme was more than we could handle. We lacked the professionalism to run an organisation. Most of all, the level of political commitment we required of ourselves was bogging us down. It was not surprising that by late 1992 troubles started brewing. By mid-1993 the bubbling kettle blew up. Everyone literally screamed at each other. Still efforts were made to persevere. A long chain of restructuring was taken up.

In August 1994 I left the country on a scholarship for a graduate programme in women's studies. I felt I needed a break and time to reflect on my experience. I returned to Indonesia in April 1995 to do field research for my thesis about women workers activism. I also immediately made myself available to YPM. However, since then we have been engaged in a debate on the failure of our restructuring programme. There were also financial irregularities, and a rejection of professional auditing. The situation was not good. Worse, we became personally hostile to each other. Communication was no longer possible. The end finally came when some founders sought legal dissolution.


How could this happen? What went wrong? What did we do wrong? I and we, indeed had good intentions, how could we fail? We truly believed our progressive small organisation could make a contribution in the struggle for democracy by uniting the voice of women workers. I asked myself those questions again and again. But I know I have to analyse the situation to be able to get a grip on my life and make sense of what happened.

We are the products of our history. Since the rise of the New Order in 1965, people's experience in organisations has been very limited. Even among the educated middle class, the formal education system provides no experience of modern organisations. The culture of reading and writing is underdeveloped. An oral culture prevails, even among university students who will be the 'cream of society'.

Since the banning of suspected left and nationalist political organisations in 1965, the next generation of 70's activists opted for NGOs as an alternative form of an organisation. The structure of these NGOs is generally conventional, with the founders sitting on the board of trustees, board of directors or similar body. This board sets the policies, appoints the executive staff, approves the budget and evaluates reports. The NGO is therefore actually unable to work as a participative democratic organisation, but is based on hierarchy, control and directives. How can we model democratic principles if we do not practice them?

The YPM also adopted this conventional structure. This reflected our background as the young generation with little or no organising experience. We tried to establish a more democratic working relationship, but we failed.

Middle class

Our roots are middle class. I think middle class interests play a big role in characterising our work. We were quickly buoyed by our abundant funding. Although we felt far more modest than the Big NGOs (nicknamed BINGOs), we still showered ourselves with facilities like the telephone, fax machine, and computer. Yes they may be basic facilities but everyday we wanted more. Our phone bills kept rising: up to one million rupiah (US$500) per month - compared to fifty thousand rupiah (US$25) a worker needs to rent a room monthly! We became dissatisfied with simple computers, we wanted colour notebooks. We paraded like executives. We would fly or take cabs to meetings instead of huddling in a bus or train like we used to.

Our middle class origin was also the main reason for not keeping our focus on the women workers at the grassroots. We enjoyed the spotlight of public forums. We liked seminars, exchange programmes and training programmes more than being with the workers where they needed us. Sure, we would still come now and then to direct the staff or give lectures. We did not want to move our office closer to the workers' community, but offered all sorts of justifications to keep our office in the nice neighbourhood in the city. Worst of all, we gradually failed to listen to the voice of the workers. We only listened to our own voice because our interests became more and more institutionalised within the NGO.

Thus it is not surprising that fierce opposition developed when there were efforts in YPM to open up its management to include other labour activists, or when it was suggested to turn the NGO into an association with women workers as members. And when some of us wanted to be honest, to admit our failures and seek progressive solutions, the result was only intense and deep conflict that led to the breakdown of the organisation.

Didn't the donors care? Didn't they know what was going on? Sure they did. Maybe they kept on giving aid because they believed in us. Maybe they were too ashamed to admit that they have made a mistake giving funding to us. Maybe they just don't care as long as they can claim they are funding a women's organisation struggling for workers (which is a rare species among the male-dominated NGO community, one of only two in Indonesia). Whatever the reason, excessive funding made us dependent and buoyed.

Staying away

So far NGO failures have only become ingredients for gossip. The failure of women's NGOs is the best dish to attack. I often hear people saying things like, 'See, I told you that women cannot organise, they always fight against each other!' Indeed our experience exemplifies the need for serious thinking amongst feminist activists in the country, as well as amongst activists in the broader democratic movement.

Long march

Another important point of reflection is the regrettable attitude of many NGO activists who believe YPM's dissolution was only an internal matter of YPM - a small, personal and bourgeois matter compared to the problems of the oppressed. Most activists chose to stay away, afraid of getting their hands dirty. But how can we build a movement when we do not try to keep our already small number together? All big movements start small. The lack of personal care and sense of collective solidarity is indeed something I regret in the present movement.

YPM's experience in organising women workers, and finally its demise, should not be viewed as a mere internal problem of the organisation. It reflects wider obstacles within the current NGO movement in general and within the women's movement in particular.

Once again, the long march is started by a single step. Hopefully the YPM experience can still contribute something to that long march to people's democracy in Indonesia.

Nori Andriyani lives in Jakarta, but is presently in completing her postgraduate studies in St John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

Inside Indonesia 46: Mar 1996

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