Two Aussie girls are cycling around Australia to raise awareness, and money, for Indonesians in poverty. But the project raises some questions too.
On 28 February 1999, two young Australians, Fiona Collins and Mia Hoogenboom, left Sydney for a 16,455km cycle journey around the perimeter of mainland Australia to raise funds for the OzIndo Project, a short-term relief program to address 'a critical need for staple foods in Indonesia'.
Isn't it inspiring that some Australians can be so moved by the plight of their Indonesian neighbours, to take direct action? This is how I was introduced to the project.
However, the more information I gathered, the more I was beset with questions about the purpose and motivation of fundraising and direct aid. Who decides who needs money and how it will be used? How valid is short-term relief compared with long-term sustainable development? What motivates people who believe 'they have' to support people they perceive 'have not'?
Mia and Fiona met while studying in the Acicis program in Yogyakarta during 1997/98. (Acicis exposes over a hundred Australian university students to Indonesia every year). Their year in Yogyakarta coincided with the collapse of the rupiah and the ensuing riots that led to the resignation of President Suharto. 'Watching the effects of crisis spiralling out of control and watching how our Indonesian friends were being affected, we felt helpless', says Fiona. 'One afternoon in May '98, I took a siesta and had a dream. I dreamt that Mia and I were cycling along a dusty road in the middle of Central Australia, with people behind us supporting in some way. I told Mia about my dream, and since we both felt a responsibility to help Indonesia, we began investigating how two individuals could cycle around Australia requesting donations.'
'We approached over 35 NGOs (non-government organisations) in Australia, but decided to go with the AusAid-accredited Unity and International Mission in order to collect tax deductible donations. They respected our idea of two individuals wanting to make a difference. They didn't want to make it their project.'
The OzIndo team in Australia aims to raise awareness about the current humanitarian crisis in Indonesia and to promote cross-cultural understanding. Their Mobile Education Unit carries books, magazines, music, photographs, current affairs reports. A small support team accompanies Fiona and Mia, including Jan Lingard, the Australian coordinator, and Timur Nugroho, the Indonesian representative. 'It was important to have an Indonesian with us, we didn't want to speak on behalf of Indonesians, and a guy with a guitar is more interesting than two cyclists', says Fiona.
Timur met Fiona and Mia in Yogyakarta. 'We became friends', says Timur. 'They told me about their idea and asked my help … I saw poverty in my neighbourhood. Now I speak to Australian people about Indonesia, their struggle, their culture, and sometimes I sing Indonesian songs.'
The OzIndo team was by late May well on their way to Perth. I spent a day with them on the road from Melbourne to Geelong. As with every leg of their journey, they were joined by local cyclists supporting their cause.
Anecdotes in the OzIndo newsletters reflect the warm welcome and generosity of Australian people. Schools, Rotary, the Uniting Church, and Soroptomist International, have all billeted the team and organised fundraising activities on their behalf. 'Perhaps the highlight of highlights', comments the team, was an 'amazing day' at Mallacoota P-12 College on 19 March 1999. Students and staff were dressed in Indonesian type clothing. The Indonesian teacher had set up a fundraising activity in the form of a market where students purchased goods using vouchers representing Rupiah currency.
The OzIndo Project also aims to raise $500,000 to provide immediate assistance to Indonesians in need. The original idea was to implement a one-off subsidised food market (pasar murah), in eleven different Indonesian provinces. This is an established model of food subsidy in Indonesia, where local and mobile food subsidisation centres are set up so that Indonesian people can purchase staple foods at greatly discounted rates.
The short and the long
Recently, I spoke with Damien Locke, at the time the Indonesia coordinator for OzIndo, based in Yogyakarta. He outlined the complex process of organising a 3-4 week pasar murah. Its advantage is that money collected in Australia is given directly to the people of Indonesia. There are no 'middle men', says Damien. Planning began months before by teeing up a local and reliable NGO to work with. The first pasar murah in Yogyakarta was done together with the large NGO Bina Swadaya. After extensive research they identified the village of Planjan in the dry mountains south of Yogyakarta as having the greatest need.
However, the experience of the first pasar murah raised questions about the validity of such short-term relief. Although successful as an exercise in cross-cultural awareness (Australian songs were heard at the market!), Damien believes the process was fraught with problems. Bina Swadaya have since turned down the invitation to continue OzIndo's pasar murah in Planjan because they are not able to supply the overhead costs. Damien urged OzIndo to look at moving towards longer-term sustainable community development models for Planjan, seeing a huge potential for farming, water and other technology.
Pasar murah for all the 1603 families of Planjan village cost AU$4,462. Of that, $962 was recouped after each family purchased a $2.78 food parcel of rice, sugar and cooking oil for only 60 cents. I asked Australian Volunteers International (formerly the Overseas Service Bureau) what development projects could be implemented for a similar amount of money. Their Indonesia officer Maree Keating told me $2000 would enable a project to make and market smokeless stoves for their community; $2000 would enable a community to develop an eco-tourism promotion centre; $1000 would buy a village seeds to plant alternatives to rice; $200 would pay for sanitation pipes for one village; and $600 would buy a buffalo to plow the fields of an entire village. For $3600, six buffaloes would keep 6 villages plowing their land for 30 years.
OzIndo said at the end of May they were open to suggestions and wanted to revise their strategy in Indonesia. They said they had abandoned the pasar murah concept in favour of school-based relief for children. However, OzIndo apparently remains committed to short term relief. 'We can't do anything except provide short term relief and do our damn best to raise Australia's awareness especially in schools. It's our personal response to take action. We are totally conscious that there are limitations,' says Fiona.
The pasar murah strategy grew out of reports at the time that Indonesians were starving. More recent reports on poverty induced by the economic crisis have suggested a less stark, more complex picture of great diversity. More importantly, the strategy ignored Indonesian requests for longer-term help. Vanessa Johanson, in Inside Indonesia January-March 1999, cited this comment from a villager: 'We have already been given this and that, [including] basic foodstuffs from you. But what about the future? We all know that children here need to go to school. Can't you help us finish building the school? We use it already, but the walls leak.'
The OzIndo team, in particular Fiona and Mia, must be commended for their courage and heartfelt action. They are having enormous success in raising awareness in Australian about the current humanitarian crisis in Indonesia. Now is the time for OzIndo to give a lead in reflecting on how the money they raise is spent. Like many other organisations involved in relief work, they need to address the issue of short term versus long term assistance. More importantly, Indonesian NGOs need to be given more independence to make decisions about what's most appropriate for their country.
The financial crisis has become the absolute focus for so many people's lives in Indonesia. You can't go anywhere without seeing its effects. Old women and homeless children beg for money in the streets. Men sit around in front of shops, hopeless, as their employers can no longer afford to pay their wages. I have friends who were forced to give up their studies at university and return home to their villages, because their families could no longer support them. Prices have skyrocketed by 400% and people simply can't afford to buy basic necessities. There is a tangible atmosphere of desolation, you can see it in people's faces and feel it in the air.' - Mia Hoogenboom
'The turning point for me came when a chicken farmer who lived in my neighbourhood could no longer afford to buy chicken feed. Rather than watching his chickens starve to death, in desperation he put all 20 of them into a cage and burnt the cage to the ground. Left with no source of income and no means to support his family, he was forced to leave the city and return to his village. This was just one of many striking instances that made me realise that I could not simply return to Australia and resume my normal life. In the face of such suffering, I had to do something to help. During my time here, people with so little have shown such generosity of spirit. I feel it is now time to give something back.' - Fiona Collins