Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Insecurity for NGOs

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Joel Backwell

In Australia we see members of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) shaking tins all year round. Millions of people give money to groups such as Amnesty International, CARE, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, just to name a few. This is a part of everyday life in a country where freedom of speech is taken for granted and philanthropy is an integral part of our society.

However, in Indonesia, where more than half of the population live below the poverty line and the majority of others are in no position to give financially, NGOs are much more reliant on external funding, the majority of which comes from foreign donors backed by Western governments. This can cause major problems because the foreign aid budgets of those nations are tied to their national interests, which rarely coincide with the needs of Indonesian people.

Funding the rule of law

To varying degrees the fall of the Suharto regime has brought about a more open political system, freedom of speech, and a greater respect for democracy in Indonesia. A less obvious consequence of the regime change is the paradigm shift in the field of NGO activism.

In 1998, with the objective of strengthening economic and democratic institutions and at the same time fanning anti-Suharto sentiment, support was given to what were termed civil society organisations (CSOs). Foreign governments, such as Australia and the United States aimed to increase awareness in the community regarding issues of democracy, freedom of speech, and respect for human rights. A detailed discussion of the problems caused by this influx of funding was given by Ana Lounela in ‘Take the Money or Die’ (Inside Indonesia No.69, Jan–Mar 2002, p. 21)

Their objective reached and Suharto out of the way, foreign governments no longer needed so many transformative NGOs pushing for radical change. Instead the focus shifted to good governance, anti-corruption and economic liberalisation, elements required if foreign capital was to flourish in post-Suharto Indonesia.

Large amounts of cash were given to local cooperatives to implement small business and finance schemes. PUSHAM, an NGO in Yogyakarta, received funding for a police education program. The judiciary, one of the three pillars of Western Democracy, became a primary focus, with an emphasis on the rule of law. This was essential both to stamp out corruption among judges and politicians, and to ensure the separation of powers doctrine that is integral to ‘good governance’.

The flow-on effect of this shift in foreign funding was that numerous programs initiated by NGOs in Indonesia were abandoned. Unlike Australian NGOs, Indonesian organisations cannot rely on tin shaking to keep them afloat and so they find themselves at the mercy of the agenda’s and priorities of foreign donors. When the focus of a country’s national interest shifts, as has occurred in response to ‘the war on terror’, so does the focus of foreign funding. The grass-roots issues addressed by local NGOs in Indonesia often do not correlate with the international issues upon which their funding is based, and this incompatibility creates uncertainty for many programs.

Millions of dollars is currently being given to consultants to implement better bureaucratic procedures at the highest levels of Indonesia government and administration. Unfortunately students attending schools in remote areas, who lack even the barest of resources, will fail to receive any tangible benefit from these kind of ‘good governance’ programs. A further example is poor farmers, who sometimes require aid to purchase materials for subsistence farming. However, the neo-liberal agenda prefers that these farmers pool their resources and land to create a surplus for export and profit.

Funding focus shifts again

The last five years have seen numerous programs funded by foreign donors such as USAID and AusAID, which focus on strengthening Indonesia’s political and judicial institutions. Now the biggest priority is security and eradicating terrorism, which holds special significance in Indonesia given the tragic Bali bombing that saw 88 Australians perish in October 2002.

A perusal of the USAID and AusAID websites demonstrates the obvious link between program funding and national interest. Following the recent war in Iraq and the ongoing focus on terrorism, both of these donor organisations now stress conflict resolution, peace building and reducing instability as being important focuses for developing nations.

The Indonesian people, already wary of interfering foreign governments, will not welcome some of the changes in Australia’s foreign policy. The problem with counter-terrorism as opposed to institution building is autonomy. Concerning the latter, foreign governments were happy to provide education and support to the Indonesian community to build awareness so that changes, albeit reflecting Western values, could occur from the inside.

In the case of security and peace building, there is a tendency for Western governments to step in and intervene directly, questioning the sanctity of domestic sovereignty. We saw in the wake of the Bali bombing how eager Australian intelligence forces were to step in and take control of operations. Discussion of renewing ties between Australia and Indonesia’s Special Forces (Kopassus) is another sign that in terms of Australia’s national interest, issues of human rights and local community development priorities are subordinate to security.

As occurred in 1998, the events of recent years have shifted the focus of foreign aid as the development budget is tied to national interest. Once again this is likely to lead to the abandonment of programs, leaving many communities to fend for themselves. The cycle of short-term projects and insecurity for NGOs, who are reliant on foreign funding, continues.

Fortunately the shift from a good governance focus to security and anti-terrorism is not as drastic as the shift that occurred in 1998. Good governance will remain on the agenda because without a stable, accountable government, the argument goes, it will be easier for terrorists to carry out their operations in Indonesia.

Economic liberalisation will continue to be a priority because poverty and anti-Western sentiment is seen as a major cause for the recent terrorist acts. By adopting capitalism as its ideology and strengthening economic ties with nations such as America, the cultural divide and misunderstanding between Indonesia and the West will in theory decrease.

It is likely that the focus on strengthening the judiciary will continue but for different reasons. Whereas it was previously intended to stamp out corruption, in the wake of the trial of the Bali bombers, it is now seen as a strong deterrent to future acts of terrorism.

Some would argue that as long as aid programs are providing support to poorer nations it does not matter what agenda is driving them. This may be acceptable where interests of foreign governments coincide with the needs of Indonesian people, but often this is not the case.

Unrealistic demands

Indonesian NGOs already face an uphill battle with a lack of resources, management skills, experience, and unreasonably high expectations from their communities. The current process for providing developmental assistance lacks long-term sustainability because funding priorities are not always in accord with local needs and programming cycles. The insecurity brought about by shifting foreign agendas is just one more challenge for NGOs in Indonesia. More importantly it is one more barrier preventing them from improving the standard of living for all Indonesian people.

Foreign governments are not about to fund foreign aid programs that operate contrary to their national interests. However this does not mean that the foreign aid agenda must continue in its current form. Imperialist notions of telling poorer countries what is best for them, without direct consultation, is no longer a tenable approach to foreign policy. Greater dialogue and cooperation between NGOs and foreign donors is essential, allowing Indonesian NGOs to play a more holistic, autonomous and ongoing role in the decision-making process.

Indonesia has a solid, experienced network of NGO activists who are clearly in the best position to determine how development assistance funds should be used. Rather than endeavouring to create another Australia by only allocating funds to neo-liberal-friendly programs and institutions, we should instead be upholding the inimitability of Indonesian society. This will only occur when Australian foreign policy allows Indonesians to implement programs for the greater good of the Indonesian people.

Joel Backwell (joel_amnesty@hotmail.com) is an Arts/Law student at Monash University, who has recently returned from a year in Indonesia studying and working with local NGOs.

Inside Indonesia 77: Jan - Mar 2004

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