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The activists' dilemma

Published: Jul 22, 2007

Hetifah Sjaifudian

Civil society actors in Indonesia tend to assume that the international community plays a positive role in our struggle. But my experiences in the field haven’t always supported that view. Many of my colleagues and I sometimes feel like hypocrites because we recognise the downside of international aid, but are not brave enough to do anything about it. In part this is because I personally benefit from my international networks and the resources they provide.

The role of international aid is anything but straightforward. There are clear benefits in having international support for our local civil society movements. Our overseas partners don’t just provide material resources – they motivate us and help us develop our skills. But international aid also fosters opportunism and creates socio-economic disparities and conflict between NGO activists. It has spawned a new ‘mafia’, encouraging corruption and tempting local organisations to abandon their principles in an effort to secure foreign funding.

Unequal access

One of the main problems with international aid is that the incentives offered by international organisations (study, travel abroad and networking opportunities) tend to be oriented to the individual, not the organisation or the communities it serves. Besides expanding our horizons and allowing us to experience new situations and gain new knowledge, these opportunities also bring us direct financial gain. Honorariums are paid in US dollars, and they’re substantial. As a result, the competition is fierce. I’ve watched hundreds of local activists communicate with donors (especially foreigners). They treat them as potential patrons, or even as deities. This encourages the outsiders to behave in an even more paternalistic manner.

While activists scramble for donor ‘facilities’, important questions – like who gets access, and why – are left unasked. Few local organisations have developed internal mechanisms to decide who would get the most from opportunities created by international partnerships. Most of the time, the same people (the charismatic, the articulate, and the powerful) benefit over and over again. The absence of proper procedures leads to socio-economic disparities and conflict between activists. Of the thousands of activists who devote their time and energies to civil society organisations, only a handful reap material rewards. Civil society organisations are supposed to be egalitarian, and these inequities can destroy the very roots of social movements.

Those activists who have access to international networks live a lifestyle that is unimaginable for those who don’t. Their laptops, passports and mobile phones create deep-seated jealousies and undermine social solidarity within the NGO community. The resulting conflict at the local level is difficult to resolve, and often requires external intervention. Donors have a lot of power when it comes to deciding who gets to participate in their programs. Often they try to anticipate potential problems by setting up strict criteria – for example, requiring local partners to send female participants rather than males. These sorts of measures impact on local organisations’ independence by prioritising donor interests over local interests, and ignoring local organisations’ own interests and aspirations.

Genuine partnerships?

Donors’ own interests have other implications too. For operational reasons – especially now that so much money is available – donors like to support networks rather than individual organisations. They say that they do this because they don’t want to break down the local spirit of volunteerism, which sounds reasonable. But in reality this practice creates an oligarchy at the national level, with serious implications for decision-making processes and funding distribution within civil society as a whole.

Another problem is corruption. The truth is that many of the local organisations that channel foreign funding do not have effective internal systems of accountability, and there are no real external sanctions for corruption. Beyond perhaps refusing to work with a local organisation in the future, I don’t know of a single case where a donor has sought to hold a corrupt local partner accountable for its actions. The uncounted cost of this corruption is that the very organisations that claim to monitor corruption in the government sector destroy their own reputation.

Finally, and perhaps most distressing, is the impact of international aid on local civil society organisations’ own objectives. Foreign funding may push local organisations to try new things, but it puts pressure on them to meet donor targets rather than pursuing their own vision.

Local activists will still need international aid for many years. But unless we work to overcome these problems, we will never be able to start respecting ourselves and acting as real ‘partners’, not just puppets.

Hetifah Sjaifudian (hetifah@flinders.edu.au) is a postgraduate student at Flinders University, and has worked with Indonesian development organisations supported with international funding.

Inside Indonesia 84: Oct-Dec 2005

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