I have worked for fifteen years in the aid industry. It has been a great privilege to be able to contribute to worthwhile social justice programs and meet Indonesians and others whom I respect and admire; people who are dedicated to promoting social justice, sometimes at great personal risk. But my experiences have also raised difficult questions that I still find hard to answer. One is the concept of partnership between international donors and the NGOs and community groups with which we collaborate. Is partnership possible when one party controls all the resources and the other desperately needs them to pursue its goals?
People in aid organisations often have an overwhelming need to see themselves as equals with those in developing countries. But the core element of their relationship with developing world counterparts is the transfer of money and other resources. Can there ever be a real ‘partnership of equals’ in such a relationship? Of course most Indonesian groups, like those elsewhere, seem happy to go along with the term partners. But do they really feel a sense of partnership with donors? I doubt it.
At the multilateral level, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) relate with the Indonesian government, not individuals or communities. That relationship is often characterised more by coercion and dictation than partnership, as Indonesia found out in 1998 when the IMF dictated economic policy with disastrous results. Donor governments often talk about ‘development cooperation’, with its implications of partnership. But is this any more real? It is in the NGO sector where I worked that partnership is seen as most important. Most of these organisations are now part of large global networks, and many increasingly behave like corporate entities. They have become large enough to have a significant impact in the developing world, but their size alone makes a sense of partnership with local organisations difficult.
Whose strategy prevails?
How much control should donor agencies exercise over the goals and strategies employed in the development work they support? Who should make the decisions – the donors or the Indonesian groups responsible for implementation? Are the Indonesian groups partners or merely sub-contractors for international agencies? When I began international aid work most agencies relied heavily on in-country staff (mostly expatriates) or those like me who regularly visited Indonesia, to make all the decisions about who and what was supported. These staff had enormous discretion. The system was heavily dependent on them. But provided they had broad networks in Indonesia, it did leave plenty of scope for recipient groups to secure funding for their chosen initiatives.
Now most international agencies carry out meticulous planning, and closely define strategic plans, project outcomes, expected impacts and so on. This is not bad in itself, but one result is that the Indonesian groups doing the actual work often tend to be seen as mere functionaries in the broader strategies of international development agencies. This can result in tensions with local groups that also spend considerable time defining their own goals and strategies. The local groups have their own ideas, which are arguably more appropriate to the societies in which they live. But they find themselves expected to conform to the grand plans of international agencies if they want money from these agencies. It is true that donors usually have a broader, more global, experience on which to base their plans, and have the capacity to introduce local groups to new ideas developed on the international stage. But they will almost inevitably have less knowledge of the aspirations of local communities, and the circumstances in which they live.
I was responsible for mediating these tensions, a task that often demanded the wisdom of Solomon. I had responsibilities to my own agency, which quite properly wanted accountability for its funds. Donors who respond to public appeals, and taxpayers who fund government grants, are entitled to know how their money is used. The recipients of funding were less conscious of these demands, and at times saw insistence on accountability as an infringement of their independence. Sometimes those doing the most innovative and worthwhile work were the ones most likely to rebel against demands for accountability.
Partnership under Suharto
I first encountered development work in Indonesia during the Suharto period, and found the government controls on the work and thinking of NGOs overwhelmingly suffocating. Innovative work and the effective pursuit of social justice were extraordinarily difficult. Civil society was composed of two generations. There were the established NGOs that had accepted, however reluctantly, the Suharto restrictions that made any real community organising out of the question. But community organising was the very basis of good development work as I had come to understand it. Then there was a network of embryonic and sometimes reckless student groups, with much energy and idealism but little capacity to effectively implement social change. Steering a course between these two extremes was both difficult and frustrating. Partnership with either seemed to have limited substance.
Later I visited East Timor to investigate establishing an aid program there, during the years when it was still firmly under Indonesian control. My mere presence in such a desperate conflict situation raised expectations I could not possibly fulfil. There was an overwhelming, if unstated, demand for partnership from the Timorese to which no aid worker could adequately respond. I could offer little but caution, and hope that my presence would not provoke rash actions by people already endangered and desperate.
Another thorny issue during both the Suharto period and the reformasi era has been the reluctance of most international agencies to support activities designed to create social change which might incur government wrath. For most multilateral and bilateral agencies development has been dominated by technocrats and economists, with little thought for social change. However, some of the more progressive non government aid agencies have sought to solve this problem by taking up advocacy campaigns as well as aid work. Advocating political solutions to problems of poverty and social justice has created possibilities for new and more equitable relationships with social activists in Indonesia. But new tensions can arise over who should make the calls for political change, and whether campaigns really reflect the aspirations of the poor and dispossessed.
Dealing with corruption
One of the most fraught issues in the partnership between aid agencies and NGOs is corruption. Perhaps this is inevitable when one party has a monopoly of money and resources, with the objective of disbursing them to others with very little. Some I encountered in NGOs had spent many years struggling under the repressive Suharto regime, and lost much of their idealism and commitment. Not surprisingly such people sometimes succumbed to temptation, and resisted investigations with much obfuscation. Threats of legal action were simply ignored. They well knew that legal action was not an option in Suharto’s Indonesia for an international NGO, particularly one from Australia.
How should donors deal with corruption? Strict accountability may be seen as a lack of trust, and condemned by recipients as a violation of the partnership. Even well-intentioned NGOs often have lax systems and processes for dealing with money. Yet a lack of effective accountability is an invitation for corruption. Donors have an obligation to recipients to insist on systems and relationships that are accountable. My attempts to ensure accountability did not always succeed. Some rebelled because they saw them as paternalistic and patronising, others because they were irritated by the attention to unnecessary and boring detail. But I suspect those with a propensity to corruption simply kept quiet and plotted how to avoid scrutiny.
In my more recent experience corruption has been rare, and I know NGOs in which any hint of it among staff is dealt with severely by their peers. These people share my view that corruption is an issue that must be fought as vigorously as human rights abuses or environmental destruction in the quest for social justice. Such attitudes raise my optimism about aid work. But I also know of exceptions. There can be nothing so personally devastating for an aid worker as discovering that someone whom you have admired and trusted has proven to be corrupt. Fortunately, these rare situations are more than compensated for by the experience of working alongside dedicated social activists whose vision I can fully share.
International aid has brought much that is worthwhile to Indonesia, and provided fulfilling experiences for both aid workers and our Indonesian associates. But the sometimes uneasy alliance of international agencies with money, and Indonesian organisations with few resources, could be improved. It would require both parties to abandon the pretence of partnership and recognise fully their distinctive roles in seeking social justice in Indonesia. Partnership is quite possible between organisations and individuals from developed countries and Indonesia, but it is much more likely to be meaningful if the relationship does not involve money.
Bob Muntz (email@example.com) worked for an Australian international aid agency for 14 years, managing development programs in Indonesia and other countries in South East Asia.