Working in Indonesia - where history is in the making

1 Mar 2009   |   Blog   |   Indonesia   |   Long-term Development

Tags:  climate justice   |   No comments

Ipau and her father harvest in their paddy field

Terry Russell has almost forgotten what Australia looks and smells like. He’s worked in Indonesia and East Timor between 1997-2002 and 2004-2009. He joined Caritas Australia in June 2008 after two and a half years with Trocaire (Caritas Ireland). He speaks Indonesian and recently completed a wordy thesis on the UN’s first three years in East Timor.

Anyone who’s traveled through Africa or the back blocks of South Asia must turn their nose up at the thought of doing aid work in Indonesia. Poverty – what poverty?
But I chose to work in Indonesia because so much is happening here. Around 16.5 million Indonesians still live on less than $1 per day, but there are signs of hope all around. Democracy is growing, giving a genuine voice to the poor. Government services to remote communities are slowly improving and the Government is finally taking serious steps against corruption.
Much hangs in the balance. In the battle to save or destroy the world’s environment, Indonesia’s vast forests and marine biodiversity are at the frontline. In the struggle to promote worldwide religious harmony, Indonesia is currently experiencing a struggle between its traditionally tolerant Muslim groups and newer extremist factions. Amidst these potentially massive changes Indonesia is being hit worse than most countries by natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanoes and even bird flu. I feel I’m in Indonesia at an historically momentous time.
My new job with Caritas Australia entails funding and monitoring of Indonesian Non Government Organisation’s (NGOs), working in three fields: rural health, rural livelihoods (mainly sustainable agriculture and disaster preparedness), and democratization. I make regular forays from my base in Jakarta to our program locations in rural Indonesia. These are two completely different worlds. Jakarta is similar to any other crowded Asian city, but in rural Indonesia I visit many villages where chickens and livestock roam freely across roads, and where the presence of a foreigner provides enough stories to last locals for weeks. In some villages, there is no electricity or sanitation. Others can only be accessed during the rainy season, by walking.
Amidst this simplicity, I’m pleased to see the Caritas Australia program helping locals improve their water and sanitation facilities, reduce risk of bird flu and other diseases, and adopt more sustainable, less costly methods of farming. The regular field visits are the highlight of my work.
Back in Jakarta, work does not only involve reading reports and program proposals from Indonesian NGOs. Yesterday I checked an English translation of one NGO’s long term plan, which they hope to use to attract more funding. Next week I’ll sit on an interview panel to help the same NGO recruit new staff. I’m currently consulting local NGOs and my head office to organize workshops and the establishment of a model organic farm.
Through my emails and face-to-face meetings with these NGOs, I’m learning a lot about bird flu, HIV-AIDS, mosquito-borne diseases, organic farming, water source protection, and problems faced by community groups when they challenge government or business elites. I learn how many villages now make their own plans for economic growth, improved community services and how they deal with disasters. I’m impressed at how enthusiastically locals have endorsed democratization, a concept that has only been around since the fall of Suharto.

Indonesians are making real progress in poverty reduction and democratization, but uncertainty remains with religious harmony, environmental sustainability and natural disasters. If Caritas Australia can do just a little to keep Indonesia on its positive trajectory, I’ll be satisfied.

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