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Tackling poverty in Indonesia

Strong economic growth in Indonesia has helped reduce poverty, halving it from 24 per cent in 1999 to 11 per cent last year. But about 28 million Indonesians, or more than five times Singapore’s population, continue to live below the poverty line. Taking home US$25 (S$33) a month, they lack not only education, healthcare, and a roof over their heads — which many of us take for granted — but sufficient nutrition to survive.

Tackling poverty in Indonesia

About 28 million Indonesians live below the poverty line, and private and non-profit sectors can invest more attention and resources in education to break the poverty cycle. Photo: Reuters

Strong economic growth in Indonesia has helped reduce poverty, halving it from 24 per cent in 1999 to 11 per cent last year. But about 28 million Indonesians, or more than five times Singapore’s population, continue to live below the poverty line. Taking home US$25 (S$33) a month, they lack not only education, healthcare, and a roof over their heads — which many of us take for granted — but sufficient nutrition to survive.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration has taken concrete steps towards more inclusive growth. These include the removal of fuel subsidies to channel government coffers towards public goods such as social programmes to improve the economic livelihood of the poor, as well as infrastructure development plans to increase connectivity to peripheral regions in Indonesia.

But Indonesia’s massive size and its decentralised structure make administration a challenge for any government. Spurring more inclusive growth, while bridging the inequality gap, is a complex task that requires a collaborative effort and involvement on the part of the private and non-profit sectors.

Education, a critical factor to break the poverty cycle, is an area in which private and non-profit sectors can invest more attention and resources. When people have basic life and literacy skills, they will have the capacity to earn more money and are better positioned to support their families. An additional year in primary school increases wages later earned by five to 15 per cent for boys, and even more for girls.

Although the gross enrolment rate for primary school is high in Indonesia, student learning outcomes are known to be poor. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Programme (OECD) ranked Indonesia children’s reading performance at 64th place out of 65 countries.

There are also resource challenges specific to rural Indonesia where many schools are in poor physical condition. About 50 per cent of classrooms in Indonesia have slight or severe damage. With a high concentration of teachers in urban areas, teaching resources in Indonesia are not evenly distributed throughout the country.

In addition, the quality of teachers in the rural regions tends to be sub-standard. In a competency survey conducted by the Indonesia Ministry of Education and Culture in 2012, the average teacher scored only 45 out of 100, way below the target 70.

In the education sector, now that Indonesia has achieved the Millennium Development Goals for participation (enrolment) and literacy rate, attention is much needed to improve the quality of education.

FOSTERING PARTNERSHIPS

Although there is no shortage of international and local NGOs, foundations, philanthropists and companies working to tackle the various facets of poverty in Indonesia — education, health, housing, food — what seems absent is a systemic approach to problem-solving that is scalable and impactful where and when it matters most. The philanthropy sector, for instance, is known to be diverse and prides itself on operating independently.

Take the example of Tanoto Foundation, a philanthropic foundation started in 2001 to address root causes of poverty particularly in Indonesia. It only recently started to look beyond its silo efforts towards wider collaboration. It was only this year that it joined forces with the United Nations Children’s Fund, to roll out multiple initiatives aimed at improving the quality of education for children living in Indonesia’s rural areas such as Riau and Jambi. These include advocacy programmes targeting policy makers in education, school management officials and the local communities.

Partnerships between agencies with shared convictions are vital to extending reach and getting the results. Social problems and competition may arise from the interaction of many organisations within a larger network. Creating large-scale impact depends on increasing cross-sector alignment and learning among organisations, so that resources can be deployed more strategically. Our progress depends on how we work towards the same goal and the set measures with which we use to measure our efforts.

Good data is extremely important as it forms the baseline in developing effective philanthropy and social responsibility programmes. It also serves as a reliable benchmark for programme monitoring and impact evaluation.

To this end, national and regional data collection in Indonesia is generally poor. It is unclear, for instance, if philanthropy is considered “official” in Indonesia and whether its work and value are captured in government databases. This hinders international foundations who seek to understand philanthropy in Indonesia and identify partnership opportunities.

To start with, these foundations want to know who is funding what and where information is readily available. Much more can be done in the area of knowledge management to effect systemic change.

As a country, Indonesia has made substantial progress towards bridging the inequality gap, by igniting economic growth and providing extra support to reduce extreme poverty. More can be achieved at a faster rate if we work together to create large multiplier effects of the positive changes across the country.

Having lived and worked in a rural part of Indonesia, I am particularly heartened to see committed individuals who want to make a difference. A few years ago, I met Rita.

Rita spends four hours each day travelling to and from a remote Sumatran village school at which she teaches. She could have taken on a teaching job in the city with better pay and shorter commute, but she chose otherwise. Rita is very passionate about teaching and ensures her students are not merely rote learners by introducing experience-based learning.

She is popular amongst the students and remains determined to help her students fight the odds stacked against them. Indonesia needs more Ritas — more Ritas who defy the notion that geography is destiny.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Belinda Tanoto is a trustee of Tanoto Foundation and a management member in the oil palm business group of RGE (Royal Golden Eagle). Ms Tanoto will be among the panellists on Channel NewsAsia’s Perspectives programme on “Tackling rising inequality in Asia” which airs at 8 pm tomorrow.

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