Reporter’s Notebook: Indonesia’s Grand Goals, and Vulnerability

BY Ray Suarez  June 29, 2011 at 2:30 PM EDT


Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Cat Wise.

The NewsHour’s global health team is in Indonesia shooting a series that will air in July.

Indonesia now has one of the 20 largest economies in the world, yet nearly half its people are poor. It has put together years of strong growth, but millions of its people don’t get enough to eat. Jakarta, the vast and sprawling capital is a tough place for uneducated people to make a living, yet they continue to pour in from every corner of the country.

After spending more than a week in Indonesia reporting for the NewsHour’s global health unit, I’m still making sense of everything I’ve seen, and trying to process a place that can be dazzling one minute, and heartbreaking the next.

Indonesia is running forward, trying to make it’s name as a rising economic power. More than one person told me of their hopes to join the so-called BRICs, Brazil-Russia-India-China, to make that quartet of rapidly developing countries into a quintet. Indonesia has a lot to do before it propels most of its people into the global middle class.

One of the stories we’re preparing for the Newshour is on the soaring price of food. There have always been episodic price shocks, but the 2008 spike in food prices has never really subsided, and the world’s poorest people have had to devote a greater percentage of their household income to getting enough food to live. The World Food Program of the United Nations estimates that 140 million people have been pushed into poverty in just the past few years by the rising cost of food.

Most of that added cost has not benefited farmers. Any added revenue they enjoy from higher crop prices has been eaten up by the higher cost of transportation and inputs like fertilizer. Run a small diesel engine to pump water into the irrigation channels in your field? You get hurt by oil prices. Rent a vehicle to get your crop to market? Ditto.

Indonesia has certainly been favored by nature when it comes to farming. There are lush green fields of rice even in densely packed slums, but the splendor is really waiting in the rural areas.

On Java, the most populated island in the world, the fields were bursting with rice, potatoes, corn, onions, bananas, coconuts, cassava, tea, melons…intensely cultivated fields let no space go to waste.

At the same time, there’s little motorized help. Even small and energy efficient devices that might let a small farmer lift some of the drudgery and toil — not to mention raise productivity — is hard to come by. Broad, conical hats shielding them from the harsh sunlight, farmers thresh rice by hand, grabbing big handfuls of stalks and beating them on the ground to remove the rice kernels from the plant. Then rice is bagged and carried from fields, where many farmers dry their crop by simply spreading it out on a sheet to dry in the sun.

Palm oil is used both as a cooking oil and as a source of biofuel, and Indonesia is the world’s number one producer. The high price of oil has forced the government try to curb the rush to export by slapping high export tariffs on palm oil. That hasn’t stopped price increases domestically, even as farmers take land out of food crops and plant more palm.

Rural people are hit by price increases in basic crops, but can at least cope with expensive food by growing a little more for themselves, and changing the mix to feed themselves and serve the market. But two big classes of Indonesians are especially vulnerable: rural farm laborers and low income city-dwellers. The rural laborers are literally surrounded by food all day, but are paid wages for labor that don’t keep up with the higher price of food. The crowded and struggling urban neighborhoods give people little choice but to pay changing market prices for food.

At an emergency feeding center a few hours drive from Jakarta I met a 15-month old boy, Ahmad, who came for treatment two weeks earlier weighing just over 14 pounds. He had a big belly, sparse and fragile hair, and spindly legs. Ahmad’s mother said she only breast fed the boy for four months, a common decision with a high cost.

After all, breast milk is basically free, while the food that replaces it must be purchased, and Ahmad was clearly not getting enough. The head of the feeding center said the boy was approaching normal weight after just a few weeks of emergency rations supplied by the government, but there’s no way the government can provide that kind of help universally. More than a quarter of all the children in Indonesia don’t get even 70 percent of the recommended daily allowances for key nutrients. If Ahmad continues to have trouble getting enough to eat until he starts school, his mental and physical development will be permanently impaired, no matter how much he gets to eat later in life.

Indonesians are anxious about their children’s educations. The state system has not served the country well, and even poor families supplement with tutoring and after school programs to move their children up. Ads for the popular Kumon educational system show a grinning child giving the thumbs-up sign with the slogan “Matematica+bahasa inggris=SUKSES!,” or “Mathematics plus English language equals SUCCESS!” Middle class parents desperately want one of their children to go to a foreign university, parents in poorer families see it as a sign of progress that while they could hardly get any schooling, their children can finish high school.

While government ministers and advisers glowingly reported the raw data that shows Indonesian progress and success by many measures, people on the streets routinely told me the country was headed in the wrong direction, that things were not going well or getting better, and spoke fondly of the years of crony capitalism and authoritarian government under Suharto. You can’t put democracy on bread and make a meal out of it.

So, tough choices have to be made in the years ahead. Can the country’s education system be improved enough to make the country compete with its brains and not just with its strong backs and nimble hands? Can the government switch enough people away from white rice to more nutritious alternatives? Can Indonesia encourage family planning while avoiding “the China Problem” of too many elderly and too few workers?

Finally, living in the long shadow of 9/11, can a majority Muslim democracy discourage Islamist political violence, continue the evolution of its democratic institutions, and back its promise to the world to remains religiously plural while reflecting its Muslim social consensus? It’s going to be fascinating to watch.

Read more from the global health unit in Indonesia:

High Food Prices Hit Small Indonesian Town Hard

Reporter’s Notebook: Indonesia’s Mentally Ill, Caged and Bound

Indonesians Looking for Improvement at Home, Watching U.S. Closely